absolution, Lent, penitence

Frank Answers About Withholding the Absolution During Lent

Question: Why is the absolution not given during Lent?

Frank answers: This was one of the proposals in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). A declarative absolution—“I forgive you all your sins”—is not given at the end of the Litany of Penitence in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy or after the prayer of confession in the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness in the Service of Holy Communion. Instead, a prayer for forgiveness or a declaration of grace might be given. It was taught in the LBW that the whole of Lent is a time of penitence. Absolution is given, with the laying on of hands, after a final prayer of confession before the beginning of the Maundy Thursday Liturgy. This is followed by the greeting of peace as an act of reconciliation, and the peace is not exchanged later in the Maundy Thursday Liturgy (either before the offertory or before Holy Communion).

The idea was to reclaim something of the ancient order of penitents who moved through Lent in tandem with the order of catechumens, engaged in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and performing works of mercy. The catechumens and penitents in the ancient church received the prayers of the faithful and the blessings of the ministers before being dismissed from the Eucharistic assembly just before the greeting of peace. A process of penitence and catechesis lead to the public reconciliation of the penitents on the morning of Maundy Thursday and the baptism of the catechumens at the Easter Vigil. 

Of course, if the whole congregation actually constituted an order of public penitents during Lent, Holy Communion could not be celebrated during Lent at all, because the public penitents were excluded from the Eucharist (excommunicated) during the time of their penitence. The reason for their reconciliation with the church on the morning of Maundy Thursday was so they could be welcomed again to the Eucharistic table for the evening Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.  So we are not really enrolling the congregation into an order of penitents. But the idea is still to take Lent serious as a time of penitence and catechesis.

The other issue that arose at the time LBW was promulgated with this proposal was whether absolution should be withheld from those who made an individual confession of sins to the pastor. The rubrics didn’t address this issue but the general consensus was that absolution should be given then and there even during Lent.

However, an old Lutheran practice was to offer opportunity for individual confession before or during the Saturday Vespers prior to the Sunday Communion. This was done at the time one announced his or her intention to receive the sacrament the next day to the pastor in the sacristy. After the pastor’s invitation to confess any sins that weighed on the conscience (or admonition for some known transgression), if a confession was made absolution was withheld until later in the order of service when, after a general prayer of confession, absolution would be pronounced to everyone present and those who had made individual confessions (perhaps others too) would kneel at the communion rail for a personal absolution with the laying on of hands. This Saturday Vespers confessional service was the basis of the Order for Public Confession in the old Common Service Book (1917). It had a long history in Lutheran practice.

I think there was some value to this LBW proposal in terms of taking seriously the character of Lent as a time of repentance and penitence. Even if absolution is withheld (“by the command and in the stead of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins”), one is still hearing the promise of forgiveness in the prayer for forgiveness (“may God grant you forgiveness”) or the declaration of grace (“for Christ’s sake God forgives your sin”). As a time of more intense self-examination, perhaps there would be more to confess as one continues to examine oneself during Lent. Perhaps this could lead to that full service of corporate confession at Vespers on Wednesday in Holy Week in the old Lutheran style mentioned above. This would serve as the corporate confession and absolution before the Maundy Thursday Liturgy.  Perhaps the lack of an immediate declarative absolution would renew the experience of receiving it when it was finally offered on or just before Maundy Thursday.

One is not without forgiveness and reconciliation in the meantime. Receiving Holy Communion is an act of reconciliation with Christ, whether it is the Eucharist or the Pre-sanctified, since receiving Christ’s body and blood implies Christ’s forgiveness for those who receive him in repentance and faith, and especially for his disciples who have departed from him.

Just so, I wonder whether there would be some benefit in offering individuals who have drifted away from the community of faith for some time an opportunity to be enrolled in an order of penitents during Lent. (Many who enrolled in the order in the ancient church did so voluntarily for the purpose of spiritual renewal.)  This might be a process made available to those who are returning to the community of faith after a time of lapsed membership or to those who have been through life experiences which prompts them to conclude that they need to get their life together—-perhaps after a divorce or completing treatment for an addiction or returning to civil society after being incarcerated.

This process would be a way for such persons to intentionally return to the catechumenate by actually joining the catechumens in their catechumenal sessions after being dismissed from the liturgy of the word with a prayer and a blessing before the greeting of peace and the Great Thanksgiving. The catechumens and penitents are publicly accompanied by the congregation during their faith formation and return to the faith. I have seen catechumens thus dismissed in Catholic and Orthodox parishes and found it quite moving. I think it would be equally moving to witness the dismissal of penitents. It would mean a de facto excommunication since the “penitents” would leave before Communion was served. Such “penitents” would be reconciled with the community of faith on Maundy Thursday and could join the congregation in affirming their Baptism at the Easter Vigil when the catechumens they have accompanied during Lent are baptized. Obviously, such an order of penitents would work only if the congregation is actively engaged in the catechumenal and penitential process.

In any event, the season of Lent originated as a forty-day fast in which the faithful accompanied the catechumens and penitents in their journey toward initiation or reconciliation. The catechumenate is in various stages of restoration. Is there a need for a penitential process such as I described? Do you see a value in it? As always, responses by way of comments are welcome.

Pastor Frank Senn


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