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Question 75.

Fr. Bless!
I did not find anyone asking you about the mystery of confession.
I grew up with this mystery, and took it for granted. Now in practice, I see it as being taken out of context. From revealing of thoughts for discipleship in monastic setting, this mystery is now become the Latin LEGAL sacrament to access communion, a "passport" . What is the intended meaning of this mystery for an Orthodox Christian who has not separated himself from the Church through actions like killing, denying our Saviour, or the like? What would be the practical application of confession for an Orthodox layman?
Thank you


Anastasios
 

 

Answer to Question 75.

Dear Anastasios,

I have been asked questions in connection with the Sacrament of Confession, but not on whether it should be practiced as you say as "a passport" to access Holy Communion. The problem in answering your question is that priests have different views on the subject and whatever I say cannot be taken as the general rule of the Church, but simple my own opinion.
Historically the Sacrament was instituted by Christ himself when he breathed on his apostles and saying: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:22-23) Thus, Christ gave the authority and power to his disciples to forgive or not to forgive sins. This was given to them before the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, showing that it was not part of the general gifts of the Holy Spirit that was given to all, but a special gift for the select few. This authority was then passed on to the bishops who are the ultimate spiritual fathers of a Church. Bishops then pass on this authority to certain Priests whom they deem are spiritually experienced to guide and advice the flock in spiritual matters. For Christ to institute this Sacrament it means that there is a need for people to confess their sins, but also that they must confess them before a priest. The bishops and priests are the only canonical and lawful successors of the Apostles and only they have the power to grant forgiveness and remission.
But what was the original intention of this Sacrament? Clearly how we confess today is not how confession was made in the early Church. During the first four centuries, confession was made openly before the entire congregation. This doesn’t mean that everyone stood up and gave an account of all their secret sins and innermost thoughts. It was a confession of the things that had already become public knowledge like an act of adultery or murder that came to light and scandalized the faithful or when someone apostatised from the true Church by heresy and then coming to his senses wished to be readmitted to the Church. Confession then was a solemn public act of reconciliation, through which a sinner was readmitted into church membership. This form of confession was probably founded from the Epistle of St. James who says: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (5.16). But even before this when St John baptized in the Jordan, people came and confessed their sins, showing that confession was regarded as a form of repentance and regeneration (Matthew 3.6; Mark 1.5; Acts 19.18).
After the fourth century private confession was more widely practiced, but even then it did not have the formal procedure it has now with absolution at the end. Very few of the Church Fathers refer to prayers of absolution, but this doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in some form or other. Certainly there were penances with penitent sinners having to abstain from Holy Communion for a certain period of time according to the seriousness of their sin. With the next few centuries and the Ecumenical Councils we see that penances were severe with many of the serious or mortal sins being punished with many years abstention from the Holy Mysteries.
From the very beginning, Confession was the Sacrament to access Holy Communion, because partaking of Holy Communion meant membership of the Church of Christ.
The question arises: who is worthy of partaking? St. Paul says: "whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." (1 Cor. 11: 27-29)
Everyone sins, but not all sins were considered as sins that barred people from approaching the Holy Chalice. In general most small everyday sins were not considered as needing cleansing before having access to Holy Communion, because the Sacrament of Holy Communion is itself a Sacrament for the cleansing and forgiveness of sins. What is necessary is to be at peace with all people: Christ said: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." (Matth. 5:23-24) The bread and wine used in the Divine Liturgy are our offering of thanksgiving to God at the altar, for having saved us by sending his only begotten Son to be sacrificed that we might become co-heirs with him in the kingdom of Heaven. Accordingly we must be reconciled with all men before making this offering.
All Orthodox Christians are obliged to have Communion every time they attend the Divine Liturgy. If we go back a few centuries, we see that it was not allowed for someone to remain in Church if he/she was not to have Communion. If for example they were under a penance and were not allowed to receive Communion, they had to leave the Church after the reading of the Gospel or at the latest when the Priest exclaimed "The Doors, The Doors", whereby the doors of the Church were shut. If we go back even further to the first four centuries we know that Christians in those days had regular and even daily Communion, can we then assume that they confessed their sins before partaking? Of course not! The Sacrament of Confession was still not developed into the Sacrament that we know today. From those first centuries the Sacrament of Confession has changed drastically and in our times it has become as you say "a passport" for Holy Communion. There are people who will not have Communion unless they confess their sins before each Communion. This is an exaggeration of the requirements needed. Unless someone has fallen into a grave sin that would bar him from Holy Communion, once or twice a year at the most is sufficient for most people. A daily, weekly or monthly confession is not in the tradition of the Orthodox Church as a whole, but only the practice of monasteries. Monks see their spiritual fathers on a regular base, some daily, for spiritual guidance, and as an act of obedience, but not necessarily always for confession. He will seek his advice on prayer and other matters at the same time the spiritual father can keep a check on his charge to see if his advice has been beneficial.
In recent years we have seen this monastic type of relationship between spiritual fathers and spiritual children spreading among lay people. They use the Sacrament of Confession not so much as to confess but as an excuse to talk with their spiritual father and ask his advice on almost everything they do. This monastic practice is now so widespread that the general opinion among priests and laypeople is that you cannot have Holy Communion unless you go for Confession and receive the blessing from the priest to partake. This fairly new requirement has become an obstacle for many who rather than go to confession, prefer to distance themselves from Holy Communion for many years and sometimes from the Church.
The Sacrament of Confession should be seen as a second Baptism. In the sacrament of Baptism we receive either as children or adults, we are mystically, and truly joined to Christ and to His Living Body - the Church - through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit working in the baptismal waters. In Christ’s own words ‘…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5) With the Sacrament of Baptism we are cleansed from all sins and are spiritually reborn for righteous living. However, we still have the predisposition towards sin, which is interwoven with our free will. As time passes, we fall into sin due to careless ways of living, inexperience, and different temptations. We become spiritually sick as it were, but also our sins make a barrier between us and God, they restrict us from progressing spiritually and to re-establish our relationship with God and eternal life: we must cleanse ourselves of these barriers.
The sacrament of Confession works like a second baptism helping us to cleanse ourselves from the sins that have accumulated since our baptism and it allows the healing power of God to restore the broken relationship between us and Him caused by our sin. In the Sacrament of Confession the penitent Christian, in the presence of the spiritual confessor, opens to God his darkened and sick heart and allows the heavenly light to enter, cleanse and heal it. In Confession, as in Baptism, a rebirth takes place and this is why after Confession we feel cleansed and renewed, as a newly baptized infant. We obtain new strength to battle the evil within us and to restart a righteous life.
In practice, most people who come for regular confession rarely show signs of repentance and read their sins from a piece of paper. Writing down our thoughts on paper is a good way to remember our sins, but it should be used only to help us remember and not to be read as though reading a shopping list. This formality arises because they have become so accustomed to regular confession that it has become just another duty that "good" Christians are obliged to do and receive a passport to access Holy Communion.
All the Sacraments lead to the reception of the Eucharist which is the deepest and fullest expression of our membership in the Church. The Eucharist is also the greatest sign of reconciliation with God and with each other. It is the ultimate goal of the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation, in which the newly baptised are grafted into Christ’s body, the Church. It is also the goal of the Sacrament of Confession, which reconciles us when we fall into sin and restores us into the communion of the Church.
Our main goal in life is to find salvation. The Sacraments are the tools which help us achieve this goal. We should therefore take advantage of what each Sacrament has to offer, keeping in mind that all the Sacraments are interwoven with the Sacrament of the Eucharist. No one forces us to have confession, but is it there if we want to take advantage of its healing power. If we don't are we in a position to say that we approach and partake worthily, how do we judge our worthiness? Thus as St. Paul said: "let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup."

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher