Ever notice how whenever the communal aspect of a sacrament comes up there are always people who think it is somehow lightweight, less serious, or diluting? I think some people are really fearful and want to ensure their personal holiness and salvation. They want to get to heaven. It’s good to want to get to heaven but at what cost? Competition and individualism are hallmarks of our culture.
In our diocesan liturgical commission the other night we discussed how elusive the communal dimension of the sacrament of penance can be. It’s much easier to relate to individual confession and absolution than the value of gathering for a penance celebration that may not involve individual confession and absolution. It’s also easy enough to confess and relieve the guilt; conversion is another matter. We talked about how conversion takes time and can really benefit from the communal celebration in terms of listening to and reflecting upon the Word of God, singing the liturgical and scriptural hymns, collectively making an examination of conscience with questions that we may never have come up with on our own, and experiencing solidarity with our sisters and brothers as we admit both that we need conversion and our faith in God’s mercy. Conversion can be painful so no wonder people want to get in, get absolution, and get out! We decided that our challenge is to convince people it’s not either/or (individual/communal) but both/and.
In a separate conversation the same day, my colleague Carol told me a story. When Carol was a child the evangelicals in town asked her if she had accepted Jesus, if she was saved. She asked, if she goes to heaven for accepting Jesus can her family come too? She said she had no interest in going to heaven if her family wasn’t going to be there as well! Carol is brilliant! We aren’t meant to be Christians alone. We are responsible for one another. All the sacraments have a communal dimension because we are meant to make that journey to God together. They and we are impoverished if they are reduced to “me and Jesus”.
We were talking about JPIIs Dives in misericordia in which he says that mercy makes modern people uncomfortable. I think it’s because of control. Mercy is not black and white. And mercy can challenge our sense of justice. The universality of mercy led me to think that none of us is better than the worst sinner among us — we are no stronger than the weakest link.
Then I asked myself what this means for the way we celebrate Eucharist. Carol again had a helpful question. When we hear “Do this in memory of me”, what does the this mean? Does it mean, do the ritual? Or does it mean, die on the Cross like Me? It has to mean the latter. Eucharist asks us to be broken, each one of us, for one another.
It’s not that hard to go to confession to feel that we are ‘clean’ and then go to Mass to preserve that shiny holiness. We can do it day/week in day/week out but nothing changes. No wonder people freak out when some rubric or practice is altered; it threatens their assurance that they are en route to heaven. But neither Penance nor Eucharist are magic superstitions that maintain the status quo — they are sacraments! Sacraments, worthily celebrated, have the potential to turn us and our world upside down! Penance and Eucharist. Conversion and the Cross. Ouch.