I’ve been thinking a lot about contrition, repentance, and absolution lately, perhaps because I’ve been reading the C. F. W. Walther book Law and Gospel. These things may also be on my mind as carnival season came to a close and Shrove Tuesday approached along with Ash Wednesday and the commencement of Lent. But has the carnival season really come to a close? It seems more and more that people are always looking for the carnival; always wanting to feel good; to be told that they are good and decent and that they should love themselves. How do they do this? Through acts of magic: self affirming daily thoughts, The Secret, positive thinking, or any other hedonistic thing that Oprah and Deepak Chopra are telling them is meet, right, and salutary for a healthy relationship with oneself. It you’re feeling bad, anxious, depressed, it’s not due to sin and living in a fallen world; its simply because you are not doing the right self affirming things to make yourself feel better.
But we do live in a corrupt and fallen world, and “the Truth is not in us.” It’s as we quote in the confession every Sunday:
If we say that we haue no sinne, we deceiue our selues, and the trueth is not in vs. If we confesse our sinnes, hee is faithfull, & iust to forgiue vs our sinnes, and to cleanse vs from all vnrighteousnesse.
Walther specifically mentions depression as a symptom of sin. It seems that in a world constantly on the lookout for the next feel good fallacy that we may want to try something old rather than the next faddish self help book or the newest psychotropic medication. Perhaps taking a look at the Law, that is so seductive, yet does nothing but condemn; acknowledging that our “bad feelings” are a result of falling short of that Law; and seeking Grace could be an alternative. And all of this just in time for Lent.
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday. Shrove is the past tense of shrive: to hear confession and give absolution. This is one of the Sacraments that is practiced by the Lutheran church, and like Baptism may be done by any Christian. You needn’t be a priest to absolve a man of his sins. I was listening to the radio yesterday, the local New York Public Radio Station, and there was an interview with Gary Wills in which he was hawking his book Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition. The argument of which sounds a lot like parts of the Augsburg Confession, but without the willingness to take the step and say: “Well, I’m actually a Lutheran.” He, in fact denied it when I confronted him with this very notion.
One of the things I found most interesting was that he said that priests are not necessary for absolution, which immediately made me thing of these passages from Law and Gospel:
…not only does a pastor have a special commission to proclaim it, [Absolution] but also every Christian– male or female, adult or child– is commissioned to do this. Even a child’s Absolution is just as certain as the Absolution of St. Peter– Yes, even as the Absolution of Christ would be, were He again to stand visibly before people and say, “Your sins are forgiven.” There is no difference, because, note well, it is not a question of what humans must do but what has been done by Christ.
Some of you might rise the objection: “Should a godless person, then, believe that he has been absolved?” Indeed, that is what God requires, and that person is required to believe this– or lose the salvation of his soul.
A different question would be whether [the godless] can believe it. For their conscience will denounce their attempt to believe it by suggesting that they do not intend to come to God because they are currently– and intend to continue living– living in sin, without any regard for God.
Today’s remembrance that we are dust and to dust we shall return is the opening to a forty day opportunity to examine just how the Law condemns and how, with a contrite heart, we may accept Grace freely given.