The Healing Spirit - Reconciliation

To understand our humanity, what it is to be human, we need to look at Jesus Christ. Jesus was truly God, he was the son who lived amongst us as a fully human person. He was exactly the same as us in all things. He ate like us, he laughed and cried like us, he loved like us and his body was vulnerable and could suffer and be destroyed as ours can.

The only difference between Jesus’ humanity and ours was that sin played no part in his life. He did not sin. And the reason he did not sin was because he was truly human. He was fully human exactly how God intended every man and woman to be. He is a pattern for humanity. Jesus shows us what it is to be a true and complete human being.

Sin enters our life when we are less than human. Every time we think or say something which is not a reflection of Jesus' humanity, we are less than human; we sin. But sin doesn't stop there because so much of what we do or fail to do affects other people. The knock-on effect of damaging relationships, isolation, breakdowns in communication, all serve to cut us off from others and so distort and damage people. We even say in extreme cases, "He/she's like an animal!" What we're saying when we say that is in a sense true that person is less than fully human, but then so are those who caused that distortion or damage, that isolation. It's easy to see that sin damages not only individuals but also whole communities.

Throughout his life Jesus worked and preached endlessly amongst all sort of people to bring down the barriers which divided them. He emphasized over and over again that we are all God's children, we are his family, his Chosen People.

Following his resurrection, Jesus' followers gathered together and became a community. They were united in that they were listening to the words of Jesus and experiencing his active love in the work of his Spirit in their lives. They knew what it was to be fully human but they were also still very weak and easily discouraged.

Even in the first accounts of the early Church we can read about tensions, disagreements and rejection within this community of believers. Clearly, in spite of all that they had experienced, they remained fragile and many of them carried within them the damage caused by sin (by being less than human) from past years.

No one becomes fully human overnight or even in a year or two. It takes time. And while we are growing towards full humanity we need to experience the healing, reconciling action of the Holy Spirit. The Church celebrates that action in the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Through this sacrament we are renewed and recommitted to being open to the action of the Spirit in our lives in helping us to become more fully human and so be effective in reflecting Christ and his words of life and love to others. In this way we strengthen Christ's Body on earth, his community, which in turn can continue the healing, saving, loving work of Jesus Christ. (Luke 7:39-48.)

The Healing Truth

One of the great values of confession is that for once it makes us stop pretending and tell the truth about ourselves. Isn't it true that for much of the time we are playing an act? We cover up what's really going on in our hearts and minds and live behind a mask.

Sometimes we do it for the best of reasons, sometimes the reasons are not so good. Even those who know us and love us best might be appalled to know what lurks in the dustier corners of our personal lives, and it appalls us too sometimes, which is why we are very careful which bits of ourselves we reveal to different people. But of course God knows the real us; it's the real us he has to deal with, and it's the real us he loves.

Confession cuts through all the garbage of illusion with which we try to fool others and ourselves and it makes us examine and pronounce to someone else what we are really like. For obvious reasons that can be difficult and there's no denying that it takes some guts. But at the same time it can turn into a wonderful experience, because in the end you realize there wasn't anything to be afraid of. Because absolution means that we really are forgiven; it means God really does love and accept you: not just the Sunday best you, but the real you. And it can be such a relief not to have to pretend any more.

Healing, Holiness and Wholeness

Confession is about holiness and wholeness. Holiness and wholeness are very closely connected. A lot of people think that to be holy you have to suppress all the sinful, difficult bits of yourself and pretend they're not there. But in fact the opposite is true. Real holiness - wholeness - means developing all the bits of you, but in their proper function - and that includes all the mean, nasty, unacceptable bits we try to hide but that will keep popping up to worry us. God made everything we are, and his purpose isn't to reduce or destroy parts of us but to restore and recreate us to be more fully and more richly ourselves. Evil never created anything. All it can do is spoil aspects of us that God made good. And God is going to reclaim every part of us. He wills that not one hair of our head should be lost. But first what is wrong in us has to be opened up to God by our own act of will, so that he can heal it and love it back to its original purpose. That's the only way we can ever become the glorious people God made us to be.

