Confession Before Healing
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Last week I was in Chicago at a meeting of the national committee which oversees the partnership between the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church.
When I arrived at O’Hare eventually managed to find the place where the hotel shuttles pick up, and I patiently waited for a while. Then I impatiently waited for a while longer.
Well, eventually my shuttle did show up, and as I sat down in its warm embrace what should come through the vehicle’s radio? None other than ‘Frosty the Snowman’. As my pride swelled, it was as much as I could do to restrain myself from telling everyone that this was about MY village. But since I was the only passenger, and the driver would have thought it might be a bit weird, I instead allowed myself a moment of silent satisfaction that this song was about the traffic light I lived right beside. And so, with Frosty on the airwaves, we slid past cheery Christmas trees with their lights all blinking with merry welcome in the evening darkness, and twinkling signs along the airport freeway proclaimed the season of good tidings, of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, and neon angels floated above the razor wire chain-link fence and caroled their happy Christmas message and I thought to myself how very convivial it all was, and then I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, have you taken leave of your senses? It isn’t even Advent yet, let alone Christmas”.
You see, it is so easy to be taken in by Christmas, which is all warm and lovely, that we forget that we have to prepare for it with a season of self-examination and reflection on why it actually might be that we needed Christ to come to earth in the first place. The reason that Christ came to earth was not because he was lonely up there and felt like saying ‘hi’ but because we needed saving from the worst in ourselves, and to know that we were capable of being the best in ourselves.
Now, I don’t want to get all pious about this, and have a total moratorium on Christmas before the evening of December 24th. There are some church people who do, and they are known in clergy circles as ‘The Advent Police’. But what I am saying is that if Christmas is the time when we celebrate the healing power of Christ coming among us, then we need to take some time before Christmas to ask ourselves why we would need that healing in the first place.
As you know, the church year is divided into seasons. The church year starts with Advent, so today is the start of the new church year. Happy New Year, y’all! And then we have Christmas, then Epiphany, then Lent, then Easter, then Pentecost and then the seasons start all over again.
What is interesting, and what you might perhaps not have noticed, is that all of the church seasons are represented each week in the Eucharist, this service of the mass. Every Sunday of the Church year is Easter, because every Sunday we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. At every mass we celebrate Pentecost, when we ask the Holy Spirit to come to the gifts of bread and wine during the Eucharistic Prayer. Watch what I do with my hands at that point when I am standing at the altar.
And at each and every Eucharist, mass, we have Advent and Christmas. When we come to the altar to receive communion, we are receiving not only the ordinary things of this world, the bread and the wine, but we are receiving a spiritual gift, too – in some kind of mystical way, we become aware again that Christ is in fact among us, giving us his incarnate body and blood, as he did at Christmas.
So where in the service is Advent? Well, there is a special period of reflection and introspection each week, where we think about the ways in which we have failed to live up to God dream for us, and have hurt our neighbors and therefore God. That part of the service, quite intentionally, comes just before the bread and the wine are offered at the altar. It is the part of the service known as the Confession.
If you grew up Roman Catholic, you will know that in order to receive the Eucharist you must be in what is called ‘A State of Grace’. The way you achieve that state is by going to confession, and that’s what Roman Catholics do – they go sit with a priest and confess their sins. So do we. We do it a little differently, usually, though. We have a thing called ‘The General Confession’, which is the same as individual confession, except that we all do it at the same time, and without divulging the details of our particular sins. And then the priest declares the absolution of those sins, and we are forgiven, and can approach the altar for communion in good conscience.
What I find interesting is that the Advent Police, who are so keen that we don’t forget to have our time of reflection and introspection in Advent, so that we are properly prepared for Christmas aren’t nearly so fussy when it comes to having the Confession in the Eucharist. Now, if there were such a thing as ‘The Confession Police’ I would be at the very least a Lieutenant. Just as Christmas makes no sense without Advent, so receiving the healing of holy communion makes no sense if we don’t take time to consider why – and acknowledge – why we need that healing in the first place.
Last month I wrote a piece for the Episcopal New Yorker, our Diocesan quarterly newspaper, on why skipping the confession in the Eucharist is a really bad idea. And you’d be surprised at how often it does get missed out. It even got missed out at our Diocesan Convention Eucharist in the Cathedral which, since my article in the paper had just come out the day before, did rather prove my point, though I kept it to myself.
As I often remark to you, when we fail to show up at our principal act of worship we are missing limbs and organs and this inhibits the effectiveness of the whole body. I believe that we come to church primarily for others, and only then for ourselves. Our principal responsibility in coming to church is to enable the Body of Christ to be at its most complete and effective, to help others to pray, to support them with our prayers and, yes, to hold them accountable as Christians, and be held accountable by them. And so we strive to meet together as the Body of Christ even though it is the last thing we might feel like doing that morning, especially when there are things on offer that we think will make us feel good, like sleeping in, or reading the papers over brunch, or taking a trip to the mountains.
And what does this have to do with the price of fish, let alone the General Confession? Focusing in on the ways in which we have failed God and our neighbor in the past weeks might not make us feel good, but we have to balance our responsibility for our sinful actions with our right to know that we can be reconciled with God. But we can only truly know the healing power of Christ’s actions if we acknowledge why we need that healing in the first place, just as we can only know why Christ came to earth as a human being if we take the time to think about why he needed to come to earth in the first place.
The powerful mystery of a sacrament is that it is the place where the God outside of space and time and our world of space and time for a moment touch and spark, and where the ordinary things of this world, like bread and wine, are permeated with a significance that moves them beyond their ordinary nature and tell us of spiritual truths.
As any therapist will tell you, the first step in healing is the acknowledgement that you have a problem. In the language of the twelve-step traditions, receiving the Eucharist requires that, each time, we take a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory’ of ourselves, earnestly experience remorse for the ways in which we have hurt our neighbor and hurt God, hear the wonderful news each time that the slate has been wiped clean, and then experience in receiving the bread and wine the reality of that reconciliation with God.
Couldn’t we just do that at home before the Eucharist? At one level, yes. But we are the Body of Christ. Everything we do we do together. We don’t just keep a supply of consecrated communion at home to dip into when we feel like it. We gather together, and we kneel at the altar together to receive the sacrament. We know this to be fundamentally important. Equally important, then, is acknowledging together, in person, why we need healing, and how it is that we have fallen short.
This is why having the confession in the Eucharist is so important, because skipping it leaves everything incomplete. In the same way, arriving at Christmas without having taken the route through Advent also leaves everything incomplete.
So, this Advent, take time to consider how you need God’s healing because Christmas will be so, so much more meaningful to you when it arrives later this month.