Repentance and Confession (Part IV)

St. Methodius, Equal of the Apostles and Archbishop of Moravia, Enlightener of the Slavs

St. Methodius, Equal of the Apostles and Archbishop of Moravia, Enlightener of the Slavs

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Mystery (Sacrament) of Confession

A Christian, at any rate an Orthodox Christian, views repentance as a dynamic act of responsibility to God, but also to other men. It is not pining away in narcissistic self-reflection, even while implying self-knowledge and self-examination. Sin itself is a relational act--a break in the "I-Thou" relationship. It concerns my relationship with another person. When the prodigal son "came to himself" in the Gospel Parable (St. Luke 15), he did so in relation to his father. "I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you'" (v. 18). We repent in the face of God; and we repent in communion with others, in the Church. Repentance in the early Church was in face a solemn public act of reconciliation, through which a sinner was readmitted into church membership. Even in Buddhism, monks regularly confess their sins publicly before Buddha and the congregation; the phenomelogy is the same as in the Church, even if the theology or ideology is different. Sin (and evil) divides, repentance conciliates, confession affirms the conciliation. Outside the community, outside the Church repentance would settle into guilty gloom, dulling the spirit or even driving to despair: metanoia turning into paranoia.

Confession, too, takes place within the Church. It is not a private procedure, a treatment of some guild-ridden individual on an analyst's couch. It is not based on an admission of guilt and certainly cannot be reduced to a feeling of guilt, of liability for conduct contrary to norms and laws which render a person subject to punishment, it is related to what is deepest in man, to what constitutes his being and his relation with other human beings as well as with God. It is a Sacrament--"the visible form of an invisible grace" (Saint Augustine), re-establishing a bond of union between God and man, between man and man. This is why confession also takes place within prayer because it is there that a personal relationship in all its intensity is realized both with God and the entire world. As such, confession and prayer are not merely technical terms but means and opportunities offered by the Church for overcoming sin and death. Repentance is indeed the cause and consequence of prayer, being the highest and fullest foundation for and form of prayer. "True Prayer," according to Saint Anthony the Great, "is that in which one forgets that one is praying," and genuine repentance enables one to forget oneself and simply long for God, Who is present in the very depth of repentance. For it is "before Him alone that one sins" (Psalm 5:3-4)--this is the personal or relational aspect of both sin and repentance.

The supreme act of communion is the Holy Eucharist, the communal sharing of bread and wine, symbolizing sacramentally the reconciliation to come and the reconciliation already achieved in the here and now. Repentance and Confession as Sacrament seals man's change of direction from disruption to reconciliation. An examination of the early forms of confession shows that they are derived from community services and even liturgies. Origen explicitly stresses the significance of the Eucharist for the forgiveness of sins. Later services for confession developed undoubtedly from community rites closely related to the Eucharistic celebration, or else to the monastic offices of Matins (Orthros) or Compline (Apodeipnos). Since forgiveness of sins involves reconciliation in and through the Eucharist, the Eucharistic Prayer contains penitential elements as immediate preparation for Communion.

In early Christian times the exhortation of Saint James served as a foundation for the Mystery (Sacrament) of repentance: "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (5:16). Confession was regarded as a form of repentance and regeneration (St. Matthew 3:6; St. Mark 1:5; Acts 19:18). The actual ritual aspect of repentance was a direct result of such Apostolic testimony, at first in the form of confession before the entire Church and, subsequently, before a spiritual father. Nevertheless, the earliest order of confession is of relatively late origin (10th century, and is ascribed to St. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople.) This text may well be the source of later Greek and Slavonic services of Confession. The communal, sacramental aspect of confession was more apparent in the early Church when penance constituted a public act rather than an individual episode. It was only after the 4th century that private confession was more widely practiced. But even then penance did not have the legalistic and clericalistic character which it acquired later. In fact, very few Church Holy Fathers refer even to absolution as a formal procedure, although such silence does not necessarily mean that absolution in some form or other did not exist. It is the reduction of sin to a punishable legal crime, an act of lawbreaking inviting a penalty that is almost whole absent in Patristic literature. "Have you committed a sin?", asks Saint John Chrysostom, "then enter the Church and repent of your sin...For here is the Physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated but receives remission of sins."

