As we move forward in our sermons, the last few Sundays have been a series about the different sacraments of the Church and not just what they mean, because we’ve spoken about those things many times, but more from an ecclesiological point of view, which basically means: what do we mean by the sacraments and how do we participate in them, and what does it mean for us to be members of the Church, to be Orthodox Christians, what are the boundaries of the Church, and what does it mean to be inside the Church and to leave the Church, to step outside of the Church, and what are those consequences? So we’ve been looking at those sacraments.
If you remember, for those who have been here, we spoke about birth, children being born into the world and the prayers that we have for the mothers, the 40-day blessing when we bring the children to the Church. We spoke two weeks ago about baptism and what that means as the entrance, the initiation into the Church and into the worshiping community. Last week we spoke about holy Communion, what that means for us and why we all partake of the same cup and the same spoon and what that means for us; we spoke about the prosphoro, the bread that is offered on behalf of everybody from the people and what does that mean and how do we include part of ourselves in the holy Communion.
Today I wanted to speak a little bit about the next sacrament that is extremely relevant to all these things that have come before, which is holy confession, because all the sacraments of the Church really have to do with the center of the spiritual life, which is holy Communion, the becoming one, not only with Christ, but with his people, with one another. So holy Communion is the next logical thing to speak about, because when we speak about baptism, which you remember we spoke about two weeks ago, we spoke about entering into the Church and leaving behind an old life and putting on a white garment, which is a spiritual metaphor of us keeping our souls pure, and we enter into this environment so that we can work out our own salvation along with everyone else within the Church that has the tools that we can use.
But what happens when we fall? What happens when we make mistakes? What happens when we stain that garment? Well, we need a way to clean it again. We need a way to keep ourselves clean. Just like physically we get dirty every day, so we take baths. In the same way, we need our spiritual cleansing as well.
Now, there are misconceptions in the Orthodox Church about confession. The funny thing is that confession has been, from the very first day, from the time of Christ, who instituted it himself in the gospels, and yet there are some young people who come to me and say, “Father, do we even have confession? Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” which is really funny. The irony is that confession is not an optional part of Christian life, but rather a necessity. It is a necessity for our spiritual hygiene, just like bathing is necessary for our physical hygiene. So as we sin, we begin to feel guilt. Of course, that guilt manifests itself in different ways, and we begin to repress that guilt and we hide it deep down because we don’t like to feel guilty and we like to move on with our lives, but what happens is that guilt doesn’t go away. It just goes somewhere and hides, within our soul, within our psyche and comes back and manifests itself in many, many different ways.
What does this mean for us as Orthodox Christians as being part of the Church? Well, in the early Church, the form of confession—we’re talking about in the first 100 years—we had a form of public confession. We had small communities, not very big, because the Christians were under the Roman empire which oppressed them. It was illegal to be a Christian at the time, so you found these small pockets of Christians throughout the Roman empire who would hide from the Roman authorities and who would pray and worship in secret. So amongst them they would practice public confession, because they were very tight-knit. They loved one another and they accepted one another and they stuck together. So when one of them offended the other, they would ask for forgiveness publicly. Of course, there were priests at that time, and the priests would read the prayer of forgiveness on behalf of the community, but it was more of a public confession.
But as time went on and the churches grew, and especially after the time of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, where Christianity became legalized and became the official religion of the empire, we see that the churches grew and got to the point where we have today where we have thousands of members in a community. It is very, very difficult, of course, from a practical point of view to confess in front of so many different people, mainly because we as human beings are flawed. We cannot handle hearing the sins of other people. We judge. We are all on different spiritual levels. So from a practical point of view, not wanting to scandalize the people, the confession changed its form and became this private confession between the person and the priest or the person and the spiritual father.
The priest is there, not as a guru or as a perfect person, as a person who has no sin themselves, but rather the priest is there to hear the confessions on behalf of the community. Many people forget about this aspect within the Church. Everybody conceives of confession these days as something private: it is between me and God. And this is why many people try to bypass the whole religious aspect of it and say, “Well, I can confess to an icon at home, or I can tell God my problems, and God will advise me and everything will be fine.” So we try to bypass the accountability that we have toward one another.
