Confession and grace
ABOUT twenty years ago, I heard the following story about Canon West, whom many will remember as his generation’s liturgical authority in the Episcopal Church – and a priest of some stature.
He was awakened deep in the night by someone pounding on his door. He went downstairs, opened the door, and there was a disheveled, agitated man, who asked if he could come in. He took him into his study, sat down, and the man said, ‘Father, I have come for you to hear my confession. I need God’s forgiveness. I have just killed a man. Will you give me absolution?’ Canon West said to me, ‘If you had been in my shoes, what would you have said to this man?’ I pose the same question to you. If you had been in that situation, what would you have done?
As usual with Canon West, every answer I offered was wrong. Of course, the thing that he did was right. What he said to this man was, ‘Have you repented of your sins?’ And the man said, ‘Yes.’ Then he said, ‘Come with me down to the police precinct, turn yourself in, and I will give you absolution.’
The sermon continued:
So correct, because we live our lives accountable to God. We are responsible for everything we do, and we must be willing to face and accept the consequences of our actions.
It is very easy for Christians to forget this. Why? Because we know that we are saved by grace. The glory of the Gospel is the fact that because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven. We can rejoice in the love of God. We can experience the freedom of his forgiveness. We can revel in the reality of grace. That is all true, but there is no cheap grace. Even as forgiven, we remain accountable to God for everything we do, and we can never, ever forget that.1
This, my friends, is why – even at Christmas – we confess. We live our lives in relationship with God, and thereby we are accountable to God. Our confession does not dampen our joy at Christmas; it enhances it. In admitting our own frailty, not only are we better able to meet the newborn Christ in his infant vulnerability, but also are we moved to fall down in worship of him. And why? Because we are able to recognize our own need of a saviour.
In the Litany, we pray for deliverance from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment. Confession is part of this. We have all experienced hardness of heart, in ourselves and in others, and we all know where it comes from. “I’m all set,” one says. “I’m good. I don’t need anybody, I don’t need any help. I’ve got this.” Usually, what a big lie that is, and the worst part is that the only person each of us is able to fool is himself.
Imagine that John the Baptist turned up in church on Christmas Eve, wearing the hair shirt, his eyes ablaze, saying, “Repent! Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Who among us would actually turn to him and say, “Oh, John, dear fellow. We confessed and repented last week. Why don’t you settle down and come have some punch with us? Cheer up; it’s Christmas Eve!” Having written that, I suspect a lot of us probably would.
There’s a scene at the end of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation where the female lead says to her husband, “how much of your life can you account for?” And he replies, “All! I am a gambler!”2 Having watched the play, we know it to be true. Flan Kittredge, the art dealer, lives by his wits. He lives by his charm. He relies upon both to move art, collect his fees, and pay the maintenance on Fifth Avenue. As is said of his life by another character: it’s “hand to mouth on a higher plateau.”3
As Christians, we are not gamblers. We do not live by our wits, for we know the folly of doing so. “So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.”4 We have faith that, in Jesus Christ, born at Christmas, God is fulfilling his promise to “make all things new,” to break once for all the power of Sin and Death over the creation, to wipe clean the slate that was marred by Adam’s transgression in the garden. And in recognition of that promise, we are called to partake in the new creation by being in Christ through prayer, through sacrament, and through confession. Why confession? Because, as Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”5
By acknowledging our own incompleteness and the inadequacy of our own efforts and even our best intentions, we make ready a place for God within us. If we listen to the hymns we sing in Advent, we know this to be the real task set before us:
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way for God within;
And let each heart prepare a home
Where such a mighty guest may come.6
The great hymn text prefigures and prepares us for the prayer that we sing at Christmas:
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.7
It is prideful of us to think, because we heard about John the Baptist for two Sundays in Advent, that we have adequately made ready that home within us. If all it took were two Sundays, wouldn’t everything be just hunky-dory? Only the most daft among us, looking within himself and around at his immediate community and the wider world, could imagine that a couple of Sundays of introspection are all that we need to be cured of our various delusions, our thoughtlessness, and our self-absorption.
Moreover, there is a liturgical mandate for confession. Anyone who has attended a baptism in an Episcopal church in the last 35 years has answered in the affirmative to the following question:
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?8
Whenever you fall into sin. Not just during Advent, and not just during Lent. If we are wise, we will take our cue from the Psalmist, saying, “I acknowledge my faults : and my sin is ever before me.”9 We are accountable to God. I have been asked the question and so have you – Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? – and we have all said, I will, with God’s help. Let it be so.
But there’s more to this than what can seem to be dour self-flagellation. We are not, after all, Calvinists.
Confession makes our lives better.
“Give it up to God,” the old adage tells us, and what good advice that is. Have you ever confessed a secret? Ever shared a burden with someone trusted, whose knowledge of your burden made carrying it even a little bit easier?
