John the Baptist tries to prepare the way for Jesus by calling people to repentance: “Repent for the kingdom if heaven is near.” Whatever else that means, it includes the idea that one of the best ways we can prepare for Christmas is by making a good, honest, searing confession. To repent means to confess our sins.
This notion has fallen out of favour. The idea of confession is very much challenged today. At a practical level, less and less people are in fact going to confession. The old line-ups at the confessional box are becoming shorter and shorter. As well, more and more people are challenging, theoretically, the idea of sacramental confession. Arguments against it take many forms: “I don’t find it meaningful!” “It’s too privatized!” “There isn’t any need to do this to have one’s sins forgiven! God doesn’t need our mediation.” “It gives undue power to the priest!” “This is an affair between God and myself.” “It’s adolescent!” “The priests don’t have time to do it properly.”
Whatever the objection, and there are many, less and less people are going to confession.
This is an unfortunate development because private confession is one of the pillars of the spiritual life. At a certain point in one’s growth, there is no progress without it. Why? Why confession? Why the need to tell ones sins to a priest? Surely the radical mercy and forgiveness of God are not contingent upon telling our sins to a priest? Surely God’s mercy cannot be controlled by or limited to one prescribed ritual? In both scripture and church tradition it is clear that our sins are forgiven through sincerity of conscience and through touching the body of Christ (and this has many forms). The Christian community itself is the radical sacrament of reconciliation and God’s mercy can never be tied down to just one vehicle of grace. So why confession?
Simply put, confession is the sacrament of the mature and one grows mature by confessing one’s sins. Mature people face themselves and apologize explicitly – and people grow mature by apologizing. The critics of the sacrament of reconciliation are right in saying that God is not tied down to one vehicle as an avenue for the forgiveness of sins. They are wrong however when they denigrate the importance of private confession. One may not have to confess one’s sins explicitly to another human being to have them forgiven, but one does have to confess them explicitly if he or she hopes to live a transparent life, free of addictions, rationalization, and dark skeletons in the closet.
“You are as sick as your sickest secret!” That’s an axiom popular among people working in 12-step programs. They know the truth of that through personal experience. They also know that until one faces oneself, in searing honesty, before another human being and there acknowledges openly his or her sins, there will always be addictions, rationalization, and lack of real transparency. It has taken us a long time to understand the nature of addictive behaviour and even longer to learn how to deal with it. One of the things we have learned, and this is a pivotal and non-negotiable step in every 12-step program, is that there has to be an open, honest, and searing admission of sin, face to face, before another human being. Without this, at a certain point, all real growth stops. The church has always had its own version of this. We called it confession, the sacrament of reconciliation.
It can of course still be argued: Why before a priest? In the letter of James in the New Testament, we are encouraged simply to confess our sins to each other. So why a priest? Because a priest symbolically represents the whole community. In confessing to a priest, we are, in a manner of speaking, confessing to the entire community. A friend of mine is fond of saying that sacramental confession, as presently practiced, is an unhappy compromise, far from ideal. That is correct, though not in the way my friend thinks. We owe our confession to the whole community (since it is the entire community that is wounded by our sin) and the ideal way to confess would be to go in front of a packed church on a Sunday morning and begin our confession be saying: “Bless me community – for I have sinned!”
Confession is not so much about having one’s sins forgiven as it is about coming to maturity within the community and being able to live a transparent life, free of dark secrets, addictions, and rationalization.
The Baptist’s message is as true today as it was 2000 years ago. To make straight the path for the coming of the Saviour, to make a proper advent, to prepare ourselves to have Christ born in our lives, we need to undergo a baptism for the remission of sin. In simple talk, that means, among other things, making a searing, honest, open, confession.