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Sacrament of Confession
By Very Rev. Dr. P. S. Samuel Cor-Episcopa

The word 'Confession' has several connotations.

1) Confessing Christ as son of God (Rom.10:9)
2) a denomination such as the Lutheran or the Anglican.
3) The Sacrament of forgiveness of sins, whereby the repentant sinner confesses sins to CHRIST in the presence of the priest, who pronounces God's absolution of those sins.

We will discuss the third topic here.

This sacrament is known by some other names also. Sacrament of penance, S. of reconciliation, s. of tears/Second baptism. etc. depending upon the emphasis given. It is supposed to bring about reconciliation between God and the sinner and the sinner and the community. It is called "second baptism".

We have baptism only once in our life as we declare in the Nicene Creed "one baptism (once for the remission of sins). This is second baptism in the sense that the first one has washed away the sins up to the time of baptism including "original sin" The sins committed after are washed away by the tears shed in contrition or by repentance. This is repeatable as often as one becomes conscious of sins committed.

What is sin? It has been already described as "broken relationship" leading to alienation and discord. It has another meaning from its Gk word "hamartia" "missing the mark" It is a word taken from archery "one who fails to hit the target" All humans are sinners who miss the mark of perfection that God has set for them. This results in our alienation or estrangement from God, which results in death, because God is the source of life. Remember Adam and Eve.

What is absolution? Absolution is the prayer offered by a priest or bishop for the forgiveness of sins the gift or authority to offer this prayer is based on the promise made by the risen Christ to his disciples (Apostles) as recorded in St. John's gospel 20:22-23. "Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This authority or gift remains forever in the church It is exercised in the sacraments of baptism, (“once, for the remission of sins"), in the Holy Qurbana (“From god may we receive pardon of ours and remission of our debts") and in the sacrament of penance bringing about reconciliation of the sinner who has repented and demonstrated contrition to the Church. (Christian brethren)

Penance is the sacrament of reconciliation by which the penitent is reconciled with God and the Church through the forgiveness of sins. It is a part of the Church's healing ministry as commanded by our Lord. It begins with penance, contrition, conversion and confession. History of the development and evolution of this sacrament from the times of the Apostles to the modern times is quite elaborate. we don’t attempt a full and detailed study. Here we are attempting only a short review.

During the Apostolic period we see references about confession. According to St. Paul (1 Cor.8:12-)- "But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ" Sin has thus serious and evil consequence. The prodigal son says "I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called you son."(Lk.11:21) He had sinned against god and hid father and the household. So the sin of one person affects every one in some way. So the promise was "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.(1John 1:9) The Christians are to bring their sins to God in repentance and receive cleansing and forgiveness. So early Christians would stand and confess their sins to God in the presence of the whole congregation. (in public). In St. Mathew a disciplinary problem is discussed in dealing with someone who sins against his brother. How was it to be resolved? Please read Mt.18:15-20. There are three stages described in this passage. In verse 18, the Church is given the authority " to bind and to loose" Think how far away we have gone from these words of our Lord. Verses 21-25 the forgiveness is unlimited. This is the way reconciliation is to be brought about leading to true healing in the Church by God's grace.

We are so hypocritical; we are not willing to forgive (fore-give: give before asking) and so the sin continues and the Church of God suffers. St. James writes in his epistle (5:16) "Confess your sins to one another."

But as time went on and the church grew in numbers (from a close knit family to a large group of strangers) public confession became difficult and scandalous. Private confession became common and naturally those who have been entrusted with the curing of the souls (pastors, the healers) became the ones who began to witness private confession on behalf of the Church. This is a historic development. This is how the Presbyter (priest) began to play a role in confession.

Now, What is the priests’ role? St. Chrysostom (Mar. Ivanios of Constantinople) says that the Church is the hospital (the INN in the story of the good Samaritan, Lk.15) and the priests/bishops are the healers. the chief physician being our Lord Jesus Christ. The Orthodox Church has from the very beginning understood that the grace of ordination endowed the pastor or the shepherd of the flock with discernment and compassion to speak the words of absolution on behalf of the Christ regarding the sins of those who have repented, confessed and turned away from sin.

Christ in his discourse as given in the 15th chapter of St. John's gospel, says to the Apostles “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed (ordained) you"(v.16) In Mark's gospel He says to the Twelve It is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit (13:11) St. Paul tells Themotheos "Stir up the gift of God which is in you, through the laying on of my hands (ordination) (2nd Timothy 1:6) It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that enables the priest to serve God and His people, including pronouncing the absolution. The Apostolic church has encouraged the early Christians to search their conscience and confess their sins, before coming to receive Holy Communion. St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Church "Let a man examine himself------"(1Cor.11; 23-31)

The question now is do we really need a priest, "can't I confess to God privately and directly?" Certainly we can pray to God and receive the cleansing. Don't we repeat though often without thinking about the implication when we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!" Many of us may not be fully assured of forgiveness(?) There may be a doubt whether one is forgiven. Someone who knows us fairly intimately and be with us when ewe communicate with god in His all knowing presence, we are much more assured of forgiveness and of cleansing. The priest DOES NOT FORGIVE OUR SINS. (He is not God.)

It is Christ who is present and forgives our sins. It has been found from experience of saintly persons and other ordinary Christians that it is far more effective to confess aloud to God before a priest and benefit from his guidance and counsel. This not as easy as we think. It takes courage, humility and openness to confess so that God may bring about the cleansing and accept us into. His glorious embrace restoring our son-ship and the divine image in us.

There are two kinds of confessions in the Orthodox Church., private confession by communing with God (praying and uttering, "Lord Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." and any other form of prayer, and the second is the sacramental confession? In the Roman Catholic Church there is only the sacramental confession, (There may also be 'general confession')

Among the Protestants there is confession by prayer (public or private); The Orthodox Church has both. and thus avoids extremes. In the case of grave sins (adultery, apostasy, disobedience, murder etc) private prayer has to be supplemented by sacramental confession. The Orthodox Church stipulates that even lighter sins have to be confessed before a priest witness at least once a year. Now a days Orthodox Christians have abused this privilege and 'go to confession' not for cleansing of the soul but for other reasons (attending the general body meeting is one important reason) The most terrible abuse that has crept in the life of the orthodox Christian is the demand for absolution, without contrition, repentance and with out a tinge of tears. Just a mechanical means of being forgiven. Either this practice has to be stopped or the faithful have to be taught how to prepare for receiving the Holy Communion as this includes confession.

Because of these abuses as St. Paul tells the Corinthian Church, " Many are sick, some are dead" and there is no life in us. This is the most serious illness that has befallen on the Orthodox Church and we see the result in our present day church life. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, warm us, and wake us up. Do as the Ninevites did in olden times. Then we will shine as lamps lit by the Light that lightens the whole universe.

The priest as the leader of the community of the faithful helps to bring about reconciliation with our brethren while private prayer may bring reconciliation with God. Whatever way we get inner cleanliness (purity of heart) it must be followed up by receiving the Holy Communion "for the remission of debts and the forgiveness of sins"

Listen next time you attend the Holy Qurbana, and listen how many times the priest uses this formula. Since this is the Sacrament by which our sins are forgiven and are washed in the precious blood of the Lamb.

The beauty of the sacramental confession is expressed in a Russian prayer of absolution It portrays the role of the priest as that of a witness rather than that of a judge.

"Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession. Therefore do not be ashamed or be afraid, and hide nothing from me; but tell me without hesitation all the things you have done and so you will have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. See his holy image is before us, and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all the things you have to say to me. But if you hide anything from me, you will have greater sin. Take care then, lest having come to a physician, you depart unhealed."

Source: IOIF

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