Dear Friends in Christ,
In the old form of confession, during the Rite I Eucharist, there is a pair of clauses regarding our sins with which I have always had trouble: the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable (BCP p. 331).
Now, I don't know about you, but I am unfortunately, if not comfortable with, then at least accustomed to my sins. At my age, there's not much new in them: they're the same set of sad departures from the will of God for my life that I have always struggled with- more pathetic than shocking – and if I don't enjoy them or even like them, I have at least gotten used to them.
But do I find them grievous? Or intolerable? Not really. Yes, I wince when I remember them; maybe groan- in extreme cases, perhaps shed a tear. But do I grieve them, or faint under their burden? Please.
Maybe not the best attitude with which to begin Lent.
So, if Cranmer's old Prayer Book is right, if I am to be grieving my sins, I need some help to understand why, and help to get to that kind of holy regret.
And I find help in a cup. The one hidden in Benjamin's sack.
You know the story (Genesis 37, 39-50) – how the arrogant young Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, how he rises from an Egyptian dungeon to become Pharaoh's right-hand man, how years later during a famine his brothers come to Pharaoh's court seeking to buy food. Of course they do not recognize this man of power, but he does them. And before he helps them, he wants to see if they have changed, if over the years they have regretted what they did to him. So he seeks to foment a little jealousy among them against the youngest, against Benjamin. And then he gives them an opportunity to throw Benjamin under the bus (or under the camel, might be a better phrase).
He does this by planting his banquet cup in Benjamin's saddle-bag. This is no ordinary cup – it is (by implication) Pharaoh's and to steal it would be a crime against the king himself. Joseph allows them to leave, with the grain they have bought, then send his troops to chase them down; they search the whole party and find (of course) the cup in Benjamin's sack.
But when they are all hauled before Joseph to give account for the "theft," the brothers do not throw Benjamin under the camel. With tears in their eyes they beg Joseph not to take Benjamin, as he has threatened. Our father has already lost one son, they cry: to lose another would kill him! In their tears, Joseph sees their grief over what they did to him, so many years ago; and the sight opens his own heart. He breaks down, reveals himself, falls on their necks weeping. A reconciliation takes place, huge and deep.
One of the great rabbis observes, concerning this story, that true repentance only takes place when we are presented again with the same circumstances that once caused us to sin, and in that moment do not.
At the root of that repentance is our grief for the world that might have been had we not sinned in the first place.
What would our lives have looked like had we been obedient to God earlier, or more faithfully? Who might have been spared the pain of our actions? What hope or love never saw the light of day because of our pride, fear or indifference? When we begin to answer these questions truthfully, we find our sins are indeed grievous unto us and unto others; we find the words we should have spoken but didn't, or those we did and can never take back. We find the missed opportunities and foregone dreams. We see why we might well wear ashes on our foreheads, as a sign of the good things that might have been but never will.
And as we do so, under the hand of God, we find a remarkable thing happening: the dark world inside ourselves begins to be brought into the light of Christ, a light that has the power to transform us utterly. As deep as our grief may be, much deeper yet is his mercy, his grace, his love for us. We remember the ashes will be put on our heads in the shape of a cross- Christ's Cross, and that this Cross has power to bring a new world out of the ashes, even a greater world than the one that we had lost. We see that our reconciliation with God and one another is huge and deep, that our tears will serve to water the new garden the Lord brings forth in our lives. We hear the words of Joseph to his brothers: What you meant for evil, God has used for good, and we know they are the Lord's own words of promise and comfort to us.
So, I will say Cranmer's old words again this Lent. I will let the grace of God sink into me deeper than my grief. I'll comfort, forgive, encourage others, and help the world to see the precious gift of the Cross. And in the midst of it all, as I break the bread and bless the cup of our Lord's own death, I'll remember: it is not Pharaoh's cup I bless, but the cup of Christ who has raised us to new life and made us His own forever.
May our Lord bless you deeply in this holy season.
Faithfully your bishop,
The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh