As a convert to Orthodox Christianity, it is common to question many of the Church’s practices in order to have a better understanding of why we do the things we do. My last post topic focused on baptism. Baptism washes away past transgressions and marks the beginning of a new life in Christ. Past sins are forgiven. We humans falter. Therefore, the Church includes Repentance as one of its sacraments. This is a controversial topic for many who have a Protestant background. I would also posit that it is controversial for Orthodox and Catholics too. I know many of both who don’t believe in going to confession.
Confession isn’t really “the American way.” Hollywood and modern thought have done confession no favors. I recently saw a boy meets girl themed movie where the man went to confession weekly to confess his sexual escapades at his local catholic church. Each week, the priest told him to recite a certain number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.” This happened every week. Every week he was forgiven. Every week he had the same “penance.” This obviously made the whole routine a laughable spectacle.
What I have learned is that the Orthodox Christian teaching is really a relationship with a spiritual guide. We are used to having consultants for financial planning, an accountant, a lawyer, and many other areas of specialization where the consultant helps assist our lives in these various areas. If we are serious about our spiritual growth, would a spiritual “consultant” not be a sensible idea as well. Is it less important than asking somebody about the best performing mutual fund? What follows is my attempt to explain the theology of repentance and confession according to Orthodox Christian teaching.
The setting for the Epiphany of our Lord starts with John the Baptist shouting “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. This was a calling for the people to change their ways. Turn away from evil and wash away their sins through baptism. Baptism takes on more meaning as our Lord sanctifies the water with His own Baptism. When we desire to become a part of the Church of Christ, we are baptized and walk in the newness of life.
After we are baptized, we are then grafted into the Body of Christ, the Church. This allows us to partake of the body and blood of Christ and He then enters our body. We have to ask ourselves, will our Lord be able to find a home in us? Is it possible for Him to enter our souls if it is inhabited with unseemliness? If we have let the unclean in us through sin, how can the Holy One be at peace? There is a way for us to chase the demons from our bodies so that it may be joyful again through the mystery of repentance. Just as we die and are born again in baptism, we spend our lives dying daily to sin. Though we choose to put on Christ and live by His measures, we miss the mark and need to get back on track. When we realize our sins we need to take the necessary measures to change our ways.
Repentance is satisfied through the sacrament of Confession. Committed members of the Church are wise to have a relationship with a spiritual father. The penitents confess their sins to him with the heartfelt desire to make amends with God. The spiritual father will then offer advise on how to go about growing spiritually and refraining from evil deeds.
There are some that say they have no sins but St. John the Theologian tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. The very next line says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Other people think that there is only a need to confess their sins if they have done something big, a grave sin. The Holy Fathers point out that more men have died from microscopic viruses than from lions, tigers or bears. Even little sins that are felt to be recurring should be confessed before one’s spiritual father. A good analogy is that we continue to wash our bodies and clothes even though we will wear them again and make them dirty. The Fathers tell us that as often as we fall into the mud, sin, we have to pull ourselves up through repentance. If we never pull ourselves out of the mud of sin, then we will surely die for off track. If, however, we are continually cleansed, we will probably meet our Judge with clean hands!
Our natural desire is to be with God, but our passions and fears stand in the way. We have learned to sin with such ease that we don’t even try to stop it much of the time. We dilute and justify our actions saying, “Sin is inevitable”. There is a cure for this burden of passion and fear that continues to keep us from peace and union with God. This cure, commonly referred to as the medicine for sin, is confession. During confession, a man’s impurities are removed and we are as pure as after we were baptized.
Confession is too often carried out in a sort of mechanical way. Confession in its intended use requires spiritual preparation. This preparation is best carried through with prayer and fasting. The only reason for confession is the reconciliation of God and sinner. Preparation is essential, because this relationship has been torn apart by sin.
Repentance is not some sort of negotiation with God, nor is it feeling sorry or guilty for a wrong done. It is not simply a state, but a step. It is a renewal of life in Christ and an opening for new possibility. The Christian Faith is witness to the fact that the past can be undone. This process is more than a mechanical aspect; it is an endorsement of freedom. The liberty is a new life with Christ and freedom from death.
Christ having delivered the temple of His body to death and offered one sacrifice for all men to make them innocent and free from original guilt. He shows that He is victorious over death. The first fruit of His Resurrection is His own incorruptibility.
Repentance is the reaching out to holiness. Passions are conquered by stronger passions. Love is overcome by a more abundant love. We reach out in a state of weakness, but Christ tells us “Our strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Man doesn’t repent because he is virtuous. We are weak and are changing our natural susceptibility. The Greek translation of “repentance” is a transformation of outlook. Repentance is a continual renewal of life: a passing from death to life. It is a sort of reversal from the natural course of life, which is life to death.
This event of repentance is a sort of self-discovery. It allows a person to be present with God. It is not an event that exposes failure, but a renewal of a holy union. This is not a simple state, but a life with which one must continually struggle. St John Climacus said that there are only two saving waters, the waters of baptism and the water from the tears of repentance.
Repentance is not restricted to a relationship between God and man, but also of man and man. The Gospel of Luke tells us that there is joy in Heaven over one man that repents. As a sacramental affair, it is also one that is important to the body of Christ, the Church. This is a dynamic responsibility to God and the saints. This is not some private procedure like a man with a psychologist. Early in the Church, the repentant sinner would reveal himself before the whole congregation. It was later that it became a more personal method between a man and his confessor. The priest is a witness before the confession, which is in front of God. Children even come to partake of this sacrament after they reach the age of six or seven years. This event of cleansing has parallels to the washing of sins in baptism and is therefore sometimes referred to as the second baptism. This is not a simple action of admitting to a broken law or showing a feeling of guilt. It is not enough for us to simply repent before God; He has given the priests the power to administer the sacraments of His Church. It is easy to confess before a God that we cannot see and do not directly have to answer to here on Earth. If we sin we have to go before our confessor and explain to him that we broke on of God’s laws. It is much harder to then go and tell him that you have performed the same sin again. This is part of the brilliance of the system.
There is no specific formula in the Church for how often one should partake of this holy sacrament. In the Russian custom, communion tends to be more infrequent, so it is more common for the penitent to have confession before each communion. In traditions where communion is taken more often, confession may not necessarily be heard before each communion.
Many people today think that the worst thing that can happen to themselves or their loved ones is that they may be sick, or poor, or even death. While these things are not fun and none of us look forward to experiencing things that don’t make us feel good, it is not the worst thing that can happen. Even though sickness is bad, it can sometimes make a person realize what is truly important in life. It seems that when many people are sick, it really affects them spiritually and it can even help bring them closer to what we are really here for, working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Many people that lose money they may have once had are humbled. This experience could bring a person to realize that he is not better than others because of his money. He may even be touched by and act of love by a friend trying to help him in need. This experience could shed new light on the perspective of life.
While death, disease, and poverty are painful things, they can actually aid in a person’s salvation. They are not completely lacking in good possibilities. Sin, however, is the thing that we should truly be frightful of. Sin can only lead to the destruction of our souls. If we spend the remainder of our time pulling ourselves out of the mud of sin, then we still have the opportunity to win the race.
In closing, I am brought to the prophetic words of the Holy Prophet Ezekiel, “I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live; turn ye heartily from your ways” (Ezk 33:11).
Bishop Kallistos Ware; The Orthodox Church, 1997 Penguin Books, England
St. Theophan; The Path to Salvation; St. Herman Press, 1997 Platina, CA
Anthony Coniaris; Introducing The Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life; Light and Life Publishing Life of 1982 Minneapolis, MN
Vladimir Lossky: The Image and Likeness of Christ; SVS Press, 1985 Crestwood NY
Vladimir Lossky: Mystic Theology of the Eastern Church; SVS Press, 1976 Crestwood NY
Archimandrite Aleksiev; The Forgotten Medicine; St. Xenia Skete Press, 1994
Chyssavgis; Repentance and Confession; Holy Cross Press, 1996