Confession: A Mystery of the Church
From the February 2001 Messenger
For general teaching purposes, the Orthodox Church basically follows the same system of seven sacraments found in traditional Roman Catholic manuals. Rather than using the term “sacraments,” however, which is based on a Latin word, the Orthodox East has traditionally used the term “mysteries” (musteria) from the Greek. The sacrament of confession, of course, is numbered among the typical seven mysteries of the Church. Yet for many Orthodox, confession is not only a “mystery” because it is reckoned among the sacraments. Confession remains a mystery for them because it is poorly understood.
If we were to list common questions that laypeople have about confession, the list could go on and on. How often must one confess? Why is it necessary to confess to a priest? Is it necessary to have confession before communion? When is it necessary to go to confession? Why can’t you just confess your sins to God privately? What if you don’t know what to confess? What if you forget some sins when you make a confession? Indeed, we could go on and on.
We will not try to address all such questions in this article. However, we will try to dispel some of the basic “mysteries” that seem to surround the practice of confession and show its importance for the life of a faithful Orthodox Christian. We will begin by looking at the fundamental elements of the sacrament as they developed in the life of the Church.
The most basic aspect of confession is that it is the sacrament of reconciliation. In the early centuries of the Church, most baptisms were of adult converts from paganism. These converts understood that baptism granted them the full remission of all the sins of their previous life. Baptism also represented a death to the old life of sin and the rebirth into the new life of Christ (see Romans 6). Baptism was an act whereby one committed his life to the discipleship of Jesus Christ. It was a decisive break with the life of sin and disobedience. What happened, then, when a baptized person fell into serious sin? Could such sin after baptism be forgiven? If so, how? Controversies raged in the second and third centuries about these questions. The Church rejected the position that serious sin committed after (adult) baptism could not be forgiven, and those who held it fell into schism (Novationists, Donatists).
Yet how could serious sins be forgiven? Both the Orthodox and the extreme rigorists held that certain sins were so devastating that they cut one off from the life of Christ, thus automatically effecting excommunication. All agreed that idolatry, murder, and adultery had this effect. Additionally, it was agreed that those sins listed by the Apostle Paul as preventing one’s entry into the kingdom produced the same result (see I Corinthians 6). Those who committed them were automatically excommunicated and cut off from life in Christ, which is the Church. The earliest form of confession, then, was a rite by which the Church acknowledged that a certain person had fulfilled the penance for his sin, possessed sincere repentance, and was to be re-admitted to the life of the faithful and allowed to receive communion again. Confession was handled in a much more public, open manner as an individual acknowledged his sin and was re-admitted to the assembly of the faithful.
The first and most basic meaning of confession, then, is the act of restoring and reconciling one guilty of serious sin to the body of Christ, the Church. This is why confession is mandatory in cases of adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, murder, abortion, causing grave physical harm to another, thievery, false witness, and other serious sins. These sins cut one off from the body of Christ and one must be formally restored to the body. It is not enough in these situations to simply confess to God and tell Him one is sorry. Excommunication has taken place even if the person cloaks his sin and continues to receive communion. And the only way excommunication is lifted is when the sinner is restored and reconciled by the rite of confession.
In the modern era, as we know, confession is conducted much more privately between the priest and the penitent. This is unfortunate in some respects, because the sense of being publicly restored to the church community is much less tangible than when the community witnessed the act. Nevertheless, the fundamental meaning is the same: it is an act of reconciliation.
The early canons prescribe that a Christian who stays away from the Liturgy for three Sundays in row is automatically excommunicated. This is a little known fact among many contemporary Orthodox. Actually, the canons stipulate this for anyone who does not partake of Holy Communion, but of course, by extension, it is true of those who skip Liturgy.
This is why, in addition to the serious sins listed above, a person must receive confession if he has failed to attend Liturgy on Sunday for a period of several weeks without serious reason. (Obviously, illness, travel, injury, etc., do not effect excommunication). It is an abuse and a sacrilege when one disdains the Holy Liturgy by non-attendance due to sheer carelessness, and then receives communion the next time he attends. A person that has not been faithful in attending the Divine Liturgy must be restored by receiving confession before approaching the chalice.