Thursday, February 18, 2010

By my own most grievous fault

The Ash Wednesday liturgy in our Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) includes as part of the confession of sin a prayer that was also traditionally in the Compline liturgy. The new Compline in the ELW simplifies the language a bit so it doesn't have the repetition in it that I find so valuable and meaningful. So I decided to look at and compare the two a bit. Here's what I mean. The Ash Wednesday confession reads like this:

Most holy and merciful God,
we confess to you and to one another,
and before the whole company of heaven,
that we have sinned by our fault,
by our own fault,
by our own most grievous fault,

in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

The Ash Wednesday is in the first person plural (We) whereas the Compline liturgy has it in the first person singular (I). As in:

I confess to God Almighty,
before the whole company of heaven,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned by my own fault
in thought, word, and deed.
I pray God almighty
to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins,
and bring me to everlasting life.

The Compline liturgy in the old LBW had it in the first person singular, but also repeated that phrase "by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault," instead of just "by my own fault."

When I used to gather on retreat with others who keep the daily office more regularly than I do now, we would pray that prayer, and there was a tradition of making a fist with the right hand, placing it over your heart, and then bringing the fist in over your heart and tapping your chest three times with the phrase. There was something powerful about that repeated physical gesture, together with the heightening of the tri-fold phrase, that made the confession real, and serious.

Last night, as I prayed the prayer while leading the congregation in it, my hand naturally drifted up and I completed the gesture. I wondered whether I should teach it to more people. Confession is such a seldom exercise aspect of daily prayer (most prayer is more likely supplication or intercession, less often is the daily prayer I hear focused on acclamation or confession), that I think maybe a gesture, and some way of truly emphasizing my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault, is important.

It is not important for the confession alone, but for the sake of the absolution, where we hear the others in the community of prayer, as the very voice of God, saying to us, "Almighty and merciful God grant you healing, pardon, and forgiveness of all your sins." I love that part of the prayer too, where first the leader confesses and the congregation extends forgiveness, and then vice versa the congregation confesses and the leader extends absolution. It is a prayer that exercises the mutual consolation of the saints. It is a prayer that really does something.


  1. God bless you for this ministry!

  2. I have no idea what this means, except that I'm glad I abandoned religion years ago.
    Barely 2.5% of the US population under age 26 belongs to a mainline church. By your own head bishop Hanson's account, by the year 2046 there will be exactly one member of the ELCA left. The fastest growing segment of the American population is "unaffiliated/none of the above".
    The percentage of atheists/agnostics inside prison is a small fraction of our proportion of the general population.
    Why should I bother with this?

  3. Hi Brad. Thank you for your comment. It is interesting that you ask, "Why should I bother with this?" Maybe you shouldn't. If you abandoned religion years ago, maybe this reflection I wrote isn't really for you.

    The prayers I'm writing about in this worship service aren't prayers that were developed for the ELCA. They come out of the ancient Christian tradition. It's part of compline, a service of prayer people have been praying for thousands of years. Even if our denomination dies by 2046, people will still be praying it somewhere else.

    For me, the prayer is important because I need to confess my own sin before God, and I am thankful that others in my community speak a word of forgiveness to me as from Christ himself.

    The only reason you would want to bother with this is if you also would like to hear, "You are forgiven, for Christ's sake."

  4. Anonymous8:39 PM

    I doubt seriously there will be an ELCA by 2046, but I hardly think that means the death of mainline spiritual all likelihood the mainline will survive as a merged church of reformation traditions.

    Such a church will be composed of members who because of and in spite of their best efforts will be at once saints and sinners....people who will no doubt posses the capacity to do things that are both very beautiful and quite ugly. And because of this they will continue to speak words similar to the ancient church not only to garner forgiveness which God is always quick provide, but to know that gathered together in community they can stand reconciled not only with God, but with one another and with the whole of God's creation.

  5. This is my wife's favorite confession (that seems odd to even type!) and I think her reasons are much the same. The repetitive nature of it reinforces our need for the salvation we're offered. Our old pastor also mentioned to me that it was his favorite because the leader first confesses and the congregation offers forgiveness. I'm planning a worship service for May 16 and my wife's only request was that I use this confession!