During my seven years as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit public defense corporation founded in 1970 by American Indian and African-American civil rights leaders, there were sacred moments when the lawyers would call me in to meet a suicidal client in a jail cell. Sometimes the person in the cell was guilty of murder or manslaughter. They were beside themselves. All I could do was be there with them as a kind of quiet presence of hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life.
I knew then that we were sitting right in the middle of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Gospel of Luke 15:11-32). In Jesus’ parable, the son, who has convinced his generous father to give him his inheritance before his father’s death, has squandered it all. After finding himself in desperation, eating the leftovers in the pigsty of “the far country,” he staggers home to his father. He comes beating his breast with remorse and shame.
“But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him,” and ordered the finest robe for him and a magnificent feast to celebrate his son’s return from “the far country.” When the older brother who has stayed home obediently objects, the father of the two sons declares: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, but is alive, was lost, and is found!”
Only after returning to parish ministry did I discover The Book of Common Prayer’s rite for the reconciliation of a penitent that is constructed on the story of the return of the son to the father. For those in the bowels of despair, remorse and guilt, there is no word from inside one’s own self that can crack open the cocoon of horror, self-disgust and condemnation. When I found this rite, it moved me deeply. I adapted parts of it for the Prayer of Confession in morning worship at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn.
RITE FOR THE RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT
from The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church)
The priest and penitent begin as follows:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy
have mercy upon us.
Penitent: Pray for me, a sinner.
Priest: May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen.
The Priest may then say one or more
of these or other appropriate verses of Scripture, first saying:
Hear the Word of God to all who truly
turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28)
This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (I Timothy 1:13)
If any man sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and nor for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.
(I John 2:1-2)
The Priest then continues:
Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister, confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.
The Penitent says:
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and I have wandered far in a land that is waste.
Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . … (Here the penitent confesses particular sins)
Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Priest may then offer words of comfort
Priest: Will you turn again to Christ
as your Lord?
Penitent: I will.
Priest: Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?
Penitent: I forgive them.
Priest: May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
The Priest then lays upon the penitent’s head (or extends a hand over the penitent) saying: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Priest concludes: Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go (or abide) in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.
Penitent: Thanks be to God.
GORDON C. STEWART is the pastor at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn.