Word Magazine February 1982 Page 15
By Father James C. Meena
One of the questions asked recently is, “Why, after having read the Communion Prayer which begins, ‘I believe O Lord and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God . . .‘is it necessary for us to go to confession before taking Holy Communion?” First of all, we should understand that the Communion Prayer is not a prayer of personal confession. It is a general confession of faith and not a confession of specific sins and there is a difference.
That brings me to the subject of the Sacrament of Penance or the practice of confession as we understand it in the Orthodox Church. You have heard me say before that the Orthodox Church is the logical fulfillment of Judaism or it is nothing. For us the Orthodox Church is precisely that, the fulfillment of Judaism. In our often confused thinking (and because the Church suffered so many years of near illiteracy among her clergy and her lay leadership) we came to think that the practice of confession was instituted soon after the time of Christ and it was not. The practice of confessing sins to God goes back at least as far as the book of Leviticus, which is a book of the law, (and I am paraphrasing here) . . . “if anyone sins he will have to confess the sin committed and he must bring God as a sacrifice of reparation for the sin a female sheep or goat as a guilt offering for sin,” (Leviticus 5:5-6). So it was a religious practice of our Jewish forefathers to bring forth a sacrificial lamb or goat to God as an outward manifestation of their inner repentance after they had confessed their sin.
With the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, as the Sacrificial Lamb, took upon Himself the sins of all humanity, thereby abolishing the need for blood sacrifice as of that moment, and nailed all of our sins to the cross with Him, it was no longer necessary for us to accompany our confessions with guilt sacrifices because our confessions are accompanied by the blood of Christ.
Nonetheless the Church teaches us that we must bring some sacrifice unto God after confession and before communing. Our sacrifice, that is the outer manifestation of our inner repentance, is first the physical discipline of fasting, coupled with the spiritual disciplines of meditating and praying. We give up food for a period of time, we give up recreation and we sacrifice frivolous practices. It is customary for the Orthodox Christian, at least from the night before one is to receive Holy Communion, that he engage in no frivolities at all, goes to no dances, parties, plays, plays no games, goes to no movies or plays, but stays at home and quietly contemplates his own sinfulness and how, by God’s grace, he can overcome that sinfulness. That is the sacrifice that we offer unto God. As a result of that sacrifice we are then prepared to receive the Eucharist with a clean heart.
To whom is our confession made? It is not simply made to a Priest as to a human being. But Jesus Christ, through His Apostles, has given a certain authority and responsibility to the Apostolic Priesthood “to bind and to loose,” and to act as the agents of God in reassuring the penitent of God’s willingness to forgive his sins, to accept His manifestations of piety and sincerity and repentance. It is the Priest who listens but it is God who hears. It s the Priest who speaks but it is God who promises.
Penance is not a punitive sacrament in which we are punished for our sins. It is a therapeutic sacrament in which we are healed of our sins so long as we are truly repentant. I have been asked by those who are not members of the Antiochian jurisdiction, why it is that people seem to move so rapidly through the confessional. It is really quite simple. Unless someone has something specific to confess, he makes no confession other than a general one of being a sinner. The Priest is not supposed to be an inquisitor. In my opinion the Priest is not authorized to ask probing and personal questions. Yet the Priest is a spiritual doctor. You do not go to your physician and, when he asks you what is wrong with you, tell him to find out for himself.
If you have committed a sin, confess it, get it off your conscience because the Priest is there to help you, not to harm you. He is there to advise you, to counsel you and above all he is there to assure you that God is merciful, that He loves you and that He is always willing to forgive. In the Epistle of St. James it says “Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another and you will be healed,” (5:16). The best way for us to be healed of our spiritual illnesses is to make confession of our sins. Of course, as the Church evolved and became rather complex this general confession to the whole congregation narrowed down to the kind of private practice of confession that we have.
To those who think that they have no need for confession and those who say facetiously that they don’t do anything wrong so they don’t have to go to confession, I offer you the following: “If we say we have no sins in us we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth but if we acknowledge our sins then God, who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and will purify us from everything that is wrong. To say that we have never sinned is to call God a liar and to show that His word is not in us.” (I John, 1:8-11).
Every person sins. Every one!! There is only One who is without sin and that is our Lord who said to His Apostles, after He had risen from the dead and appeared to them, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven, and those whose sins ye retain, they are retained,” (St. John, 20:22-23). It is by this authority that the Apostolic Priesthood of the Orthodox Church assumes this terrible and awesome responsibility to listen while God hears, to utter what God promises and to offer you God’s reassurance of His forgiveness.