But if we look at the early Church, we see that the Fathers emphasize two aspects of confession. Yes, the private relationship that we have with God and the forgiveness that comes only from God, but also the social dimension of confession, the idea that when we sin, and when I sin personally, even the sins that I do in my mind and in my heart that none of you know about, they are all still sins against you as my spiritual family, because we are all baptized into the same family and we are all brothers and sisters. So all sin, from an Orthodox point of view, is social. It affects all of you, even the stuff that you don’t know about. It affects me, it will make me a worse person, and eventually that will affect how I treat all of you. So when I sin, in essence, I owe all of you an apology.
This is why I go to confession. Not to myself personally. I go to my spiritual father, and I confess to him, and he hears my confession on behalf of the community. When he reads the prayer of forgiveness, it is not something magical. It is not something that he is waving his hand over me and—poof—the sins are gone, and I can go and do the same things again, but rather he is essentially saying that we are all the same, we are all part of the same community, we all sin, no one is better than the other, and you are accepted back into the community again. It’s a reconciliation again to the worshiping body of Christ.
So when we do this, God also forgives us, because Christ tells us in the gospels; he tells us, “He who says he loves God but hates his brother is a liar,” because we cannot hate other people or hold things against them since we are all the living temples of the Holy Spirit and we’re supposed to see the image of Christ in each one of us. We cannot say that we don’t love each other, but we love God.
This is why Christ institutes the sacrament of confession in Scripture. He gives the apostles to loose and to remit and to forgive sins within Scripture, so that he forces us to go to one another. This is something that we have great difficulty doing in our modern day and age, because we don’t trust each other any more, because we have hate, because we are afraid that if we ever reveal the things that we do, the ugly things about ourselves, that people will reject us, that people will not love us. The Church provides a place where we can find a safe haven where we can be ourselves and we can express even those things that we feel ashamed of, and we will not feel judged but rather we will feel accepted, because all of us are the same. This is why the Fathers always emphasized the Church as not being the club for the holy, but rather being the hospital for those who are sick, for those who are spiritually sick. So when people say, “I don’t like to go to church because it’s full of hypocrites and people who judge others and all sinners,” well, whom do you expect to find at the hospital? All of us have some type of problem.
I always like to remind people that if the Church is a hospital and the priest is the doctor, if we look at it that way, then we begin to understand that, from a practical point of view, there is much benefit to come from it. When we go to our doctor and are physically sick, the doctor may be able to diagnose us, find out patterns in our behavior, find out the symptoms, and be able to prescribe the proper cure. The doctor himself may be sick. The doctor might also be sick and be taking medication, but that does not mean that he’s not a good doctor; that does not mean that he’s not good at what he does. So this is how we have to also view our priests, our spiritual fathers, the elders that maybe we visit or monastics, those people that we go to for spiritual guidance. They may not be perfect. They, too, may have to go to a doctor and also be diagnosed and also receive the cure, but that does not mean that we don’t go to each other. That does not mean that we bypass the hospital altogether or try to self-diagnose, as many people do, or go online, md.com, and figure out what’s wrong with ourselves, and usually that’s a disaster.
All these things we have to take into consideration when thinking about our spiritual well-being, especially now as the fall comes and we’re coming up to November, November 15, the beginning of the great fast for Christmas, Advent, the 40 days from November 15 to December 25, where we are again entering into a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ in the flesh, and this is a time when more people confess. I would recommend that most of us seriously consider that, taking that first step and trying to confess, especially if we’ve never done it before, so that we can take that first leap of faith to try to become true human beings as Christ tries to tell us to be, that we begin to trust at least a few people in our lives with everything that we are and to also receive that guidance and to be able to try and work out our salvation and to realize that we’re not alone, but rather that we have a greater family that loves us and cares for us and will not judge us, no matter what. Amen.