We have looked at these “Breathing Out” reflections as examples of how we might live as a result of having “breathed in” the Holy Spirit. Today, I would like for us to think of participating in one of the sacraments of the Church as a way to “breathe out.” February 17 is Shrove Tuesday. Based on our tradition, one might image that “Shrove” is some ancient English word meaning “pancake” since we typically gather on Shrove Tuesday to eat pancakes before Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. The idea is that, before we “punish” ourselves by eating more simply during Lent (an interesting concept), we “sin boldly” one last time by recklessly overeating pancakes.
For this month’s reflection on what it looks like to “breathe out” the Holy Spirit, I invite you to consider an activity around the actual meaning of “Shrove”, which derives from the verb “shrive” and has to do with unburdening oneself from the weight of one’s sins; that is, to confess. It is true that our weekly worship includes a corporate prayer of confession and absolution. But here we are talking about a one-on-one conversation between the penitent and a priest, known as the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (BCP 446-452).
When introducing this idea to most Episcopalians, the usual response is confusion, because we don’t ordinarily think in terms of “doing penance”, for example, reciting certain prayers or doing particular acts of charity in order to atone for one’s sins. This is true. We do, however, hold out a place for the sacramental act of confessing one’s sins to a priest in the Church not only to receive absolution of the penalty of one’s sins, but also to have some conversation around what it would take to be reconciled; that is, to repair what one has broken.
Think about this in the context of beginning the penitential season with this act of contrition. It suggests that a season of reflection on who we are as beloved children of God and what God is calling us to do and be is best appreciated if one enters that season not just with a clean slate, so to speak, but with some suggestions about how to restore what has been lost or damaged as a result of our selfish actions.
You might wonder what shape this private confession would take in a place that does not have a confessional “box”, per se, as an architectural feature. So, in the following, I offer a brief description of the mechanics of making one’s confession, along with the hope of such a sacrament.
First, the mechanics. On Shrove Tuesday, February 17, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, the street-side doors to the Chapel will be unlocked. A priest will be seated on a chair inside the chancel area (inside the altar rail) with the priest’s back to the rail. Individuals will enter the space and kneel at the rail. (If someone is already kneeling at the rail, it is customary to wait discretely in the narthex until the person kneeling has exited, as the contents of one’s confession are for the ears of the priest alone.)
A Book of Common Prayer will be opened to the liturgy for the sacrament (BCP 447), and once situated and ready to begin, the person kneeling says, “Bless me, for I have sinned.” In the words from the BCP that follow, there is ample room for unburdening oneself of all serious sins that are troubling one’s conscience. The priest will then offer counsel, encouragement, and pronounce God’s absolution of the confessed sins. Following these words, the priest may also give guidance for “next steps” where appropriate.
The subject matter of the confession, once absolution is granted, is not normally a matter of subsequent discussion, and the secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor. Such secrecy can under no circumstances ever be broken by the priest.
The liturgy of the sacrament concludes with the priest sending the penitent out and also asking for prayer: “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.” This second part of the confessional conversation is at the heart of what it means to bear one another’s burdens and to understand at the deepest level what it means to seek and to serve Christ in one another.
Second, the hope of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation is that the guilt that has impeded us from being fully available to God and to each other is gone and we are able to move forward, our spirits humbled and chastened, and with a right sense of our place among each other and in right relationship with God.
If you have never made a private confession, you might feel nervous about “being seen” going into the Chapel for confession. What will people think??? Hopefully, they will think that, if you can do it, they can, too. If you show up and happen to encounter another person coming for the same thing, it is customary to acknowledge the presence of the other person by a silent greeting, but this is not a time for conversation. One might also feel nervous at the idea of confessing one’s sins to one’s priest, fearful that the priest’s opinion might be negatively affected. First, priests do not think less of someone because there is evidence that the person is human. Second, priests do not necessarily recognize the individual voice of every parishioner, and ordinarily the priest does not turn to see the face of the person that is confessing. But, even in those parishes whose custom is for the priest and the penitent to face each other, once the penitent begins speaking, the Holy Spirit takes over and the words flow in an effortless stream. Participating in this private sacrament is one of the most spiritually therapeutic acts available to us.
Some of the resistance to confessing to a priest derives from the idea that we are able to pray to God without a human intercessor, and therefore, are always able to make our confessions directly to God. Many have found that, nevertheless, the burden of some sins lingers and the person feels plagued by a sense of being shackled to the deeds or thoughts, dragging them around like Jacob Marley’s chains. Confessing to another person, especially to one bound to absolute secrecy, is not only endorsed by Holy Scripture, but is efficacious in breaking free of these bonds.
Finally, as an old adage phrases it: “All may confess; none must confess; some should confess.” Please consider participating in this holy sacrament as a way of re-arranging yourself to best hear and respond to God’s call on your heart.