The Gift that Keeps on Giving The Rev’d. N.J.A. Humphrey
St. John’s Day
27 December 2015
I John 1:1-9
It’s still Christmas! What now? Thankfully, in this morning’s epistle lesson, the saint after whom this church is named and whom we are also celebrating today, gives us one possible answer: Confess your sins! Pretty Christmassy, huh? Nothing says “Christmas” like confession. Just look at our confessional back there, with a Christmas tree right in front of it! Next year, I might ask for the whole thing to be decked out in greens and holly and lights. Maybe Peter can rig up a model train to run around the top of it, and we’ll put the tree up there.
In all seriousness, at my last church, we scheduled confessions on Christmas Eve. Here, it’s a bit more laissez faire, and it is expected that if you wish to make your confession, you will make an appointment. I regret that I have not done more teaching and preaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as Confession is also called, but I hope to make up for it a little this morning, because I really do believe that the mystery of the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas and proclaimed so forcefully by our patron, John, is linked intimately to our call to repentance and confession.
Now, to be clear, confession can come in more than one form. One does not formally need the confessional and a priest for a valid and salvific confession. We have general forms of confession in our liturgy that are just as valid, such as the General Confession, and other forms are recognized by the Church as being at least potentially as efficacious as the confessional. But the confessional is a particularly concentrated, intensified, personal, and, one might say, targeted way of connecting your particular sins with God’s all-encompassing grace through Jesus Christ.
As I mentioned, the connection between Christmas and Confession can be illustrated by our epistle lesson this morning, taken from the first letter of St. John. Writing of Jesus as the Incarnate Word, John describes him as “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” In other words, the Word isn’t a philosophical construct: he’s a person. John boldly asserts that “If we confess our sins, [Jesus, the Word] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
And why is this? Because of who Jesus is: through him we have fellowship with one another, “and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” John continues, “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” Joy? Yes, through confessing our sins, we find joy. Our Christmas joy finds its fullness not in the delight we experience over the gifts under the tree we received two days ago, but the gift of God’s own Son, who came to take away our sins and give us the gift of eternal life, which Jesus gave to us hanging from the Tree of Salvation, the Cross.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, reenacts this gift-giving in a particularly powerful way. John writes, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” At Low Mass, we hear the Prologue of John at the Last Gospel: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The collect for St. John’s Day echoes these themes when we pray, “Shed upon thy Church…the brightness of thy light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of thine apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of thy truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of life everlasting.” Indeed, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
I have often used an analogy with people when explaining the dynamic I’ve always sensed at work in Confession. Imagine you are a little child again, tucked in your room late at night. It is pitch dark outside and the windows are rattling from the wind. A leafless tree branch scrapes against the windowpane. You suddenly feel very scared. You become convinced there are monsters hiding under your bed, ready to devour you. You shiver and cannot go to sleep. Finally, something inside you gives you the strength to flip on the light switch, and you look under the bed to see that those monsters you had feared for so long…all along were just dust bunnies.
You see, the only power evil has over us is the power we give it by letting it thrive in the darkness. When we shed the light of Christ on it, the One in whom is no darkness at all dispels every shadow, and we are truly enlightened. I am reminded of the collect for the First Sunday after Christmas Day. In that collect, we pray, “Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.” In Confession, that light is enkindled in our hearts, and we are given the grace for it to shine forth in our lives to all with whom we interact. This is because Confession is concerned with one thing and one thing only: reconciling us to God and to each other through Christ. In the confessional you will intimately encounter the reality, the Incarnation, of forgiveness and reconciliation.
I cannot convey to you sufficiently how joyful the sacrament of Reconciliation can be if you’ve never given it a chance before. And if you have made your confession but not heretofore experienced what I am describing (I know that some people who went to compulsory confession as a child have not), I can promise you this: that if, in the midst of your confession, you take the time to make yourself fully available to God’s reconciling love in Christ Jesus—that is, if you are completely truthful and vulnerable and defenseless, your experience of confession will convert you to the love of God and neighbor like nothing you’ve ever known before in your life. I guarantee it—and I don’t generally guarantee anything as a matter of policy. But try me on this one.
Of course, you might feel that going to confession is embarrassing, and besides, what would you say? Well, today, my friends, you are in luck, because I’m going to make you a deal: For a limited time only—let’s say, through Ash Wednesday—if you come to me to make your confession, when you get to that little “fill in the blank” line in the form provided for confession, and would prefer to enumerate your burdens silently but in full availability to God, I will be pleased to grant you absolution. Because I don’t care what you’ve done or left undone. Really, I don’t. If you don’t want me to know, I’m happy to oblige. What I do care about is you, and I am eager to exercise the sacred and joyful privilege entrusted to me at ordination to convey authoritatively Christ’s counsel and absolution through his Church. Come one, come all! Simply kneel there—or stand on one leg, for all I care—and see what happens. I offer this to you, as St. John the Evangelist wrote to his community, “that your joy may be full.”
This Christmastide, come to confession. Confession is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.