I’ve been thinking about the sacrament of Confession a great deal. In class last week, as I lectured on Erasmus and his edition of the Greek New Testament and Latin translation that was published in 1516, I told my students about his translation of Greek word metanoia in the Gospel of Matthew. The traditional Latin translation was “Do penance” which puts in Jesus’ mouth the commandment to Christians to make their confession to a priest. Erasmus translated it more literally as “change your mind” and insisted that the sense of the Greek word was “be penitent.”
Last week, The New York Times published an article on the return of indulgences. You can read it here. It was perfectly timed, because this week in class, we turned to Martin Luther, his quest for a merciful God, and his attack on indulgences. The very first of his 95 Theses reads almost as if Erasmus might have written it, “When Jesus said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
In the Middle Ages, the Church expected that all Christians would make their confession once a year, in preparation for the annual reception of communion at Easter. Lent, which had its beginnings in the Early Church as a period of preparation for baptism, took on a deeply penitential emphasis. Preachers, especially the Franciscans, would encourage their listeners to examine themselves more deeply and systematically, to ensure that they made a full confession.
While most of the Protestant reformers believed Confession was a useful practice and sought to retain it, most laypeople resisted. It was kept in the Book of Common Prayer. The Exhortation that was to be said before the Eucharist made clear that if one was in sin, they were to make a confession before receiving communion.
When we think of Confession, most of us probably think of what we see in the movies, or what we remember of our Roman Catholic childhoods—confessional boxes, with a grate separating the priest from the confessant.
Confession is an opportunity to reflect on one’s life. It should not be seen as a potential guilt trip. Instead, preparing for confession involves taking a good hard look at oneself, without blinders or excuses and to recognize who we are and what we do. In the confession of sin during the Eucharist we ask forgiveness for “the things we have done and the things we have left undone.” Preparing for private confession allows us to think seriously about the ways in which we have not been the human being that God wants us to be and indeed the human being that we want to be.
Some of us have the the discipline to embark on this self-examination on our own, but the result may indeed be feelings of guilt, doubt, or despair. To speak with a priest about the results of one’s self-examination provides the occasion to hear again the words we know are true; that our sins are forgiven by the great mercy of God. It may be that hearing those words of absolution will take a heavy burden off the shoulders of one who has been worrying about their sins.