Recently I wrote a piece on the Eucharist within which I shared the story of a man who had drifted away from the church, had returned, received the Eucharist without first making any explicit confession, and had felt very healed and reconciled through this. I had used the story both as an illustration of how the Eucharist is a sacrament of reconciliation and as an apologia for why the church has always considered it as the primary sacrament of reconciliation. Letters poured in from two continents. Mostly, beyond simply accusing me of being wrong, they asked the question: “If the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of reconciliation, what then is the place of confession?” That’s a fair question.
What is the relationship of the Eucharist to explicit confession vis-à-vis reconciliation?
Perhaps some valuable light can be shed on this question by approaching it phenomenologically rather than simply theologically. David Steindl-Rast, in speaking about reconciliation in a much wider context, namely, the human struggle to come to peace with life itself, points out how, in moments of peak experience, we experience deep reconciliation. Commenting on peak experience, he writes:
“At the peak of our Peak Experience everything suddenly makes sense. Your heart is touched and there is peace. Not that suddenly you found answers to all your questions. Not that all contradictions are suddenly reconciled. Not even your problems are solved. But you have hit upon something deeper than questions; more comprehensive than all contradictions; something that can support all problems without need for solutions. How strange. We usually think that we must trace our questions to the ultimate question to arrive at the ultimate answer. We are convinced that we must work our way through contradiction after contradiction to arrive at an ultimate reconciliation; struggle with problem after problem to find the ultimate solution. Yet, what happened here is something entirely different. For one split second we were distracted from our preoccupations with problems, questions, and contradictions. For one split second we dropped the load of our preoccupations and the super solution, the super answer is suddenly ours, in one great super reconciliation of everything. … the paradox is not dispelled. It is brought home, it is made bearable; you can stand under it and rejoice in it as children rejoice in snowflakes. And thus, standing for once under the paradox rather than against it, you can understand; you can understand yourself.” (A Listening Heart, pp. 39 & 71)
As a sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist functions in the same way. In being embraced by Christ in so intimate a way, we touch the super answer, the super solution, the super reconciliation. The Eucharist is a deep intimate kiss, physical and real. In that embrace we are unconditionally loved and accepted in a manner that, for a moment, holds us in the same way as a partner holds another in sexual intercourse when this is had in its truest expression. In such an embrace, there is reconciliation even though one’s faults and infidelities are not erased, traced to their roots, nor even necessarily amended. Nor are one’s faults, by such an embrace, accepted. The embrace discriminates. It does not pretend that there isn’t unwholeness present, but it embraces the goodness and sincerity of the person in such a way that, in being so held, there is unity and reconciliation with the lover beyond (not in spite of) the sin and infidelity that are there and not fully resolved. In a real sense “power goes out” of the lover which, for a moment at least, does for the one embraced what touching the hem of the garment did for the woman who clandestinely touched Jesus – the flow of blood stops!
Moreover, as for the woman who touched the hem of Christ’s garment, such a touch is precisely what often empowers us with the courage to then explicitly confront our areas of sin and infidelity. The embrace is the primary reconciliation and its power is what helps give us the heart and the courage to move on to the more explicit apology (confession), complete with its concomitant resolutions and amends.
Eucharist and confession are, in a way, not two separate sacraments of reconciliation but part of one process of reconciliation. The Eucharist is the embrace (the father of the prodigal son embracing his wayward child) which, because its unconditionality accepts the whole person beyond one’s infidelities, kisses the person in such way that he or she is now empowered to more explicitly confront his or her sin. Explicit apology (confession) follows the embrace. This, of course, can also work in reverse; explicit apology can lead to the peak embrace. That is also good; but neither order is normative and, ultimately, the embrace, the Eucharist, is the more primal reconciliation.