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?
Answer to Question 75.
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:
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
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
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