For the Life of the World 21

Posted: January 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 21

This post continues with section 6 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World, the last section of the chapter. Here is the link again to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

This section shifts to look at the sacrament of penance or confession, which at first glance seemed odd to me in the chapter on baptism. However, I saw the connections Fr. Schmemann was drawing and they make a lot of sense.

It is only in the light of baptism that we can understand the sacramental character attached by the Orthodox Church to penance. In its juridical deviation, sacramental theology explained this sacrament in terms of sheer “juridical” power to absolve sins, a power “delegated” by Christ to the priest.

I think it’s my familiarity with that perspective (shared by both Roman Catholics and Protestants), which Fr. Schmemann calls the “juridical deviation,” that led to my original confusion. For whether you are confessing to a priest or directly to God, within the juridical perspective you are primarily seeking absolution. And that’s not quite the same as forgiveness. Curiously, though played for its comedic value and somewhat caricatured, a recent episode of Desperate Housewives captures this idea and its effects pretty well. Bree is convinced to do penance for her affair by taking care of Orson and through that penance, she seeks to find absolution and a removal of guilt.

But this explanation has nothing to do with the original meaning of penance in the Church, and with its sacramental nature. The sacrament of forgiveness is baptism, not because it operates a juridical removal of guilt, but because it is baptism into Jesus Christ, who is the Forgiveness. The sin of all sins — the truly “original sin” — is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man’s love and his alienation from God. That man prefers something — the world, himself — to God, this is the only real sin, and in it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life’s course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has “forgotten” it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life. And God has accepted man and — in Christ — reconciled him with Himself. Repentance is thus the return of our love, of our life, to God, and this return is possible in Christ because He reveals to us the true Life and makes us aware of our exile and condemnation. To believe in Christ is to repent — to change radically the very “mind” of our life, to see it as sin and death. And to believe in Him is to accept the joyful revelation that in Him forgiveness and reconciliation have been given. In baptism both repentance and forgiveness find their fulfillment. In baptism man wants to die as a sinful man and he is given that death, and in baptism man wants the newness of life as forgiveness, and he is given it.

The above is pretty dense, but read it several times. Baptism is joining Christ in his death because we want to die as the man we were and then also joining him in his Resurrection, receiving life and forgiveness from the one who is The Life and The Forgiveness.

Baptism is forgiveness of sins, not their removal. … It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all its sadness, and true repentance becomes possible.  … The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile.

That is, of course, one of the key flaws in the more juridical perspectives of the West, especially the overarching framework of justification theory. It requires that anyone be able to recognize their sin as sin against a particular God (and thus also discern that God) simply from the nature of the creation and recognize that they are helpless in the face of it. And that’s simply not true. I’ve only begun to be able to grasp the ways in which I am a sinner since I’ve begun to understand reality through the lens that Jesus provides. It is not self-evident that the path of enlightenment of Buddhism or the Wiccan Rede or the animism of Shinto or the various perspectives of the karmic cycle within Hinduism do not accurately describe the natural order of reality.

This also has profound implications for what passes for evangelism in so much of the West. Under the juridical perspective, you basically have to find a way to make someone feel bad about themselves so that you can then pitch the absolution you’re selling. Love and healing are much better things to offer. Repentance, the sort of repentance that arises from a deepening recognition of yourself as sinner, comes as the light of Christ shines in every corner of your soul. Not before.

The sacrament of penance is not, therefore, a sacred and juridical “power” given by God to men. It is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church. From baptism it receives its sacramental character. In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any “new” absolution. But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all. And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled. Just as each Eucharist is not a “repetition” of Christ’s supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the “newness of life” which God gave to us once and for all.

It’s not about absolving us of the guilt of our sins. Christ reconciled all creation to God in his Incarnation, descent into death, and Resurrection. God entered into all the brokenness and even took on himself the utterly forsaken death on the Cross. Even at our most broken. Even when we are most forsaken and most turned from God, he is there in that place with us.

Repentance is about healing us. It’s about making us truly alive. In confession, we enter again and again the forgiveness of our baptism. Time, especially redeemed and recreated time, does not always operate in the way we normally expect. Thus we participate again and again in the one Eucharist of Christ. And we enter, time and again, the forgiveness of our one baptism. And that’s true no matter how many times we turn from that forgiveness.


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