After thirteen densely-packed verses that recount the mission of John, the baptism of Christ, and his temptation in the desert, Jesus opens his mouth for the first time in last week’s gospel passage, marking the beginning of his public ministry. His words are terse and pithy: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” A twofold action, Jesus calls his people to express remorse for their sins and turn back to God with all their hearts.
In our new message series for Lent, Mass Communication, we are exploring the various parts of our Sunday worship and what they say about our faith. The focal point this week is the Penitential Rite. In an action that is highly counter-cultural, we stand before God during the introductory rites of the Mass and openly confess in a public setting that we are sinners.
The rite absolves us of venial, or less serious, sins and prepares us spiritually to receive the Eucharist. Together we recall our common need for salvation and express sorrow for our false desires and the “pride of life” through which we have become our own gods.
There are three forms of the Penitential Rite. After one of them, the Confiteor or “I confess,” the assembly says or sings Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, which is Greek for “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” It is one of the oldest known prayers of the Mass. After the assembly has confessed their sins, the priest prays for absolution.
The Scripture readings today emphasize the great value of the gift of Jesus to humankind. As Saint Paul writes, God the Father “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). The story from the Book of Genesis in the first reading illustrates the precise nature of God’s sacrifice to redeem us from sin. The pain and anguish Abraham must have felt in nearly slaughtering his only son Isaac at God’s command prefigures the cross and shows the tender love the Lord has for all of us in giving his only Son to die for the human race.
The account of the Transfiguration in the gospel is similar. While it anticipates the Resurrection and future glory of Christ, it also comes immediately after the announcement of Jesus’ passion and death and therefore illuminates the whole journey to the cross that is to follow. When the presence of God appears in a cloud, the Father’s voice acclaims: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Those words reveal a status that far exceeds that of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus converses. It is no less than God’s own Son who will die on the cross.
The Penitential Rite ultimately gives way to the Gloria, a hymn of praise found in Christian prayer books as early as the year 380 A.D. The placement is deliberate because even while confessing our sins we anticipate the remarkable favor of God’s forgiveness, born out of the greatest gift we could ever know, the death of God’s own precious Son.
Father Roger Gustafson