Unfortunately confession at times undermines and even replaces the genuine inner repentance of a Christian: people feel "entitled" to communion after confession. This contradicts the true nature of repentance. It is a result of the sacrament being narrowly and juridically reduced to "absolution." Scholarly theology tended to transpose the concept of sin, repentance and forgiveness into forensic idiom, and placed the emphasis on the power of the priest to absolve. In the Orthodox Church, the priest is seen as a witness of repentance, not a recipient of secrets, a detective of specific misdeeds. The "eye," the "ear" of the Priest is dissolved in the Sacramental Mystery. He is not a dispenser, a power-wielding, vindicating agent, an "authority." Such a conception exteriorizes the function of the confessor and of confession which is an act of re-integration of the penitent and priest alike into the Body of Christ. The declaration "I, an unworthy priest, by the power given unto me, absolve you" is unknown in the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is of later Latin (Roman Catholic) origin and was adopted in some Russian liturgical books at the time of the domination of Russian Orthodox theology by Latin thought and practice. The idea served to bring confession into disrepute, turning it into a procedure of justification and exculpation in respect of particular punishable offenses. Forgiveness, absolution is the culmination of repentance, in response to sincerely felt compunction. It is not "administered" by the priest, or anybody else. It is a freely given grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Church as the Body of Christ. (Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)

(Next: Continued: Mystery(Sacrament) of Confession)





Performance of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy (charity)



(A short form)

[While the Penitent is waiting for the Priest to hear his confession he says quietly the "Trisagion Prayers" and Psalm 50th, if he has time, and then aloud: I have sinned, O Lord: forgive me, O God, be gracious unto me a sinner.]

When the Penitent's turn comes, he goes forward and kneels in the proper place and says aloud: O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to Thee all the hidden and open sins of my heart and mind, which I have committed unto this present day; wherefore I beg of Thee, the Righteous and Compassionate Judge, remission of sins and grace to sin no more.

Then the Priest says in a kindly voice:

My brother (or sister), inasmuch as thou has come to God, and to me, be not ashamed; for you do not speak to me, but to God, before Whom thou stands.

The Priest questions the Penitent concerning his/her sins, and the questioning finished, he says these words:

My spiritual child, who has confessed to my humble person, I, humble and a sinner, have not power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone; yet through that divinely spoken word which came to the Apostles after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying: "Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained, we too are emboldened to say: Whatsoever you have said to my most humble self, and whatsoever you have not succeeded in saying, either through ignorance, or through forgetfulness, Whatsoever it may be: May God forgive you in this present world, and in that which is to come.

And the Priest adds this Prayer, making the sign of the Cross over the Penitent:

May God who forgave David through Nathan the Prophet, when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman in tears at his feet, and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son: May that same God forgive you all things, through me a sinner, both in this present world and in that which is to come, and set you uncondemned before His Dread Judgment Seat.

And the Priest adds: And now, having no further care for the sins which you have declared, depart in peace.

Then the Priest allows the Penitent to depart with this blessing:

May Christ our True God, through the prayers of His Most Holy Mother and of all the Saints, have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as he is Good and loves mankind. Amen.

[The Penitent returns to his seat and gives thanks to God for His goodness, saying one or more of the Prayers After Confession which follows]:

O Almighty and Merciful God, I truly thank Thee for the forgiveness of my sins; bless me, O Lord, and help me always, that I may ever do that which is pleasing to Thee, and sin no more. Amen.

O Lord God of my salvation, the Savior and Benefactor of my soul, I am truly sorry for my every transgression and I firmly resolve never again to offend Thee by my sins, and sincerely promise to amend my way of life. Implant in me the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that I may trample down all carnal appetite and may lead a godly life, both thinking and doing always such things as are pleasing unto Thee. I pray Thee, grant unto me the Grace of Thy Holy Spirit, that thus strengthened, I may shun all evil deeds and works, and words and thoughts, and may avoid all snares of the Evil One. Shine in my heart with the True Sun of Thy Righteousness; enlighten my mind and guard all my senses, that walking uprightly in the way of Thy statutes, I may attain unto life eternal. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George