Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
who in his great mercy has promised forgiveness of sins
to all those who sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him,
have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The priest’s word of absolution in the Communion service has remain essentially unchanged since 1549, with the sole exception of the absolution of 1979. In that version, all three persons of the Trinity are invoked, referencing their typical scriptural roles with regards to our salvation:
Almighty God have mercy upon you,
forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,
strengthen you in all goodness,
and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
But the opening line about the Father’s merciful promise to forgive sins is omitted, and the stipulation that the people “sincerely repent and with true faith turn to him” was also omitted, drastically truncating the biblical doctrine of the forgiveness of sins and sharply clericalizing the sacramental act of absolution. Thus, the 1979 absolution was not retained for the Renewed Ancient Text, as other elements of that book were.
Far from a perfunctory word from the priest or bishop, this absolution is a solid piece of biblical theology that fully embraces catholic history and protestant reformed doctrine. It is formatted similar to a collect: it begins with the identification of God and certain attributes relevant to what follows, and then proceeds to the main statement. However, the absolution is not a prayer, but a statement – or as some might term it, a “speech-act” – in which the priest addresses the people. It differs from a prayer for forgiveness in that the words of mercy, pardon, deliverance, confirmation, strengthening, and bringing to everlasting life are subjunctive (similar to imperative/command) verbs. The speaking of these words conveys the actions they describe. Thus we see the promise of Christ (in Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23) at work: whomever God’s ministers forgive, they are forgiven. See also the absolution in the Daily Office.
But these are not unconditional benefits infallibly bestowed by the power of the ordained priesthood. Unlike contemporary Roman absolutions, the Prayer Book absolution makes sure to describe the character or properties of God that pertain to such forgiveness: he has “great mercy” and “has promised forgiveness of sins.” Specifically, though, such forgiveness is for the sincere penitent who turns to him in “true faith.” Thus the power of absolution is tempered. The priest cannot simply issue absolutions and expect infallible results; the grace of this ministry must be received by faith.
The worshiper is therefore reminded, in this moment of absolution, to continue in faith and to make good the repentance voiced in the prayer of confession.
The words of comfort, following, were introduced in the first Prayer Book and remained a mainstay of the Communion liturgy until they were removed in 1979. They return in the 2019 Book as optional, and without the intervening texts “Hear also what Saint Paul saith” and “Hear also what Saint John saith.”
The words of comfort stand as a sort of reassurance of pardon. They serve as a sort of biblical seal upon the priest’s word of absolution. This emphasizes that the ministry of the Church is grounded upon the authority of the Word of God written. Furthermore, these are not casually-arranged memory verses to encourage the penitent; rather, they form a logical sequence that carry the message of the Gospel in a subtle but heartfelt way.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28 begins with the condition and desire of the weary sinner for rest, or refreshment, in Christ.
God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 follows this with God’s desire to give life to such a weary sinner, opening a reciprocating relationship.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Timothy 1:15 then shows us what God has done to address our need: sending his son Jesus.
If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. Finally, then, 1 John 2:1-2 gives us the closing action of the Gospel with Christ as our advocate before God.
This is the Gospel of the God who condescended to rescue us from sin, repeated and summarized here for our comfort and our joy. In the classical Prayer Books, this would be followed immediately with “Lift up your hearts” – eucharistic thanksgiving being the logical response to such good news and comfort.