Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Confession

seven sacramentsAfter a long break, we return to the end of our series on the Our Father and the sacraments.

Our point is that the Our Father can help us think about the sacraments – and thinking about the sacraments can help us pray the Our Father well. When we say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we can make a spiritual communion – and in thinking about the Eucharist, we can make those words meaningful. And we can do the same thing with the rest of the Our Father and the other six sacraments.

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Today we consider the penultimate petition of the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The connection to Confession is obvious: both are about the forgiveness of our sins. But we can go deeper than the obvious.

The sacraments confer grace, but they do it through tangible means. Our sins are not forgiven in a way that leaves us out, as if some magic happens elsewhere than in our hearts. Our sins are forgiven in us.

This is expressed, first of all, in the very praying of this petition of the Our Father. Our sins are forgiven by us asking for forgiveness. They are forgiven when we acknowledge both our sin and God’s mercy.

We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.

To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.

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This is why, to the question why we “have to” confess our sins to a priest, the best answer is to express our joy that we “get to” go to confession. The forgiveness of our sins is not something we want to avoid. It is not something we want to minimize. It is something we want to celebrate.

Confession is, of course, frightening. It is supposed to be frightening. Contrition (or attrition) means our sin makes us sad, tristis. The whole point of confessing our sin is that we realize that our sin is awful.

But we realize, too, that God’s mercy is wonderful. We solve the fear of our sinfulness not by ignoring it, but by feeling the caress of God’s mercy upon it.

We do that through the ministry of ordained priests. Wonder of wonders! The point of ordained priests is not that they are great, holy guys – in fact, it is precisely not that. The point is that they are ordained, whatever wretches they might be. The point is that they have received the special touch of Christ that is ordination.

We confess not to the priest, but to Christ. In the East, there is a practice of confessing in front of the icons, to make this point clear. But the priest makes Christ concrete. We want to hear his voice. We want to experience the shame of confessing our sin – because it is in that shame that we can feel the caress of God’s mercy.

Thus thinking of confession helps give substance to our prayer “Forgive us our trespasses.” That is the whole point of the sacraments: to give substance to words that can be said with so little seriousness. I pray the Our Father carelessly – until I imagine kneeling down in the confessional.

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But the greater wonder is in the second part: “As we forgive.” This part is so important that in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14).

The sacraments are powerful. They have an effect. They do something.

That is why another essential aspect of Confession, along with confessing to the priest and feeling sorrow for our sin, is penance. Contrition makes no sense if we do not change. Our penance – or, technically, “satisfaction,” which means, “doing enough” – is our first steps in the right direction.

Without those steps, our contrition is meaningless. Without those steps, it is as if we don’t really take sin seriously, don’t really care about our lack of love. Without those small first steps, it is as if the sacrament has changed nothing.

But Christ pours his grace into us. He absolves us – if we bothered to translate the word, we should say he “unbinds us,” “unties us,” lets us loose from our sin. The gentle caress of Christ’s mercy heals us and lets us go free from the suffering of sin.

The Our Father expresses this freedom, these steps in a new direction, by infusing the very experience of forgiveness with this new-found spirit of love: our being forgiven is inseparable from our learning to forgive. God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged, but gives birth to mercy in our own hearts. God’s love makes us lovers.

Where do you need to feel God’s mercy today? How could you experience it?

eric.m.johnston

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