In the seminary I attended, the Confession of Sin was customarily discarded from the Eucharistic liturgy, reappearing occasionally during Lent and some other times. The point was made by our instructors that a “general confession” (as these things used to be called) was not a part of the ancient liturgies to which our own Prayer Book hearkened back. Yet, in spite of the explanation of our usage, a difficulty remained. Our practice reversed the permission given in the rubric, “On occasion, the Confession may be omitted” (BCP, 330, 359).
I wondered at the time how an omission that was virtually invariable could legitimately be qualified as occasional. Or to put it another way, how did the inclusion of a Confession rather than its exclusion become the occasional practice? We seemed to have stood the rubric on its head.
There are some other versions of this usage, including the omission of the Confession of Sin during Eastertide. Here we are dealing with a practice that could meet the rubrical standard of occasional omission, the “occasion” being the Easter season. Again, there is a patina of antiquity for the practice, a rationale which usually begins with the twentieth canon of the Council of Nicaea. This canon called for a uniform practice of standing for prayer on the Lord’s Day and on all the days from Easter to Pentecost. Apparently, the practice of kneeling had come into currency in some places, and in light of the desired uniformity, standing was prescribed. The presumption is that standing was the ancient practice and kneeling was the innovation.
By analogy with kneeling and fasting (logically precluded by the notion of a feast), one could argue that omitting the Confession at Eastertide captures in broad brush strokes an insight implied by the twentieth canon: penitential practice is out of place in the season of rejoicing. Both Tertullian and Augustine glossed the practice of standing and the exclusion of fasting during the Great Fifty Days as expressions of Easter joy. In a sympathetic spirit we might say that this season is a time of realized hope, of the proleptic claiming of our character as the community of the redeemed. Though neither Tertullian nor Augustine knew the practice of “general confession,” perhaps the Confession of Sin, in our own day, should be added to this list of things omitted during Eastertide?
However this may be, I think that the practice of the omission of the Confession of Sin from the Eucharistic liturgy deserves to remain an occasional usage exercised infrequently: Palm Sunday, in keeping with the explicit permission to omit contained in that liturgy, and perhaps at the Easter Vigil as well (especially when Baptism or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows takes place); and of course at Confirmation and Baptism, where omission is required by the structure and logic of those liturgies. Clearly, the inclusion of the Confession of Sin is normative for us, at the very least. The danger with more widespread omission is that we may be reflecting and encouraging a misunderstanding of the true character of confession and absolution, as well as of Easter itself. It is a penitential practice, yes; but it has a paschal character itself that is precisely fitting in Eastertide.
The Easter proclamation is one of Jesus’ death and resurrection and of the forgiveness of sins. This dual formulation is an especially strong theme in Acts, in the formulaic apostolic preaching recounted there. “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). We could multiply examples. In the Gospel of Luke, the same dual message is part of Jesus’ message after the resurrection. “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations ” (Lk. 24:46-47). The theme is also incorporated into John’s account of the giving of the Holy Spirit on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jo. 20:23). The New Testament suggests that there is nothing more paschal in character, nothing more closely aligned with the great transitus of Jesus’ death and resurrection, than the transitional moment represented by our repentance and God’s forgiveness, which brings new life out of the death we’ve constructed for ourselves.
Rowan Williams noted in his book Resurrection that the disciples’ experience of resurrection was inextricably linked to their own desertion of him and their failure as his friends. When they encountered the risen Lord they experienced forgiveness. “If forgiveness is liberation, it is also a recovery of the past in hope, a return of memory, in which what is potentially threatening, destructive, despair-inducing, in the past is transfigured into the ground of hope” (32).
“On the far side of the resurrection, vocation and forgiveness occur together, always and inseparably …. To know that Jesus still invites is to know that he accepts, forgives, bears and absorbs the hurt done: to hear the invitation is to know oneself forgiven, and vice versa” (35-36).
If it was true for his followers then, it is true for us today, who also encounter the risen Lord as one who brings forgiveness.
The Confession of Sin and the absolution that accompanies it are fitting parts of the Great Fifty Days. We ought not to misunderstand the practice. It is not a “sad” reminder of sins that should be left off in a “happy” Eastertide, but part of the proclamation of the very meaning of the Resurrection. We are the community of the redeemed, for sure; but part of the character of a redeemed people is the forgiveness they have received. Our lives continue to bear within them the marks of the cross just as surely as Christ’s own resurrected body bears them. We need the reminder our Confession provides, a reminder of the ground we stand on and of the message of forgiveness we are given to proclaim.
The featured image is a detail of a statue in a side chapel of the church of San Sisto e San Domenico, Rome. It was uploaded by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons.