In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians we heard: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians is known as Paul’s joyful epistle: God is powerfully at work in Philippi; Paul and the Philippians get to be part of it. But Paul’s words caution: there’s been a good beginning; there’s still a good way to go for the completion. And in between the beginning and completion he calls even the Philippians to repentance.
Paul, we might say, is happy to channel Malachi and John the Baptist—also when addressing the baptized!
Last Sunday we entered Advent praying “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness…” Casting away the works of darkness is, of course, not simply what we do the first week of Advent, but what we do continually as Christians. We learn—and it is a lifelong task—how to recognize ourselves as sinners. It is like peeling an onion: layer after layer, and sometimes involving tears. As Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Repentance, of course, is not a stand-alone project. The “entire life of believers” revolves around loving God and neighbor. Repentance is about what gets in the way of that love.
Repentance, the core of our work in Advent. The classic treatment of repentance is in one of the homilies Queen Elizabeth sent to us clergy in 1562. This sermon is simply a summary and contextualization of that homily. Repentance: a process involving four steps: contrition, confession, faith, and amendment of life.
Contrition Contrition is expressed chiefly in the confession itself: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, / which we from time to time most grievously have committed, / by thought, word, and deed… / We do earnestly repent, / and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; / the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, / the burden of them is intolerable.” A great deal of Scripture’s testimony is condensed in these words. God loves us—yes. We’re created in God’s image—yes. But we’ve responded to that love rather badly and marred that image. And so we return again and again to these words. They may or may not match my current self-image. If there’s a disconnect between the words and my self-image, the problem isn’t with the words.
Contrition involves both awareness of sin and sorrow for sin. Sometimes this comes easily. We screw up royally, we know it, we do what’s necessary so that it doesn’t happen again. There are some mistakes we only have to make once. That’s how contrition is supposed to work.
Often awareness of sin and sorrow for sin don’t come quite so easily. The minority party within us is aware; the majority is all for blurring the issue, changing the subject. We lack the imagination to see the effects of our sin on us and those around us.
Here’s one test. I should be able to talk about everything I do with someone. If I’m doing things that I can’t talk to anyone about, that isn’t simply a red flag. That’s all the klaxons going off and all the red lights flashing.
Sometimes the contrition we need has to do with sins we’re completely unaware of, but which those around us are quite aware of. So here’s the question: am I listening for what they might be telling me? Most of us do not like criticism, and our neighbors know that. So they’d be crazy to give a direct answer to “Tell me what you really think.” But if we’re trying to listen to both what is said and to the silences—with minimal filtering from our own fears and agendas we might pick up what we need to hear.
But whether it takes a short time or a long time to get to awareness of and sorrow for sin, in all cases it’s a matter of keeping the eye on the goal, love of God and neighbor. What’s making that harder? What’s eroding my desire to even achieve that goal?
And when for a particular sin we get to awareness and sorrow, it’s time to move on to the next step. There’s no value in wallowing in contrition (“Oh, what a terrible person I am!”), and it can quickly become counterproductive.
Confession Confession,expressed chiefly in the confession itself, is a matter of taking responsibility for these manifold sins and wickedness. Of course, none of these happened in a vacuum, but however much nature or nurture made these easier, they are still our acts, and we remain trapped by them until we acknowledge them as ours, until we confess.
Faith Here we’re not talking about faith in general, but the faith or trust that God will in fact forgive my sins, be merciful to me. There’s an important circle here that can spiral either upwards or downwards. If I feel little need for God’s mercy, I don’t need much faith in God’s mercy. I may not dare open myself to knowledge of that need without some of that faith. As I learn how much I need that mercy, the faith needs to keep up with the knowledge, or I end up in denial, spiral downwards. To assist that faith, in Rite I itself, after the absolution there is the option of reading one or more sentences that emphasize God’s mercy (page 332). To the degree that I’ve let myself acknowledge my need, I may really need to hear those! And, hearing those, I can continue to grow in self knowledge, and in faith in God’s mercy, and the spiral can continue upward.
By the way, sometimes believing that God will forgive my sins, be merciful to me, is difficult enough that it’s worth scheduling private confession with a priest. Sometimes hearing “The Lord has put away all your sins” face to face is exactly what I need to hear.
Amendment of life The invitation to confession already points us toward amendment of life: “and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” Toward the end of the confession we pray “and grant that we may ever hereafter / serve and please thee in newness of life, / to the honor and glory of thy Name.” In the Absolution: “confirm and strengthen you in all goodness”: this is not going to be easy. Were it easy, “strengthen you” would be an unnecessary petition.
Amendment of life isn’t easy. It involves change. It can be painful. The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. It helps to have a friend with whom you can share your journey and get some accountability. You have a deacon and will soon have a regular priest: make use of them!
In our tradition we don’t expect to reach perfection in this life—but that’s no reason not to work towards it. We might work towards it for the sake of better loving God and neighbor, but few of us are far enough along spiritually for that to be a reliably sustainable motive. So here’s a more sustainable motive: the alternatives to amendment of life are even more painful. Recall M Scott Peck’s opening argument in his book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.… What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one.… Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems” And, finally, this attempt “becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid.” So, amendment of life, the less painful option.
“And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We live between the beginning and the completion, and repentance is an ongoing part of our commitment to love God and neighbor. Repentance: Contrition, confession, faith, amendment of life. Sustained and empowered by Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let us renew our dedication to this work as we continue in Advent.