Today my thoughts have settled on the details surrounding a confession I made nearly 3 years ago. What I’d like to write about today is the externals of it and the way they made an impression upon me.
Flashback to our daughter’s baptism. While the church was being prepared for the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, my wife and I decided that it might be a good idea to go to Confession before. The confessionals of the old village church serving as storage, we left the location up to the priest. He chose in front of the altar. Thinking back now, I wonder if the decision was a coincidence, or if it was deliberate as he is bi-ritual (he celebrated at the Russicum for a number of years). I mention this last aspect because I am aware that Byzantines (at least) have the habit of confessing before the iconostasis; I have also read in Dr. Hull’s book, The Banished Heart, that it was a medieval custom in the West to confess before the altar as well.
As I kneeled before him and he gave me absolution, he extended his hands (as is usual for the priest to do), but extended them so as to place them upon my head.
These two details – kneeling before the altar and the placing on of hands – were what impressed upon me the most.
What are these actions telling us visually? What does confession in a confessional tell us visually? Now, the following is just my reflection on the matter, and might very well be wrong, but still I would like to share it (if only for someone to correct me if I am wrong).
While I’ve never been against the confessional, if I were asked what it says to me visually, I would say that Confession within the confessional sends a message of it being a matter just between yourself and the priest; there doesn’t seem to be anything visual to connect it to the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
With Confession before the altar, however, one sees the altar, where Christ becomes present in His adorable Body and Blood. Why am I confessing here? What does it mean? After all, isn’t Confession about my personal sins and being reconciled to the Church? And yet, what does it mean to be reconciled to the Church but to be in communion with her? And the visible sign of that communion is the Holy Eucharist. Reconciling before the altar, besides being a visual reminder of restituting communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, is also a reminder that having been reconciled one is now able to participate in the Liturgy, to exercise one’s priestly vocation as a baptized Christian. One is also now, in a sense, able to offer himself up on that same altar, to be taken up with the offerings up bread and wine and to be transformed into Christ.
The laying on of hands in the Christian tradition has several meanings. Among them are those of healing and blessing, which are intimately connected. We see in the Gospels Christ impart blessings and healing by placing His “holy and venerable hands” upon people; in the book of Acts the Apostles continue this. When the priest laid his hands upon my head – when I felt those hands press upon it – and said the words of absolution, the thoughts that came to my mind were not of a legalistic “wiping-my-record-clean” bent; rather, they were of healing. This is truly a sacrament, of restoring justice, yes, but also of healing; of curing a diseased and moribund member of the Body and bringing it back to Life. It is not either/or, but both/and.