By Mac Stewart
One of the most dramatic literary confessions I know of comes at the very end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In case you haven’t read it, I’m not really going to spoil it for you. The reader knows from the beginning who murdered the old pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna; the novel is more about the relentless torture the murderer and main character, Raskolnikov, suffers under the weight of his guilty conscience.
Gradually he begins to entertain the idea of confessing his guilt before the authorities, as his self-justifying nihilistic anti-morality swiftly erodes. But in the end it is the holy and pious Sonia, the Christ figure of the novel who is just emerging from the life of prostitution to which her family’s poverty had driven her, who says to Raskolnikov, “Go to the crossroads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, for you have sinned against it too, and say aloud to the whole world, ‘I am a murderer.’”
As Raskolnikov finally walks tremblingly through the crowded streets to the police station, Sonia walks with him at a distance, like the women of Jerusalem shadowing our Lord to his Cross. His face pale, his voice soft and broken, but his words clear and distinct, Raskolnikov finally stands before the chief detective and comes clean.
The meaning of the word confession, of course, is not restricted exclusively to this kind of dramatic admission of guilt. Well-known in plenty of other contexts in literature and life is the confession of love, as when the eager young lad, having long nursed an irresistible affection for the young lady, finally makes his intentions known. Today in our Gospel reading we’re given an example of confession that is closer to this latter sort.
Peter’s famous confession of our Lord as the Christ is named as such in continuity with a long thematic strand of Scripture behind it. The psalms speak regularly of “confessing” the Lord, by which it doesn’t always mean “to tell him what you’ve done wrong,” but rather simply to praise him for the marvelous works that he has done, and especially to manifest those works in all the world.
“I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praises to you among the nations” (Ps. 57:9); “Let them confess his name, which is great and awesome; he is the Holy One” (Ps. 99:3).
That’s what Peter is doing in the first part of our Gospel reading. He is confessing this Jewish man standing before him to be the Holy One of Israel, the Son of the Living God. He is making it plain and manifest who Jesus really is by naming him in the open as the Christ. That, as it happens, is what connects these senses of confession together: in each case it is a making plain and explicit of something that had been ambiguous and unclear.
It comes as quite a shock, therefore, when Jesus responds to this climactic confession by charging Peter and his disciples to “tell no one about him.” What on earth could Jesus have meant by this? The Christ was the King, was he not? The King was hardly to hide in a corner, but rather was to be lifted up on a throne, confessed and praised as the Holy One of Israel. The disciples must have scratched their heads in wonder: “perhaps he’s just playing ‘hard to get,’” they may have thought, “like last week with the Syrophoenician woman’s prayers for her daughter.”
And yet as the Gospel continues, Jesus’s reticence to be published abroad begins to make a lot more sense. “He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.”
Peter was prepared to confess when it meant giving unrestrained praise. He was not prepared to confess when it meant carrying a cross. He was bold and unreserved when proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but witheringly timid when it came to facing the price that the Lord came to pay for Peter’s sin. Peter speaks for all those — including us — whom the Lord knows are not yet ready for the hard reality that true confession for fallen sinners requires a cross.
As much as we might like to, we can’t separate the confession of Peter from the confession of Raskolnikov. As Christians in this life, each of us must always say both “You are the Christ,” and “I am a murderer.” Remember that old Holy Week hymn: “Who was the guilty … ‘‘Twas I Lord Jesus; I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
Denial, of course, is the opposite of confession. Peter’s resistance to the word of the Cross had its sad culmination in his thrice-uttered words, “I do not know the man.” But all of us participate in this denial at one time or another. Confessing that we are servants of a man crucified by this world, in whose path we are called to follow, is not easy. It’s not easy, first of all, because it means giving up a commitment to visible success in this world at all costs. As soon as we place our grades, or our career advancement, or our social status, or our romantic prospects, or our financial portfolio in any way ahead of our love for and loyalty to Jesus Christ, we have become ashamed of him and his words in this adulterous and sinful generation.
But it’s also not easy to confess this crucified Lord because it means facing squarely the truth that we’ve all already done this. We’ve all already preferred these things to his love. That’s why he had to die for us. The god whom we’re inclined to worship from the moment we come into this world, the one to whom we reflexively bow and give obeisance at nearly all times and all places is not Jesus; it’s our selves.
Which is what makes this passage both the most difficult and one of the most liberating texts in the Bible. People often assume that the Bible is difficult to read because of what it says about sex, or about money, or because of the troubling passages in Joshua, or the fire and brimstone in Revelation. But actually it’s this that makes the Bible so hard, because it’s this that is at the root of all the others: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Self-denial is the necessary counterpart to all true confession of our Lord, but it is incredibly hard, because the self is the idol with which we have displaced and slain the Lord in our hearts. And not just in the obvious ways like buying more than we really need or talking about ourselves too much.
I’m worshiping myself when I reflexively refer everything I hear to how it is going to affect me; when rather than weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice, I instinctively compare their joy or their sorrow to mine, and either envy them or withdraw from them for it; when I assume that I can’t trust anyone else to take care of me; or that someone else only thrives because I’m there to care for them. Confession is hard because it means displacing and denying this self-idol who relentlessly seeks to enthrone himself as our king.
And yet it’s important to say that when Christians talk about self-denial, we do not mean, as some critics of Christianity like to suggest, that we enjoin upon ourselves some kind of self-torturing masochism, taking perverse satisfaction in suffering just for the sake of it, or so that we can self-righteously wallow in our resentment toward a world that has been cruel to us.
That’s what Nietzsche thought Christianity was: a slave morality of resentment. But that’s not true self-denial; it’s in fact just a twisted form of the same old self-absorption. Christians don’t deny ourselves because we like suffering. Christians deny ourselves because we’re in love. “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” We’re not throwing our lives away when we take up the cross; we’re placing them in Jesus’ hands.
And that’s what makes this most difficult of all the texts of the Bible also one of the most liberating. What the exhortation to self-denial calls us to is not inflicting on ourselves needless pain; it’s simply to forget about ourselves; or rather to begin to look at ourselves not in the mirror of our self-reflection, but only as we are seen in the eternal knowledge and love of Another, the One who sees us with perfect clarity.
And we can only do that if we heed Jesus’ sharp rebuke to Peter in our Gospel, rendered best in the King James Version: “Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.” The truth about all who have been baptized is that Christ is enthroned in our hearts; he is the center of our being. Your life is hid with Christ in God.
The way to be true to yourself is to lose yourself in him. But you’ll only be able to do that if you’re savoring the right things, if your mouth is filled with his praise, and with his glory all the day long. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Let the reality that God is soak into your being. His mercy and truth will consume your malice and falsehood, and make you shine like the sun that he made you to be.
And it all starts with that dual confession. Yes, Lord, I am a murderer. But you are the Christ. I will turn away from what I myself have made — nothing but sin and fantasy — and I will cling with all my being to what you have made — which is everything else, all that is good and true and real about me and my friends and my enemies and everything that exists.
“Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
The Rev. Mac Stewart, a priest of the Diocese of North Carolina, is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.