I go to confession with a whole two pages’ worth of sins I’ve been collecting throughout Lent. Pastor Beverly welcomes me into her office, and we open the Book of Common Prayer to the brief service of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We say together:
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 feel myself shrinking back as we got closer to the point when I have to actually say out loud what I’ve done, what I’ve thought and said, and perhaps worst of all, what I have not done. I continue:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste. Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . .
Somehow I expect Beverly to gasp dramatically in shock and horror whenever I mention a particularly heinous offense. But she listens quietly, nodding occasionally. Still, I find myself unable to meet her gaze as I’m reading off certain sins.
I finish going through the list, and before I can even set it back down on my lap, she immediately takes it from me. I’m not allowed to keep it; she’ll destroy it for me later as a sign that God has erased these sins from my record.
Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
As the Book of Common Prayer prescribes, Beverly then offers words of counsel and encouragement. Even though Beverly is perhaps the least intimidating and least judgmental person I know, this part always scares me. What will she say about all I’ve just divulged?
With immense gentleness, Beverly points out that God has given me a desire to please Him with the way I live and prioritize my activities, and she tells me she believes He will bless me for this. I wouldn’t have been able to convince myself of this on my own, but, coming from Beverly, a priest who represents Christ and His mercy, it’s not so hard to believe.
She places a hand on my head to make the sign of the cross.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.
I go home feeling lighter, freer than before.
* * *
That night, our church holds a Tenebrae service (Latin for “darkness”). Seven candles on the bare altar are gradually snuffed out, recalling the encroaching blackness of our sin and the death of the Light of the world. The service falls into a rhythm: a reading, a reflection given by Father Richard, a candle extinguished, music.
We generally get some kind of long-term psychological benefit from forgiving other people, Father Richard says–freedom from bitterness, a relieved conscience. There’s something in it for us that appeals to our self-interest. But God got no personal profit from forgiving us. It’s sheer grace. He has a right to hold a grudge against us–we crucified Him. But He prays, “Father, forgive them.”
A candle is snuffed out; the light dwindles. We sing “See Yon Mother,” and I try to imagine the sheer weirdness of seeing Jesus dead, the strange phenomenon of seeing someone you recognize and know and love, but all that’s left of them is a corpse. All your memories of them are so vivid, and yet they are now reduced to an inanimate object.
A candle is snuffed out; the light dwindles. We sing “O Vos Omnes,” an invitation to pause before passing by, to attend and meditate. There was never a sorrow so great as this sorrow, which the Man of Sorrows endured for us.
A candle is snuffed out; the light dwindles. We sing “Tenebrae Factae Sunt,” and somehow, the Latin words seem to bring out the poignancy of the scene more than the familiar English words. “Pater, Pater! Deus meus!”
All seven candles are at last snuffed out. We sing “God So Loved the World,” a hopeful piece that is a comfort after the many minor key songs. All the severity of this day is not meant to make us feel condemned, but to remind us of the great price paid for our salvation, the love that deemed such a great price worth paying for our sake.
After the last note, all the lights in the sanctuary are switched off. A bang echoes through the sanctuary. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is imprisoned in the tomb. We sit in the stillness of the dark.