“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was…never.”
Let’s be clear: I hate talking about sin — especially my own. (This is probably normal. If you actually like talking about sin, I’d love to meet you.)
But, this year, this Holy Week, I went to confession. For the first time in my life. Not because I felt it an absolute requirement but because I found it absolutely intriguing. The Episcopal parish of which I’m a member offers the sacrament of confession, or the “ministry of reconciliation,” at designated times during Holy Week, as well as any other time of year by request. So, I took them up on the offer.
Like many people, I wondered: Why confess to a priest and not just confess to God in my own prayers by myself? I don’t have a complete answer. But here’s what I’m learning: First, we should by all means confess to God in our own prayers by ourselves. Second, the sacrament of confession is a gift from God, above and beyond personal prayer, that lends tangible form to the abstract processes of repentance and reconciliation. Confessing sins to others is an instruction in Scripture (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) and doing so to a priest is an invitation from the Church to experience God’s grace palpably. (Insert amused laughter here. Because I never thought I would be saying this — not the stuff about confessing sins and certainly not the stuff about confessing to a priest.)
Like other sacraments, confession is an “outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.” The inward and invisible grace is God’s forgiveness. The outward and visible sign, I suppose, is the priest’s declaration of absolution.
The sacramental experience might hold me accountable for really confessing my sin rather than avoiding it, speaking in vague generalities, or changing the subject mid-prayer. Because let’s be real, left to my own devices, how often am I going to choose to chat it up with God about how I’ve screwed up lately? Even when I do, I’m often going to pray an avoidant “Sorry, God. You know what I did.” Confessing to another person makes that avoidance a bit harder.
What’s more, the sacramental experience might show me assurance that confession and forgiveness have really taken place. There’s something powerful about the physical acts of speaking and hearing words, maybe making eye contact with someone (I’m rather fascinated by the power of eye contact — so uncomfortable in the moment and yet so comforting in the long run), maybe kneeling, maybe making the sign of the cross if that’s how you roll. You hear it said directly to you: “The Lord has put away all your sins.” Let that sink in: The Lord. Has put away. All your sins.
As Lauren Winner writes in her memoir Girl Meets God: “Confession makes sense to me because it is incarnational. In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit uses stuff to sanctify us. In the Eucharist He uses bread and wine, and in confirmation He uses oil, and in baptism He uses water. In confession, the stuff He uses is another person.”
I’ve heard people say that they come away from confession feeling clean and joyous. Not gonna lie: I came away feeling more dirty and sad. It’s hard to fathom a logic wherein one short absolution can cover a long list of sins. But, in the hours and days to come, I reflected on this logic presented by the apostle Paul:
“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 5:20-21
Listing sins is a hard, heavy thing. But, as Paul explains in Romans 5:20, no matter how much the list might grow God’s grace grows all the more.
Picture that image with me: a lengthening list of your sins…and the lengthening grace of God. The heaviness of sin…borne by Christ on Good Friday. The sadness of death…overcome by Christ on Easter.