Yesterday, I was catching up with a good friend of mine from university, and, not surprisingly, the conversation turned to the topic of confession. I say “not surprisingly” because this friend of mine, is hours away from becoming confirmed in the Catholic church, a years long journey (for him) of searching, prayer, and discernment, that has (for him) now culminated in several months of RCIA* classes and finally the moment that is to come. My own journey to becoming chrismated in the Orthodox church was similarly long and prayerful, and, although the pivotal moment of my chrismation was almost a year ago, I have come see time and again, that being united to Christ is a continual process, and confession is a big part of that.
What he said of his experience with confession (having gone to his first very recently in preparation for his fast-approaching confirmation) really took root within me. For him, confession was the act of revealing to someone our worst self; the things about ourselves we wouldn’t proudly or normally share with others, and I think that is the simplest and truest way to put it. It is also the most humbling. This is because it requires us to come face to face with our own brokenness, and, in an age of 140-character social media highlights, and perfectly filtered selfies, that is a very difficult and painful thing to do. For me, this truth was exacerbated by the fact that, for so long, I was taught (either implicitly or explicitly) that there were certain things about myself (feelings, desires, tendencies, etc) that I could not and should not share with others, things that I should hide at all costs. As you can imagine, this made for a very disjointed understanding of “confession” and how I was supposed to relate to God and others. How could I relate to God, if couldn’t show God my whole self, the good and the worst? If I was always hiding from God, how was I supposed to have communion with God?
Having grown up outside of the Orthodox church, I don’t think I really grasped the freedom that comes with confession. I didn’t know how powerful this channel of grace really was because I didn’t know how to tune into it. Growing up, confession was “what Catholics did” and Protestants (which I was) didn’t need to; I often heard preachers and family members say, “Oh, why would you need to go to a priest to confess your sins, when you can just tell them to God directly? Just go straight to the source.” My struggle with this form of “confession” is rooted in my misunderstanding of how I was to relate to God. Because I thought I had to “hide my worst self”, I found it hard to really accept that I had been forgiven because these sins, these dark things I had thought and done in secret, were still just that, secrets. I “confessed them in my heart” to me alone because God, in all-Holiness, could not and would not bear to even look upon my fallenness, and instead of being released, they remained locked inside me, and began to weigh me down. They became burdens that I carried inside me always; the scars of my brokenness never saw the light of day because I never spoke them aloud, and I never heard, audibly heard, someone say to me that it was alright, that I was forgiven, that there was always a way to make things right with God, and that I could still be loved.
The thing about secrets is that the longer you keep them, the stronger they get; as time passes, they become walls, great fortresses encasing one in loneliness and isolation, in effect, they become our tombs. I want you focus on that word now, tomb. Tomb. Where we lay the dead. I love that Christ’s Wisdom revealed to me this truth about secrets and confession, confession and freedom, freedom and grace, during the time of Great and Holy Pascha*. Last night, as I watched the priests remove an icon of Christ’s bodily form from a wooden cross, reverently and lovingly wrap him in fine linen, take him behind the iconostasis and bless him with incense, I knew what was to come next. Towards the end of the service, the priests (reverently and lovingly bearing the icon of Christ), came out from behind the iconostasis to process through the sanctuary and lay the Christ in the tomb where he will remain until Pascha Sunday.
As I reflect on all that I saw, there is hymn I remember from my Asbury days, called “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” that I really do love, and one of the lines that comes to mind is this: “It was my sin that held him (Jesus) there (upon the cross) until it was accomplished”, and this is true, but it is also our sin that entombs him. Christ didn’t simply die, he became Death so that he would conquer it, and so give us the power to conquer it as well. The hymn I now look forward to singing is the Paschal hymn, which I will gladly, joyfully, and humbly share with you: “Christ is risen from the dead / Christ is risen from the dead / Trampling down death by death / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life”.
What joy! What triumph! And it comes to us through the darkest of griefs. Through a moment of profound brokenness. I hope you can remember this when you feel trapped by your secret sins, when you feel entombed by your worst self. Remember that Christ is there with you, and, always, he is willing and waiting to set you free.
*RCIA= Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults
*Pascha= ”Easter” from the Greek word meaning “Suffering” or “Passion”