A number of years ago I was starting an eight-day retreat with more than ordinary reluctance. Retreats had often carried a sense of foreboding for me, a journey into truth that might just as well be postponed or avoided. The solitude and prayer would make me face myself in ways not always pleasant.
I felt particularly unprepared. I don’t think I had prayed for a continuous hour over the previous months. I had been neglecting the prayer of the church in the priest’s “office.” My work with the sacraments seemed good enough, but I had the distinct feeling that I was doing it all for myself. I was resentful of people who asked for my help, jealous of my time, and ashamed of my self-centeredness.
The retreat director said: “Great. You’re just where you should be when you enter the presence of God.” His advice seemed like some of that “don’t worry, be happy” stuff, and I told him as much.
“Well, how does every Mass begin?” he asked.
“In the name of the Father ... ”
“No, what is the first formal part of the Eucharist?”
And then it came to me: the penitential rite. “Lord, have mercy.” He had reminded me that the acknowledgment of sin was the condition for entry into the covenant of the Eucharist.
What is more, I’ve come to see that the admission of sin is a constant theme of every Mass. I do not mean the implicit willingness to “repent and believe the Good News” when we hear the word of God, or the acknowledgment of our inadequacy when we offer our prayers of the faithful. I mean, rather, the continuing acknowledgment of our sinful condition at the height of the Communion rite.
In the Our Father, we pray that God “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us”—a scary proposal if you spend a minute thinking about it.
Whether we forgive or not, however, the presumption that we are sinners is painfully evident. It’s inescapable. The presider asks God, “Look not upon our sins, but on the faith of your church,” immediately prior to the exchange of peace. It is a sinful church that chants: “you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” It is the church’s priest who prays before Communion: “By your holy body and blood, free me from all my sins.”
The lifted-up body and blood of Christ—drawing all things to himself—“takes away the sins of the world.” Our response is to confess that, although we are not worthy, we are healed at the word of God.
The acknowledgment of our sin is not an embarrassing hindrance to God’s presence. It is the prompting of God’s law, Jeremiah reminds us, written in our hearts. It is the condition of the new covenant itself. It is the reason for Jesus’ covenant. “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
There are many things we take seriously about our worship—the setting, the music, the preaching—but I wonder if we take seriously enough its very ritual words and their meaning. The Eucharistic Prayer is incomprehensible, actually, if we think we are sinless. After all, it is the re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Our admission of sin is the occasion for singing the glories of God. It is the appreciation of how happy we are to be called to the supper. It is the acceptance of the new covenant, Christ’s passion and death embodied in our Eucharist. When we take Communion, we take the new law, the new covenant, literally into our bodies, our hearts. And the promise of Jeremiah is realized in the flesh: “I am yours and you are mine. I will remember your sin no more.” (Jer 30:34) It is as important to remember why Christ died for us as it is to remember that he did so. In fact, the paschal mystery, as well as the Eucharist, cannot make very much sense at all if we fail to understand how much we need both. “You have set us free, you are the Savior of the world.” (Memorial Acclamation)
It is impossible to enter the presence of God, whether in a retreat or in a liturgy, as self-made men and women. We cannot enter the covenant blameless and spotless. Nor can we rely upon our good works to make us worthy of this covenant. The only contribution we make to this covenant is the acknowledgment of our sin and the trust that it is healed by the redemptive power of God’s love.
If our experience of the Eucharist is bland or boring, if our liturgies seem lifeless or contrived, could it be at least in part due to the fact that we do not take seriously either our sinfulness or God’s forgiveness?
After all, the words “I will remember their sin no more” are not very liberating or exciting if people think they have no sins to remember.