This week, the theme for the 2nd week of Advent is Love, which seems to be at odds with the message of the Gospel reading about "Repentance and broods of vipers!" and all that.
As I mentioned last week, it has been my tradition for some years to use Advent to preach on more topical themes and not just talk strictly about what is the Lectionary reading for the day. This year I am going to attempt to continue that theme of treasure in a series I am calling "treasures from the Prayerbook." There are a lot of valuable resources in the Book of Common Prayer that a lot of people don't know are in there, or at least have forgotten about.
I think the treasure of the Prayerbook that I think best ties together the theme of Love with John the Baptist's theme of Repentance is to take a look at the Prayerbook on pg. 449. This if Form 2 of the Rite of Reconciliation, more commonly called Confession. The fact that we have Confession in the Episcopal church often comes as a surprise to some people. Many Episcopal priests won't hear confessions at all for various reasons that I've quite understood. Legal liability reasons or else they have a very Protestant theology on the subject-I suppose.
But when people hear Confession, they tend to get images in there heads of a special booth with a priest on one side of the screen and the penitent on the other as seen in countless movies where the person goes in and blabs their checklist of sins and gets assigned 2 Hail Marys or something in a Confessional process that takes like 2 minutes. But that's not what Confession is or at least should be.
In the Episcopal Church, most churches don't tend to have an actual Confessional box, although you do see them on occasion in extremely High Church Anglo-catholic parishes that were built before 1950, particularly on the East Coast or in England. If you actually read the rubrics in the BCP, it says confessions can be heard anywhere at any time. Occasionally its in the clergyman's office, but I've never been comfortable with that. I always do it in the church.
We in the Episcopal church generally tend to take a more Eastern Orthodox view of Confession in that Confession is a rite-R-I-T-E, which means it is a liturgical function, meaning that its more like an act of worship. So, usually in lieu of a creepy little casket-like confessional box, we generally hear confessions primarily in the worship space of the church. Usually, either up at the altar rail or I have found that in this space what works best is to have someone sit in the first pew here and I'll bring up a chair and sit kind of catty-corner by the side altar.
If you've turned to page 449 and looked at it while I've been talking, you will notice it says, Form 2. There are actually 2 versions of the Rite of Reconciliation that the Prayerbook allows. Form I is the classic Roman Catholic version, Bless Me, Father, for I have sinned. Its short and to the point.
And a little tidbit of history, that bit, "Bless me Father..." which is probably the line most people think about in Confession, is actually from no earlier than the 16th century. Private confession, even in the Catholic church, was not normative until the Reformation era. Most confessions up until at least the high Middle ages were public. You had public confession and public penance. It was not until the Council of Trent which was a reaction against the Protestant Reformation, that the Catholic church standardized confession as being a completely private Sacrament.
When I hear confessions, I usually use Form 2, which is taken from Byzantine Eastern Orthodox tradition. I like it because it begins with one of the Treasures of the Prayerbook, which I'm preaching on during Advent. You'll notice, this form of Confession begins not with the Sinner talking if you will, but with both the Priest and the Penitent saying together this opening blessing, which is an amalgam of some of the earlier Public confession liturgies and a few of Psalms, particularly Psalm 51, That's also the Psalm the Priest is mumbling when he's incensing the altar. "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow."-
That opening bidding is, of course,
"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.
I bring this up this morning because I love that opening line, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;" The Advent theme for the 2nd Sunday of Advent is Love, which as I mentioned earlier seems a little at odds with John the Baptist's rather forceful call repentence.
The first time I went to confession, I did the usual thing, went down the list of every bad thing I'd ever done. He just sat there listening. I finally got done with my song and dance, and he was silent for a good minute or two. He finally looked at me and said, "So, what do you think was your greatest sin?"
I thought for a moment...I wasn't expecting this question. I think I said something about saying something mean to my mother on the phone or something.
He was silent for another minute or two, that was just his way, and I'll never forget what he said, "No, that wasn't it...try again." So I went back over in my mind, and I said something else, which I can't even remember now what it was. He was silent again for another minute, "No, that's not it either...try." So we played this game for about 10 minutes, and finally I gave up, "I don't know...what do you think it was?"
He leaned back in the chapel pew, and he looked up at the Stained Glass window, and he finally said, "Your greatest sin was that you were afraid to come to confession."
And I'll never forget what happened next. Usually this priest was very quiet, mellow older guy. He would always think for a while before he spoke. But after he said, "Your greatest sin was that you were afraid to come to confession..." he went off and became extremely animated about Confession not being some Septic Tank where you come and flush your garbage in secret with some judgmental old priest waging his finger at you and telling you how awful you were, but it was indeed a rite of Reconciliation, where God comes and puts his arms around you and welcomes you back as the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go find the lost lamb and rejoices when he finds it.
This is one of the reasons I love the Form 2 version of Confession, because it ends with just what Bro. Paul was talking about that day. If you look on pg. 451, Confession ends with, "Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
Penitent Thanks be to God.
I say all this this morning not to put a guilt trip on you or to make you feel like you have to come to Confession. Confession in the Episcopal church is not mandatory. I am usually not into Church buzz words or slogans, but the general teaching we have about Confession in the Episcopal church is "All may. Some should. None must."
But Confession is more that just blabbing all your bad stuff before God, its about getting counsel, its about having some one sit with you on your journey of life. Saying the confession out loud and having a priest give counsel and pronounce absolution is a powerful act. I've found in the Northern Plains that people like to hide behind their smiles like a mask and pretend like I'm fine, and you're fine, and all God's children are fine, but behind the mask, things aren't always fine.
Confession is available in this parish. I am usually around Friday mornings after mass or by appointment to hear Confessions. This is an ongoing treasure in our Prayer-Book and in our Tradition that is available to you. Not because you have to or that God's going to zap you if you don't, but I have found in my own life that it is an important way to make a break with past sins and to just get feedback that you don't often get or have available anywhere else in society.
So as we continue to wait for Christ during Advent, let us pray:
"Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer."