Not too long ago, one of my dear friends traveled to Rome. Among many noteworthy moments, including an evening worship with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis, he shared one ordinary experience that became the most spiritually profound of the entire trip.
It was the moment he entered St. Peter’s Basilica. The church is massive, and its beauty matches the enormity. It is filled with magnificent art and architectural wonders, but these only set the stage for my friend’s experience as he walked into the church.
At the heart of my friend’s holy encounter was his reflection on Peter. The basilica — the largest Christian church building in the world, a masterpiece of Renaissance art and the holy site and shrine that is the destination of millions of pilgrims every year — is built atop the burial site of Peter.
Peter, the coward and denier of Jesus even during the moments close to Jesus’ death. Peter, the bumbling and flailing disciple who chose to turn away from Jesus just as he was handed over to his enemies. Peter, the often confused and uncertain disciple.
Obviously Peter’s story has many ebbs and flows. As an advocate and friend of Jesus, Peter was also present for many of the holiest moments we read about in the gospels. And, by the mercy of God, he becomes the rock upon which the Church is built.
And that is precisely the point … by the mercy of God. Everything — the entire Church, the entire world, each of us — all rest on the mercy of God.
Most merciful God … Our communal daily prayers begin each morning with these three words. Spoken with one voice, these words proclaim the mercy of God and usher us — indeed usher so many communities around the world — into the day’s worship. The next words in the liturgy define our primary posture as we enter into prayer, “… we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word and deed …” Confession shepherds us into the rest of our worship. We take our bumbling, flailing selves and bring them before the Lord — the Lord whose nature is mercy.
We learn from Jesus’ parable on prayer in Luke 18 that the truthful posture of one who prays is neither a list of pious duties we have fulfilled nor a pile of lofty phrases, but rather an acknowledged dependence on the mercy of God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This clear-sightedness of who God is and who we are is the ordering principle of the Christian life. This humility is not an achievement, but the gift of honest vision. And, as we confess our sins, we are trained in this vision.
Confession is a fitting posture for Advent. In this Advent season, along with cultivating expectant watchfulness and longing, we are invited to lament the ways we have turned from God and to name the brokenness of our world. Advent ushers us into the confrontational work of knowing and naming personal failures and weaknesses as well as the tragic (and plain difficult) work of recognizing and groaning for the collective and systemic injustices we inflict on one another, especially the poor, the vulnerable and the earth. We confess all of this in anticipation of our coming Lord, acknowledging that we are the lost ones who Jesus came to seek and to save. Our liberation is truly bound up together.
This past Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent known as Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday, cast light on our confession. During a season in which we are learning to recognize our own unworthiness to justly praise God, we are reminded of God’s relentless mercy towards us and worthiness to be adored. In the middle of Advent we come to a disruption of joy during an otherwise penitential, expectant season full of longing. Rather than emphasizing what or Who we are waiting for, we remember with joy what and Who has come to us already. Gaudete Sunday opens for us a chance to celebrate God’s mercy which was and is and is to come in the person of Jesus. Indeed, Gaudete Sunday reveals that confession and joy are connected because they both emerge from the same source — the mercy of God shown most wondrously in the mystery of the incarnation.
Our confession of sin only makes sense right alongside our confession of Jesus as merciful Lord. Our confession of God, our Eternal Joy, frees us from every possible fear: pain and death, our own sin and its shamefulness. This freedom releases us from all the maneuvering we go through to try and hide. We can come transparent, bare before God. When we confess the joy found in God, we discover our whole selves before God and catch the fire of joyful freedom to be ourselves in Christ.
When my friend stood in awe beneath the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the truth of God’s mercy touched him. This enormous, magnificent church is a stunning reminder that the foundation of our life of discipleship is not our own doing, but rather the faithfulness of Jesus who is the loving-kindness of God in person.
May our practices of confession this Advent be grounded in our Eternal Joy, Emmanuel, God with us. For, in Jesus, “mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalm 85)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna and Elias “Eli,” and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House and Haiti’s Wings of Hope) and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia met in the wonder of interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.