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Question 95.

Your blessing dear Father Christopher,

I have read several questions on your "Liturgical Questions" section comparing Greek and Slavic practices. It seems Greeks and Slavs (specially Russians) developed different theological approaches concerning the same issues. One these issues is how each of them comprehend communion. The Russian church tells their faithful whoever wants to commune on the Sunday Liturgy, must confess their sins on the eve or before the Liturgy (during the reading of the 1st and 3rd Hours).
My question concerns the relation between Holy Communion and Holy Confession. Do the Greeks understand Confession as a requisite to Communion? Is there a recommendation stating how frequently one should commune/confess?

In Christ,
Akakios


 

Answer to Question 95.

Dear Akakios,
Your question is difficult to answer because as you have noticed there are many different practices between national churches, but there are also many different teachings between bishops of the same church and priests in the same town. The practice of the Russian church that you describe was also very widespread in the Greek Church 20-30-40 years ago and there are still some priests who preach that people must first go to confession before approaching for Holy Communion. The main reason for this practice was because people didn't have regular Communion and only communed at Christmas and Pascha after fasting for a few days. A great number didn't fast and didn't confess so didn't commune for very many years. This was not always the practice of the Church and we know from Apostolic times and for many centuries after that people had regular communion and communed at every attendance of the Divine Liturgy without needing to fast or confess their sins before every occasion.
When this practiced changed to irregular communion is not sure, but in the Greek Church much can be blamed on the Ottoman Occupation which didn't allow education for the Greeks. Also in the Russian Church many pious practices must have been lost after the Bolshevik Revolution and the communist regime. During these times most Priests were mainly uneducated farmers simply performing the Mysteries without the necessary knowledge to educate and guide the flock in his care. If he grew up believing that regular communion was a sin (like most people) then this was the teaching that he passed on to his flock.
Nowadays most priests have a good theological and historical education and understand that certain traditions that they received from their fathers were not necessarily the true teachings of the church, especially the teaching of irregular communion which theologically, doctrinally and historically has no basis.
On the contrary 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. 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.
From those first centuries the Sacrament of Confession has changed drastically and in our times, sadly, it has become "a passport" for Holy Communion with certain priests demanding that someone cannot have Communion unless he confesses his 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 there is a growing opinion among priests and laypeople 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.
Everyone sins, but not all sins are considered as sins that bar people from approaching the Holy Chalice. In general most small everyday sins are 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. Too much emphasis is placed on Confession before Communion, but we forget the main Gospel requirement needed to approach the Holy Chalice: 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.
I would not say that Confession is not necessary: it is, but let us not use it as a "passport" for Holy Communion. In general most priests will tell you that if someone lives a Christian life; observes the Wednesday and Friday fast and all the other fasts of the year, confesses occasionally, then there is no reason why that person cannot approach for Holy Communion at every occasion of the Divine Liturgy.
But we must be wary that by partaking regularly of Holy Communion there is a great danger that we become so accustomed to it that we lose our "fear of God" and take the Mystery for granted. This can also be said for Holy Confession. 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.
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. A priest should not force someone to go to confession and neither should he deny the right to someone to approach the Holy Chalice, but he is obliged to teach his flock to prepare and approach to partake as worthily as is possible within their own power. But neither he nor ourselves can actually judge our worthiness, because during the Liturgy the priest exclaims "The Holy things unto the Holy" and no one is holy except God. We an only follow what 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