When we confess our sins, we generally begin with the word ‘I’. That’s best actually: we are meant to confess our sins, rather than those of others! We begin with “I” and take responsibility for “what we have done and what we have failed to do”. We name them. We own them. We should do so honestly and openly and generally briefly.
But confession of sins is not the whole of this Sacrament. “I” am not the whole of it. This is the mercy of it. A Sacrament is an action of Christ for the Church and through the Church. He’s the real actor, do-er, agent. This is why Pope Francis likes to call the Sacrament of Reconciliation a sacrament of resurrection. It was, after all, instituted on the evening of the day Christ rose (cf. Jn 20:22-23). And in the Gospels, when Christ heals or forgives, the event so often issues in a kind of resurrection: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (Jn 5:8); “Rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mk 2:11); “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn 8:11). Christ resurrects us in this sacrament. He takes over.
Perhaps we’re familiar with the prayer: “Lord Jesus, I give myself to you; you take over.” That’s this Sacrament. I “entrust” my sins to the Lord by confessing them. Then, thank God, he takes over.
The priest hearing confessions has perhaps a similar experience. When absolving, he says “I” as well: “I absolve you…” But “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk 2:7) – the scribes were right. Every priest knows it is not with his isolated, personal “I” that he absolves. He is acting, as we say, in persona Christi, with the Christ-I the Holy Spirit gave him in ordination.
So, in this Sacrament, for penitent and priest (in different ways), what begins with us ends with Christ. Our “I” is taken up into his “I”.
The Gospel we just heard, Jn 21:15-17, can help here. Jesus is risen and, on the shore of the lake, after breakfast, he and Peter celebrate a reconciliation. There was no confession as such because both the Lord and Peter knew all about Peter’s threefold denial. There was no need to spell it out. Instead, our Lord focuses on Peter’s heart. “Do you love me?” – perfect contrition! Peter’s response is humble, truthful, beautiful: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. He begins with “you”. His eyes are on the Lord. And the third time even more so, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” And Jesus communicates his forgiveness by endorsing Peter’s mission: “Feed my sheep, feed my lambs”.
This can all point to our experience in this Sacrament. We begin with our sins, with our self, our self outside Christ. “My transgressions, truly I know them; my sin is always before me” (Ps 51:5). I speak it. But then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this wandering selfish “I” is reintegrated into Christ and becomes a Christ-self again. He takes over. He knows our flickering love, he shows his mercy, he forgives. And he gives us back our mission, which is always a share in his. That conversation on the shore was Peter’s resurrection, and this Sacrament is ours.
Thanks to its grace, we pass from the “I” of ourselves into Christ, into the life of Christ within us, and we re-enter our task in the Church and the world.
“It is no longer I who live, said St Paul, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
May this be our experience tonight.
Penitential Service, St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 5 April 2023