Last week I heard a confession in the chapel. No doubt confession is one of the most hollowed pastoral duties I am privileged to be part of. In this particular instance, it was this man’s third Lenten confession with me and my second with him. Yes, that’s right, just as I heard his confession, he heard mine. It began last year, when I decided that I needed the sacrament of reconciliation as much as he did. While it is customary to confess to a priest, I thought my confidant, my brother in Christ, my confessee, was more than qualified to hear my confession, to listen, to forgo judgment and to forgive.
I tell you, confession is a powerful experience, albeit a risky one. I share this because of the conversation we had afterwards as we sat, emotionally spent, in the chapel.
This parishioner commented on the fact that he did not feel a rush of exaltation or palpable relief when the confession was over; this after I said to him, The Lord has put away all your sins. I knew exactly what he meant. Our sins are not mortal, not the kind that would necessarily bring great relief after being confessed. We were not confessing adultery, murder, thievery you know, the big stuff. Our sins are garden variety, pretty ordinary. Sins that, unfortunately, are easily repeated, that follow us around. But my friend said that our lack of catharsis was God’s way of letting us know that forgiveness is nothing out of the ordinary for us as a Christians that forgiveness is available to us in a normal, everyday way. Even when our sins seem heavy or we obsess about how sinful we are, we can experience God’s forgiving grace the way we experience an exhaled breath, as our sins are lifted gently, repeatedly and constantly.
I also share this intimate moment between two people (with permission, I must add) because it occurred to me afterwards that what transpired between us was akin to what transpired when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and then commanded them to love one another. By washing the disciples feet, Jesus was asking them not only to expose their dirty feet to him, but their dirty lives as well. Jesus, out of his love for them, washed both. By washing the disciples feet, Jesus showed us what kind of relationship he wants us to have with him, and with everyone else.
Peter spoke for many of us when he refused at first to offer up his feet– refused, in other words, to regard Jesus as a humble servant, as anything less than an upraised object of adoration. But for Jesus, humbling servitude was at the heart of fellowship: Unless I wash you, you have no share with me (Jn 13:8). No foot washing, no communion. True intimacy requires risk, and as you know, the things Jesus requires are always risky.
The foot washing removed the possibility of distance between Jesus and his followers. It can do the same between you and me. It can bring us all face to face with the love of God. The foot-washing ritual connects us with the forgiveness and life, that Christ gives us through his cross. The essence of the foot washing is Jesus first offer of himself in love; the second was the final expression in the gift of his life.
The theological significance of Maundy Thursday is not limited to the foot washing and to Jesus mandate to love one another. It is also about the institution of the Eucharist, from Jesus own hands, offered to those he loved most in his earthly life. When we celebrate the Eucharistic prayer we rely heavily upon the words of Paul: the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
Do this in remembrance of me. Remember Jesus. Remember the sacrificial gift of his life. Perhaps the commandment would make more of an impression on us, if we clergy, said instead, Don t forget me, now. It would be like this: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, don t forget me, now.
My husband, Andrew, published a magazine piece in November about a man who was sentenced to prison for a term no shorter than natural life without the possibility of parole for raping and brutalizing a 10-year-old girl. But he did not do this crime. He was innocent. This man, Calvin Willis, spent 22 years in Louisiana s Angola Prison for a crime he did not commit. Andrew met him in October of 2003, a few weeks after he had been exonerated by DNA evidence and released. Released to freedom, but into a world in which he had lost his wife, lost his children, lost almost every friend he ever had, and had not a penny to his name, nor any form of compensation or help whatsoever from the state of Louisiana.
Don t forget me, now. How many times must Calvin Willis have wondered, in his dark prison, whether anyone in the outside world still cared about him, remembered that he was innocent; remembered that he even existed. Angola, as some of you may know, is a brutal place, a hard labor camp that is many ways similar to the slave plantation that it once was. It is a miracle that Calvin survived it with his mind intact. How did he do it? Many other men around him hanged themselves, punctured their wrists, got high and overdosed– anything they could do to escape the misery of their lives. How did Calvin survive it? How did he endure the petty and arbitrary humiliations the guards meted out, calling him “nigger,” spraying mace in his face for their own amusement, firing rifle shots a foot above his head when he looked at them the wrong way?
Here’s how this man retained his mind and spirit. In part, it was due to his ongoing lover’s quarrel–belligerent and ecstatic–with his God. For many years his anger debased and emasculated him. It shut down his imagination. It ate him inside out like a disease, threatening to alienate him from God. Was God at fault for the injustice of his life? How could God let this happen? At some point he decided not to fall into the devil s snare. He decided to fight back with prayer. Praying saved his life; saved his sanity. For only in prayer did Calvin travel beyond himself to perceive something other than his own suffering self. Prayer tuned him into to the fact that he was a real person, here on this earth, living in real time, worthy of God s attention, never alone, not to be forgotten.
And he confessed himself to God every day. But he also found someone else to confess to, someone here on this earth. It was a woman, a paralegal who worked tirelessly on his behalf for more than two decades. Her name is Janet. She not only became his legal aide and advocate, but his confessor. Through the phone told her everything. Everything that happened to him in prison, and everything he felt about it. Over the years, Janet became a vessel for Calvin, assuring him when he felt his humanity was departing him, that it was safe and intact with her. Most important, she absorbed and carried his anger when it was too much for him. She bore it for him. Bore the entire weight of it. And as Calvin told Andrew, it was his ongoing confessions to Janet, his humbling of himself before her, that allowed him to keep his bearings. That kept him being swallowed up by his own impotent anger. That kept him from cursing God and seeking death. Confession was not an escape for Calvin. Just the opposite. It was a form of human fellowship–it was the one thing that reminded him of the simple fact that he was a human being, living here on this earth, and that he was not alone, never to be forgotten.
Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples reminds me of Calvin and Janet, of the way she treated him and the way he treated her. It is a living embodiment of the kind of selfless love, the kind of human fellowship, that Christ called upon his disciples and calls upon us to emulate. When we celebrate the Eucharist tonight and consume the very real presence of our Lord and Savior, hear the words Jesus is saying to you, Don t forget me, now. If you want to have a share with Jesus, then make a promise that you won t. Amen.