The second in our series of sermons on the Mass: preached by Br Nicholas Edmonds-Smith on 11th September 2011:
We saw last week how the liturgical greeting, "The Lord be with you", "And with your spirit", is an acknowledgement of the presence of Christ in those who are gathering to celebrate Mass, and in a special way in the Priest himself. In the Scriptures, whenever there is an experience of the presence of God, there is a corresponding experience of unworthiness and incompleteness. Isaiah laments his sinfulness before the Lord, and has to be consoled by an Angel. Ezekiel falls to his face before God. Daniel experiences anguish and terror. Job is silent before the Lord and repents. Peter cries out, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man". In the presence of God, we see ourselves as we really are – rather than as we’d like to think we are. It is only in the light of the love of God, that we see how much we need God. St Paul tells us this very clearly in his Letter to the Romans – "God shows his love for us, in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners." We only know that God loves us because we know that we are sinners in need of love and mercy. We know that God loves us because Christ died on the Cross to save us. We know that God loves us because without him we are incomplete, we are nothing, we are not even fully human. We know that God loves us because we depend on him for everything. Our acknowledgement, then, of our sinfulness and our need for God, is not an obsession with sin and guilt – it is a celebration of the love of God. Confessing sin becomes a confession, a public conviction, of the greatness and the love and the mercy of God.
From that point of view, the Confiteor, the "I confess" – acknowledging our sinfulness and our unworthiness before God, the Angels and Saints, and each other – becomes not only a good thing to do before we proceed with the celebration of Mass, but a prerequisite; not a laudable way to prepare for the Eucharist, but something without which the rest of the Mass makes no sense at all.
How can we give praise and thanks to the Father for all that he has done and continues to do for us – which is what the word Eucharist means – if we cannot see why we need God in the first place? How can we join our sacrifice to that of Christ, cling to the Lord's cross, and rise with him in his resurrection – all of which we do during the sacrifice of the Mass – if we do not recognise that Christ died to save us from sin? The Mass has no meaning if we are not sinners.
How very different from the sort of picture of human beings presented to us by the secular media, the television stations, the magazines, the advertising agencies. We are told we deserve all sorts of things "Because I’m worth it"; we are given a "Chicken Soup for the Soul", "I’m ok, you’re ok", picture of a fulfilled human being – where a hot bath, a pilates class, a walk on the beach makes it all better; where earning money and spending money make us happy; where having sparkling white teeth, a flat stomach, and a massive sense of self-worth are the pinnacle of human perfection. Being a human being means I have the right to do anything I like, as long as it makes me happy and doesn't infringe on the rights of others to do the same. There is no place for God in that worldview, and certainly no need for redemption. And if there is no place for God, no need for him – if we can be happy and fulfilled without him – then going to Mass is a pretty pointless waste of time.
Notice that in the Confiteor we are not confessing individual sins – that's what the Sacrament of Penance is for. We are invited by the priest to acknowledge our sinfulness; not so much remembering all the spiteful or greedy or careless things we've done or said or thought recently, but admitting that we are the sort of people who always do or say or think such things. We are not obsessing over individual actions or omissions, but acknowledging that we are sinners, we have sinned, and that without God's grace we'll go on sinning.
And we do this without the many excuses and explanations with which we so often delude ourselves and others. How often do we do something or say something that we know to be wrong, or hurtful, or dishonest with the excuse, "Well, it’s not that bad really", or "She deserved it", or "Everyone else is doing it", or "The Devil made me do it". In the Confiteor we beat our breasts and say – not just once, but three times so that we really mean it – "through my fault"! I sin. Me. This person here. And I'm sorry. I am in no position to judge anyone else. I cannot hold grudges against others for the wrongs they do to me. I cannot demand that I'm paid back what I'm owed. I cannot withhold compassion and mercy from other people. Because I am no better than anyone else. I too am a sinner. I too need the love and mercy of God. I too need to be redeemed. Me. This person here.
But confessing our sins is pointless unless we then hear the words of the priest, "May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life" – and not just hear those words, but know them to be true. We confess our sins because we know that God loves us, forgives us, raises us up, and counts us worthy to stand in his presence and serve him – now during this Mass, and forever in the life to come.