I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.
Luke 18:9-14 story of the two men who went into the Temple to pray: the one justified struck his breast as an outward sign of his acknowledgement of his unworthiness before God -- a sign that mirrored his words, Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.
Gestures and words often tend to to mirror their significance and meaning to one another. We have always known this. The early Christians were familiar with the practice, as St. Augustine and St. Jerome note: "No sooner have you heard the word 'Confiteor'", says Augustine, "than you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?" (Sermo de verbis Domini, 13). "We strike our breast", says St. Jerome, "because the breast is the seat of evil thoughts: we wish to dispel these thoughts, we wish to purify our hearts" (In Ezechiel, c. xviii).
This is not an elegant gesture but an honest blow. The strike of the breast is not a gesture for others to see but for the penitent to feel. It is the wake up call to the complacent, to those who have grown comfortable in their sins or who have gotten used to excusing or justifying their sins. "In the midst of life we are in death." That is the strike of the breast. We are sinners in need of forgiveness, lost whom the Lord must find with mercy, restore, and renew by His grace. It is also a gesture of some frustration. We are here with the same tired old sins we said we would try to fight against but we are victims again of the familiar ruts of the way of sin.
We Lutherans may not be so familiar with this gesture. It is not because we have found fault with it but more that we have forgotten it, forgotten the meaning of symbols, and forgotten how the outward gestures mirror the heartfelt repentance inside. We tend to think of most ceremonies as superfluous or unnecessary and sometimes in the way of the inner direction of the heart. But that is less our theology talking than our culture -- we have grown so comfortable in our minimal ceremonial that anything and everything tends to stand out. This is one you will seldom find practiced in Lutheran churches but it is one which probably ought to be restored to use. What do you think?