Repentance and Resurrection
In the diocese in which I attended seminary, it is common practice to exclude the General Confession from Sunday worship during the 50 days of Easter. The argument, or so I’ve been told, is that we should focus on the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and take a break from being overly penitential. The implication, of course, is that Easter is no time to feel bad about ourselves, but to focus on Christ’s victory.
The trouble is, most of us have managed to sin, and thus have something to confess, by 10:00am on Easter II. The second, and more significant, problem is penitence is not contrary to, or even incongruous with, the spirit of Easter. Repentance and resurrection are two acts of the same great divine drama. Jesus himself hints that the two go together: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). If “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!” is the best good news, then repentance is not merely some inconvenient roadblock on the way to resurrection, but part of what it means to be an Easter people.
Part of the problem, I suspect, comes from an anemic cultural understanding of repentance. Pop culture conjures up feelings of shame, scolding, and bitterness at best, and images of the corporeal mortification of the albino numerary in The Da Vinci Code at worst. Penitence is seen as something we do, or at least of something we feel and, no matter how long we live, we are never penitent enough.
But repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life are not actions we take at all. They are gifts God offers us by grace, and they are offered through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christian repentance follows the shape of Christ’s death and resurrection and is made possible through the same power that raised Christ from the dead.
Human creatures cannot, of our own will, choose to reconcile ourselves to God. St. Paul tells us that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). On our own, we are too weak even to repent of our own sin. And yet, the Apostle tells us, it was for these utterly weak creatures, creatures who showed no sorrow whatsoever for our sins, that Christ was willing to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die. In our finitude and fallenness we cannot choose to repent any more than we can choose to stop sinning.
For Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, this limitation is reflected in the death of Christ. Williams describes the death of Christ as not only the end of Christ’s mortal life, but as “The death of the bonds between him and his followers, and the ‘death’ of whatever hope or faith had become possible in his presence prior to Good Friday.” When Christ dies, the potential of what he could have done as part of his earthly ministry also dies. What is more, the potential achievements of his followers also die; his disciples are frightened, scattered, and separated. This, Williams argues, reflects the limits of human striving. Thankfully, scripture shows us that the hope of the Gospel was never the hope of what might be accomplished through an earthy life. Repentance, in fact, only happens when we give up the hope that we can accomplish anything through our skill or striving.
In our lives, repentance comes at the point of death: the death of our hopes and ambitions to try harder or do better. It comes when we recognize that we cannot do better on our own, no matter how hard we try. And this is because repentance itself is a gift of grace.
We repent only because Christ has already moved our hearts toward repentance. The knowledge of sin and sense of guilt or shame comes because God, in His mercy, has awakened us to our sin. And this is a wonderful mystery, because it means that—at the first twinge of repentance—the movement toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and amendment of life has already begun through the power of God.
The Paschal mystery is one holy motion, not three distinct events. The Crucifixion does not have any meaning apart from the Resurrection, and the Resurrection is not Good News if isolated from the Crucifixion. Even on the Cross, the power of God is already moving toward the Resurrection and Ascension.
And this same motion happens in the heart of the penitent. Knowledge and recognition of our sin and finitude are often described as the “first steps” toward forgiveness, but being reconciled to God is not something that can be accomplished in a check list of steps that we take. If God has awakened us to our sin, it means that His power is already wonderfully at work in our hearts. We do not need to fear, therefore, that repentance can exist without forgiveness. There is no repentance where forgiveness has not already begun. God gives us this death so that he may give us the new life of reconciliation.
It is meet and right to confess our sins during Easter. When we kneel together in church and confess our sins we are participating again in the Paschal Mystery to which we are initiated in Baptism. We once again die and are buried with Christ. And then, in the words of absolution, we are raised to life again:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who withhearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirmand strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Alleluia, the Lord is risen indeed.