Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Penitential Rite: God, not Me

I always thought of the penitential rite as strictly a sort of mini-confession. Like, Ok, before we get this party started, I'd better come clean about some stuff I've done. And there certainly is that movement in there -- we are saying Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. And if you do the form of the rite known as the "confiteor" -- "I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...", well, there it is, a confession.

Confiteor: sounds like meteor, but better for you.

But then while studying theology I noted a number of my profs talk in passing about the rite as not primarily directed at our sins but God's action. So, I went back to the rite, and you know, that's there, too. Listen to one of the typical forms of the prayer and response: "You were sent to heal the contrite, Lord have mercy. You came to call sinners, Christ have mercy. You plead for us at the right hand of the Father, Lord have mercy." The first element in each prayer -- the italicized bit -- is a statement of how Jesus acts for us.

Other versions are similar, if not talking about Jesus in terms of his action, talking in terms of his identity: you are mighty God and Prince of peace;" "you are Son of God and Son of Mary;" "you are Word made flesh and splendor of the Father." But don't be fooled, those titles are also a veiled reference to his action. Every title for Jesus derives from our experience of his action in history. We call him the Son of God because of how he has intervened for us (both 2000 years ago and now). So, too, mighty, prince of peace, even splendor of the Father. It all emerges from his revelatory, salvific action. And in calling him those things, we're actually asking for that action again. It's like, if your kid came up to you and said, "Oh Mom, you are the awesome one" -- what would that mean? Maybe ... maybe... it's just them saying thanks. MAYBE. (And if so, thanks for something you did, some way you've been with them.)

Probably, though, they want something.

Hey, Dad, you are so awesome. By the way, you know that car you love?

And that's what these prayers are about: us wanting something. God's mercy. It's really the Eucharistic prayer in miniature -- we begin by telling God who he has been in history, and then say, do that again now. We need you.

So, we're not negating the "confession" interpretation of this moment. What's that passage from Scripture -- before you come to the table of the Lord, you should go out and reconcile. But what are we doing is shifting the focus, from me/us, my badness, to God.

Maybe that sounds like semantics; it's definitely subtle. But it's a hugely important distinction. The focus on me is what we might call a well-intentioned solipcism. It seems like the right thing, because hey, I did wrong. But it's solipcistic, or narcissistic --AKA I'm focused on me! In which case it's a lot harder to let God in. It's like being in a conversation where the other person just talks and talks about their problems. You can sit and listen and that's a real service at times, but if they never listen -- even if it's just to the silence -- they ain't getting free.

Is that a venial sin I see?

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