Can't We Confess Our Sins on Our Own?

Yes of course, and when it's done and meant God is certainly present and ready to forgive. Yet it's often only in the presence of another person that the reality of one's self and one's sin strikes home. God knows we are not too good at realizing spiritual things in a purely internal way. As with all the sacraments, it is the objectivity of sacramental confession that makes it such a strength. You are absolved in God's name, and you go away knowing, absolutely, that you are absolved. Recently a family doctor wrote that over half his patients were not so much physically ill as such troubled psychologically or emotionally or socially. And he mentioned how much he wished he could give some sort of an official absolution to so many of them who are loaded down with an intolerable sense of guilt or rejection and/or depression. Simply to be able to say, "Look: this burden has been taken away. You are accepted, you are wanted, you are loved. Now go and live...”

Why Confess to a Priest?

The short answer is that that's what priests are for. In the Book of Common Prayer, when a Bishop ordains a priest he lays his hands on his head and says to him, "Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you retain they are retained." Those words were first spoken by Jesus to the apostles on the day of the resurrection, and ever since then that authority to pronounce forgiveness has been handed down in the ordained ministry of the Church. Some people find that hard to accept because it seems to put the priest in a position of superiority as some kind of judge. But that's really not the idea. The priest is just as much a sinner as the penitent. It's important that the very last words the priest says in confession are, "Please pray for me, a sinner also"; and he means it, because there is in fact nothing quite as humbling as the privilege of helping another soul to be open to God. The priest is just another human sinner whom Christ happens to have given this job of embodying and declaring his forgiveness - Christ's forgiveness, not the priest's - to those who ask for it. It is also important to know that there are no circumstances under which a priest may divulge what is said in the confessional.

The Importance of Sincerity

Like all the sacraments, confession can be abused. You can confess mechanically and carelessly, just as you can come to Communion mechanically and carelessly. There has to be real sincerity, real facing up, real sorrow for sin, and a real resolve to do better. But though the sacrament can be abused, other people's abuse of it doesn't argue for my disuse of it - no more than in the case of Communion. Of course it isn't always easy, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. It is deeply personal, because it is meant to be and sometimes it involves saying embarrassing things. But perhaps the more we are embarrassed by the thought of it shows how much more we are in need of it.

When Should We Go to Confession?

It depends on you. There is no rule. Many Anglicans have a regular appointment to see their confessor, say every two or three months. Often their confession will be combined with spiritual direction-a general discussion of their spiritual state and growth. Others go when they feel the need, or when something particular is troubling their conscience. You can of course, choose to talk to any priest. You can also decide the way you conduct confession: whether in the more traditional way, at a kneeling desk beside the priest, or simply sitting and talking together. If you are shy of making an appointment and prefer to confess "anonymously", there are churches which advertise confessions at regular times, and you simply turn up and wait your turn at the confessional.

What Happens at Confession?

• In thought and prayer the penitent prepares beforehand what to talk about in confession.

• The penitent and priest meet together. The penitent may kneel or sit depending on the circumstances. Usually the penitent is given a printed card with an opening and closing form of words.

• The priest blesses the penitent with a prayer that he or she will be strengthened to make a good confession.

• The penitent reads the opening words, "I confess to Almighty God, to the whole company of heaven, and before you, that I have sinned... " The penitent then continues in her or his own words, then closes with the prayer card.

• The priest tries to give helpful advice about what has been said, with words of encouragement and a reminder of Christ's healing, welcoming love.

• The priest suggests a prayer, psalm or some other text to be said later by the penitent as an act of thanksgiving (this is sometimes misnamed a "penance", but it mustn't be thought of as a punishment.)

• The priest pronounces the Prayer of Absolution, declaring God's forgiveness. The priest blesses the penitent and says, "Please pray for me, a sinner also."

"Christ has given power and commandment to his Church to pardon the offences of all who truly repent and turn to him; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

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