Few persons have understood the Eucharist as deeply as St. Augustine. His homilies on it are precious, particularly those he delivered to newly baptized adults who were receiving the Eucharist for the first time. In one of these he tells them that their sins are forgiven at the Eucharist:
“Next [at the Eucharist] the Lord’s Prayer is said. … Why is it said before receiving the body and blood of Christ? Because perhaps on account of our human fragility our minds have imagined something which is not becoming, our eyes have seen something which is not decent, or our ears heard something which was not fitting. If perhaps such things have been kept in because of temptation and the fragility of human life, they are washed away by the Lord’s Prayer at the moment we say `Forgive us our trespasses’ so that we can safely approach the sacrament.”
According to Augustine, when we stand around the altar at the Eucharist as a community and sincerely pray the Lord’s Prayer, any sins we have committed are forgiven. The Eucharist is ultimate sacrament of reconciliation. It is the ancient water of cleansing, now turned into the new wine of reconciliation, that purifies us so that we can enter the house and celebrate. How is this so?
In the second chapter of John’s gospel, we have the miracle at Cana where Jesus changes water into wine. Too often we see this simply as a gesture of hospitality: The hosts ran out of wine, Jesus felt sorry for them, and so changed six jugs of water into wine to spare them the embarrassment. Such an interpretation however misses the main point. Scripture scholars, Raymond Brown among them, tell us that in the early chapters of John’s Gospel there is a strong recurring theme of Jesus replacing the old with the new. That is the case here. He is replacing the old rite of cleansing with something new. What?
Key to grasping the significance of this miracle is the particular jugs of water that got changed into wine. The water that Jesus changed into wine was the wash-water, the water used to ritually cleanse yourself when you entered a house. At the door of every Jewish house there were a series of water-jugs, usually six of them, which were kept filled with water. Upon entering a house, you were obliged to first stop and wash your hands and feet, both because they were usually covered with dust and because you were obliged, ritually, to do this. By washing in this way, you made yourself “clean” so that you could join the household and sit at table with them. What Jesus does at Cana is change this water, used for cleansing, into wine. He replaces the old rite of cleansing with something new – the Eucharist.
The Eucharist is therefore both the sacrament that celebrates unity and the sacrament that cleanses us for it. At the Eucharist our sins are forgiven because to touch Christ is to be healed, even of sin. And we touch Christ, physically, in the Eucharist. But if this is true, if our sins are forgiven in the Eucharist, where does that leave the Catholic sacrament of confession? Is there still a need for explicit confession?
That we can have our sins forgiven by participating in the Eucharist in no way denigrates the need for private confession. The opposite. To touch the body of Christ is the greatest antidote to the rationalizing individualism that precisely tempts us away from explicit confession. A biblical text, the story of the woman who touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, can be helpful in understanding this. In her encounter with Jesus, we see that there are in fact two moments of healing, the initial touch and a subsequent, explicit, one-to-one conversation. Confession to a priest and forgiveness of sins through simply touching the body of Christ in the Eucharist are connected in the same way as that woman’s explicit exchange with Jesus is related to her initial touching of his garment. The person-to-person exchange brings the healing to a fuller moment, a fuller maturity, and a fuller peace. Explicit confession is to the sacrament of reconciliation what an explicit apology is to reconciliation with each other in our daily lives. Actions speak, just as words do, and we can apologize to each other simply by letting our presence speak. But something is left unfinished until an explicit apology is spoken. Mature people apologize, in words as well as in actions. Moreover, as the literature on addictions points out, there can never be a full healing of one’s past until one faces, with searing honesty, one’s sins and tells them, face to face, to another human being. Explicit, sacramental confession is an indispensable piece within the process of full reconciliation.
However, as both scripture and Augustine assure us, when we stand around an altar at Eucharist and pray the Lord’s Prayer, our sins are already forgiven.