As people of faith, we are called to entrust our burdens to God, to let us let him carry the load. Whatever the problem, we are called to lay it before God, baring our souls in all honesty and distress. This is a continual process for Christians throughout the various trials and tribulations that we encounter in our lives. The purpose that confession works in the souls of men and women is to unburden us, and the acknowledgement – public and private – that, left to our own devices, we get it wrong is liberating. When we forgo confession, we are each of us like a boat, dragging a net behind that is slowly filling with all our cares, all our concerns, all our sorrows, and we have to work harder, and harder, and harder to move all that accumulated baggage forward, even a bit. We become sort of like Dorian Gray, and the effort of keeping a calm face on the outside kills our inner life, slowly but inexorably.
No, we haven’t murdered anyone, but we don’t handle things the way we should, and we are unable to follow God’s will for us relying solely on our own devices. Think of Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” 10 Absent God, we haven’t the tools necessary to do right by God and our neighbors. And so we pray. We confess. We ask for help, and we find it. As Jeremiah tells us: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.”11
How freeing! How lovely and comforting a thing that we need not go it alone! When the world is most against us, when we are down on our luck, when there is no health in us, God himself is with us: “It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.”12 This is the grace of God, right here, meeting us in confession and in prayer. He will be with us, he will not fail or forsake us; do not fear or be dismayed!
None of this can be accomplished in us, and we cannot reap the benefits of this grace in our lives, without the humility to admit that we need the help, that we are not perfect, and that we cannot go it alone. This is hard for us Americans, suckled as we are on the myth of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, of the unicorn that is the self-made man. But in this, as in all things, the Prayer Book softens the ground for us, especially in the old Rite I bidding to confession:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.
And intend to lead a new life. As those of us who have done stupid things that we regret will tell you: no one can lead a new life until he can admit that the old one stinks. Isn’t that what we Christians are called to do? To lead a new life? “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” As we have said before of those who undertake the work of becoming this new creation, their very lives become living witness to the Gospel, and they become flesh and blood sermons of a power that no words from a pulpit could touch. Think of the story quoted above. The message is in Canon West and the murderer on his doorstep. They are the sermon.
A great many responses to our earlier post defended the mystery parish in question on the grounds that it is not alone in omitting the confession at Christmas. We have heard this before: “Everyone’s doing it!” But everyone is not doing it. I know that at St. Thomas Church in New York, on Christmas Eve the confession was said, devoutly kneeling. They most certainly said it at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, S.C. I bet they said it up at the Church of the Advent in Boston. I bet they said it at Christ Church in Georgetown, at St. Paul’s on K Street, and at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. These churches were all packed to the gills on Christmas Eve. Was your church? If it is good enough for those places, why do you imagine it to be the wrong choice for your church? As my mother is fond of saying, “The best is good enough.”
The epilogue to my Christmas tale is that, on Christmas morning, I got dressed and took myself to church at 9:30 in the morning at my hometown parish – a small country church on a dirt road, surrounded by pastures. Holy Communion on Christmas Day is perhaps my favorite service (Good Friday aside) of the year. There’s less hoopla than on Christmas Eve, fewer histrionics, and more of the calm that likely prevailed on that first Christmas, all those years ago, in a stable in Bethlehem.
And in this staunchly Low Church parish, the service was said in its entirety. The Summary of the Law was followed by the Kyrie and the Gloria. After the sermon, we recited the Nicene Creed, knelt to pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church and the world, and were invited to confess with the long form of the bidding, noted above. After the Agnus Dei, and before making our Holy Communion, we joined in the Prayer of Humble Access. The church was full, and the people read the prayers with comprehension and vigor.
I can’t say that Christ was born in the hearts of my fellow churchgoers that day, and I can’t say that he was born anew in my heart. But the ground was prepared, little by little as it must be. Christianity is a good, lifelong religion, and the life of faith is an ongoing proposition, one that feeds us when we most need it, and when we least expect it. But we have to be open to it, and honest with ourselves and with God, baring our souls through Jesus Christ. False cheer won’t help us, but the true delight that comes to us by grace will, and when we are ready to receive it, then we can sing for joy indeed.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
1. Kenneth Swanson, “No Cheap Grace,” sermon preached on September 10, 1995.
2. John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 118-119.
3. Ibid, 77.
4. 2 Corinthians 5:6-7.
5. Romans 3:23.
6. “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,” second verse, Hymnal 1982.
7. “O little town of Bethlehem,” fifth verse, Hymnal 1982.
8. Book of Common Prayer (1979), 293.
9. Psalm 51:3.
10. Romans 7:15.
11. Jeremiah 6:16.
12. Deuteronomy 31:8.