In the Divine Liturgy, it is customary for this prayer to be offered by all who are coming to receive communion. I quote a portion:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.
Of course the prayer is a reference to St. Paul’s self-definition as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It is a confession made by all the faithful, gathered before the Holy Cup, everyone confessing to be the first among sinners. It would be easy to take such a statement as an example of pious excess – overstating the case of our sinfulness. Were that so it would be a travesty within the Liturgy – which exists to lead us into all Truth and to give us the gift of True Life. Such life is not grasped by uttering pious nonsense. Thus, we must accept the confession as actually what it says. How is it that I am the first of sinners? We could assume that the language is a claim to be worse than all other sinners. But how is a comparison to be made between sin and sin? Some will say that murder is by far worse than stealing or lying – and perhaps take comfort by saying, “At least I’m not a murderer.” But this is only an echo of the prayer of the Pharisee who thanked God that he was “not like other men” particularly the Publican standing nearby (Luke 18:11).
The confession is not an exercise in comparative morality – but an exercise in humility and true contrition before God. Dostoevsky’s famous character, the Elder Zossima, speaks of “each man being guilty of everything and for all.” The mystery of inquity, spoken of in Scripture, is just that – a mystery. Our involvement in sin is itself mysterious. Our culture has made of sin either a moral failing, and thus a legal category, or a psychological problem to be treated as guilt. Both are sad caricatures of the reality and neither image allows us to say, “Of sinners I am first.” Morality would reassure us that we have not done as much as others and would leave us as unjustified Pharisees. Psychology would assuage our guilt by warning us that such feelings are bad for us.
But the Church insists that we stand together with St. Paul and join in his unique confession.
I prefer to understand the prayer in the terms used by the Elder Zossima, whose thoughts are largely derived from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk. My solidarity with every sinner is such that I cannot separate myself as better or in no way responsible for the sins of another. Again words of Elder Zossima:
Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him. When he understands this, then he will be able to be a judge. However mad that may seem, it is true. For if I myself were righteous, perhaps there would be no criminal standing before me now.
Of course, we live in societies where we frequently make distinctions between the good and the bad, the moral and the immoral. And there are truly people who behave in an evil manner that stuns our ability to understand. And yet we share a common life as human beings and every effort to deny its reality pushes us ever further down the road of pride, envy, blame, and every form of hatred.
Thus there is no way forward other than that of forgiveness – and a forgiveness which is in the image of Christ. Christ took upon Himself the sins of the world – indeed, in the raw language of St. Paul:
[God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
If we refuse our commonality with the Christ who Himself was “made sin,” then how can we claim our commonality with Him in the righteousness of God? And if we accept that commonality – then with St. Paul we can also confess ourselves “of sinners to be the first.” The forgiveness of God that is given to us is not a forgiveness which made itself aloof or estranged from us, even though He was without sin. How can we who are sinners then set ourselves above other sinners? The way of forgiveness is inherently a way of solidarity.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” is certainly the word of a gracious God. It is also the cry of a Man who yielded Himself to utter solidarity with us all.