The first instalment of a brief series during lockdown on what the Mass is and why it matters.
We’re going into another lockdown. Among other things, this means that for a month, at least, Churches are closed for public worship, and we will not be able to celebrate Mass together. You may be thinking, “so what?” Can’t people just pray at home? Well, of course they can. But there’s more to the Mass than that: so, for these weeks in the run-up to Christmas, I thought we could spend our time thinking about what the Mass is and why it matters.
There’s nothing like starting on a high note, so today, let’s begin with – sin. Yes, the fire and brimstone stuff that people who don’t go to church think people who do go to church are fretting about all the time, but we really shouldn’t worry about too much: in fact, we laugh at the idea, we don’t take it seriously at all. There are nightclubs called “sin,” chocolates called “temptations,” perfume called “taboo”: sin’s just another sales device, something to stoke up the desire to spend more cash. Nothing to worry about; nothing to worry about at all, nothing to see here – it’s not as if we keep mentioning it so casually and laughing away because somewhere inside, as a society and as individuals, we’re actually deeply worried that we might be getting it all wrong, surely not… It’s only the religious nut jobs who worry about it, while we’re all happy, happy, happy, all the time, doing whatever we want. Right?
Wrong. Britain is reportedly one of the least happy countries in the world. It doesn’t look as though throwing off the shackles of religion has really cheered us up all that much. And I think there’s a reason for that.
The Mass begins with confession: in the new rite, we make our confession literally at the beginning, and in the old rite, in the middle, in between the Bible readings and the Eucharistic prayer – but either way, the Mass begins with confession because we come to it with an awareness of – here it comes – our sin. The priest may leave a few silent moments during the confession to invite you to recall anything you wish you had done done or said – but ideally, we should come to Mass already having thought this through, ready to meet Christ in bread and wine in humility and honesty about our failures and about our inability to fix ourselves without help. And that bit is important. Humility does not mean grovelling and beating ourselves up, not even metaphorically, let alone physically. It doesn’t mean getting stuck in a mire of guilt and shame. Actually, it’s the direst opposite. It means recognising what we have done wrong, but also knowing that we cannot sort it out by ourselves, and asking God for his help – the help we receive in the Eucharist, that medicine of the soul, when we ask for it.
But there’s something else, equally important, and the bottom line of Christianity: forgiveness. If we spend our lives pretending we have no sin, pretending we are not guilty about anything, we are lying to ourselves and bottling it all up inside, where it will brew into something potent and nasty – and when it comes out, it hurts us and the people around us. But when we are honest, and confess our sins before God, those of us who believe are convinced that God forgives us, wipes the slate clean, gives us another chance and the help we need to do better and to be better. Whatever you have done, however awful you think it might be, remember that Jesus forgave the people who nailed him to the Cross. What you have done can’t be as bad as that. Turn to him, and let him release you, set you free from the pain that weighs you down.
You don’t have to go to Mass to make your confession: you can speak to God wherever you are, in private, and he will listen. Sometimes he will give you the healing gift of tears. And if something is really weighing on your conscience, you can go to a priest (like me) for one-to-one confession: it’s not generally like you see on TV, in a darkened box, these days, and takes the form of a spiritual conversation where you tell the priest in confidence what you have done, and he pronounces God’s forgiveness and suggests some prayers or readings – many people find this a valuable spiritual discipline. But the most common way to confess is at the Mass.
So that’s why the Mass starts with Confession. In the words, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, we ask God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to pour his compassion on us. It’s not because Christians like to start the day with a good grovel before breakfast. It’s because we try our best to be honest about our mistakes – our sins – and because we trust that we have a Father who loves us all the same, forgives us, and helps us to grow. And that is the first step in a healthy spiritual life.
This week’s Collect from the Book of Common Prayer (Trinity 21) is almost providentially appropriate. So, I invite you to join me in prayer.
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to they faithful people pardon and peace; that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.