The oldest existing written description of the Eucharist, that we know of at least, is not from the Gospels, but is actually from 1 Corinthians 11. This should sound familiar, as we heard it last Thursday at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by (the) Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
That first section should sound very familiar, for it is quoted all the time. But that second section has a bit of a stinger to it: if you eat or drink unworthily, you drink to your own condemnation. So as we begin the Celebration of the Eucharist, we are all given a chance to examine ourselves, to see if we should eat or drink with discernment, so that we may not ‘drink judgment on ourselves.’ Whenever we talk about sin and judgment, it is always important to recognize that God is always disposed towards offering us salvation, but it is not just a ‘come on it, everything will be fine’ disposition. We must examine ourselves to see if we should put ourselves forward reception.
If this sounds rather harsh, it is actually even lighter than what is in the Old Covenant, for prior, the level was even higher. For example, Leviticus 10 when two sons of Aaron were struck dead because of offering an impure sacrifice before the Lord.
Another connection with the Ark concerns the loss of the Ark in 1 Samuel. Near the beginning of the Book, Eli’s two sons (who are also priests), Hophni and Phinehas, are terrible. They take bribes from the people, they judge not rightly, in short they are terrible priests and judges. Because of their inequity, their sins, the people are decimated by the Philistines, and the Ark of the Covenant was lost, not to be regained until Samuel himself takes over leadership.
In the Old Covenant, especially, the greatest sins are always done by the priests, and God holds them to a higher standard, and rightly so, for they have been given greater responsibility. But, in the New Covenant, there are two types of priesthood: the ordained/ministerial priesthood (of which I am a part) and the common, Baptismal priesthood, of which you are all a part. Hence, you have much the same obligations to enter into ritual with purity, so that you may not profane the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord, and ‘drink to your own condemnation.’
But it is not just priests who get in trouble, and this one is in the New Testament! In Acts of the Apostles 5, Ananinus and Sapphira are both struck down by Peter for failing to offer everything before the Lord. It is serious business coming before Him!
So, knowing this, the Church really doesn’t want us to ‘drink to our condemnation,’ but rather is again disposed towards offering salvation. As a side note, everything the Church does is oriented by that question: the salvation of souls. To help us along our way, she wisely instituted a ‘Penitential Rite’ at the beginning of Mass so that our minor sins could be cleansed that we might enter into the ritual of Mass with purity and holiness.
The ‘Penitential Rite’ contains two forms, the second of which has three options for completion. Let’s look at the first form first, shall we?
In fact, this is the form that was most likely used this past weekend at the parish where you celebrated the Mass for Easter, and is commonly used all during the Easter Season: the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water. Used to call to mind our Baptism, hence the close connection with the Easter Vigil where Catechumens are Baptized, it is also symbolic of the life giving water that falls from the sky, a free gift from God to nourish and cleanse His people.
The water is also a remembrance of the Passover, when the Lord led the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea and into new life in the Promised Land (eventually). They were dead if they stayed, the Egyptians were hot on their heels, and if God had not acted, DOOM! So in the prayer for the Easter Season, we hear: ‘You chose water to show your goodness when you led your people to freedom through the Red Sea and satisfied their thirst in the desert with water from the rock.’ Also to keep in mind is that the people of Israel lived generally in a desert and arid climate, so water is absolutely necessary and precious.
The second form is actually known as the ‘Penitential Rite’ for Mass, and contains three options. The first is the Confiteor: “I confess to almighty God….” One important aspect that the Confiteor conveys that we often do not think about is not only the sins I have committed, but also the sins of omission, things I have failed to do. The Church takes these as seriously as the others!
The second form is almost never done, in fact the only place I have heard it is at the seminary. It is similar to the third, but goes like this:
The priest says: “Lord, we have sinned against you: Lord, have mercy.”
The people answer: “Lord, have mercy.”
Priest: “Lord, show us your mercy and love.”
People: “And grant us your salvation.”
And the same absolution follows.
The Third option is likely the most familiar, as it involves the three-fold invocation to Christ, with the Litany of Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy; followed by the absolution.
The invocations should all reflect on Christ beneficent gift of salvation which He has wrought by His Incarnation, by His Passion, Death and Resurrection; and His Ascension. There are 8 forms given in the Sacramentary, but others can be used as well.
So, if the penitential rite at Mass contains a prayer of Absolution, why is it necessary to go to Sacramental Confession? Within the two paragraphs of the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, there is the following note: ‘The Rite concludes with the priest’s absolution, which, however, lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance.’ (#51)
That’s all it says, but why does it say this?
On one level, it is a constant reminder that only God forgives sins, and that His ability to forgive sins is much greater than our ability to articulate the sins that we may have committed. God’s knows what they are before we announce them in the Sacrament of Confession, but a necessary aspect of reconciliation of serious/mortal sins, is the disclosure of these sins to a priest, as it is an acknowledgement that we have done things wrong and come to him asking for healing.
Hence, for Sacramental Confession, the ability to ask and receive forgiveness, to do acts of penance as a sign of interior conversion, are all necessary elements. These elements are missing in this short little penitential rite that is included at the Mass. However, this does take away those little things that have tripped us up along the way, those little things that keep us from experiencing the well of God’s Mercy available in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
So, what do we have to confess within the Sacrament of Penance? Mortal sins are required, venial sins are recommended. It is important to keep in mind the distinction:
Direct from the Catechism:
1854 Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture,129 became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.
1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:
When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.130
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."131
1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: "Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother."132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God's law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.
1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
1862 One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent.
1863 Venial sin weakens charity; it manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God's grace it is humanly reparable. "Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness."134
While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call "light": if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.135
1864 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven."136 There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit.137 Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.