We continue in our series on the sanctification of life, having discussed the sacraments of initiation, we move now into the second group of sacraments, that of repentance and holy oil, which deal with healing. In his book, Liturgy and Life, Fr. Alexander says:
We know and experience every day, in spite of our entrance into the joy and peace of the kingdom, that our life, more often than not, remains dark and sinful, and that we constantly fall from that wholeness which was given to us in the sacraments of initiation. Therefore we must be healed and reconciled with God again and again, and God in his mercy has left with his Church the sacramental means of that healing.
Today we will take a look at the sacrament of repentance. Fr. Alexander continues:
The purpose of the sacrament of repentance is to reconcile man with God and the Church. Every sin, indeed, separates or excommunicates us from the new life. Every time we sin, we are no longer in Christ. Every time we sin, we betray our true nature, restored in us by baptism and chrismation. It is only repentance that can bring us back to the state which we lost, which means that the sacrament of repentance must never be understood in magical terms, as an absolution independent of whether I repent or not, effective in itself and by itself.
On the contrary, this sacrament depends on my repentance. For repentance is not a mere enumeration of sins, a juridical transaction. It is first of all a real crisis of the conscience. The image of true repentance is found in the Gospel in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son remembered all that he had in his father’s home and how much he had lost, and he wanted with all his being to return. Therefore, wrong are those who explain the sacrament of repentance as a kind of objective power. The absolution pronounced by the priest is certainly valid, but if there is no true repentance on the part of the sinner, it does not apply to him.
What God wants from us is a broken heart. What God wants is a man who says, “I’ve received so much. I remember that white robe I received in baptism, and I realize how dirty it is.” Only when we’re truly disgusted with sin, when we repent, that is, we want to change, is the absolution fulfilled. For absolution is precisely the announcement by the priest that God has accepted the penitent, has reconciled him with himself and the Church, and that the prodigal son is returned and is accepted by the father.
Such is the Orthodox understanding of the sacrament of repentance different in this from the juridical Roman idea. In Christ, God has forgiven all sins once and for all, but this forgiveness applies to me only when I desire with all my heart, when I am longing for communion with God, life with him, for the restoration in me of that joy and peace without which nothing has any meaning or any interest for a Christian.
I have a couple of thoughts on this. I know that it’s kind of hard to grasp what Fr. Alexander’s talking about in terms of “juridical transaction like an objective power, the juridical Roman idea.” Let me just give you an illustration that I think will help. At least, it helped me when I was first introduced to this idea.
In the Baptist Church—and, of course, you know I use these illustrations a lot, but it’s my background; it’s my reference point, and perhaps many who are listening, it is also your reference point, too—I can remember growing up when my dad would perform a baptism in the church. I remember the formula quite well. He would say, “And now, by the authority vested in me as a minister of the Gospel, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He would use this same type of formula when performing marriages, adding “the authority of the state” with it. “And now, by the authority vested in me as a minister of the Gospel, and by the state of Oklahoma, I now pronounce you man and wife.”
These are basically, it seems to me, formulas that come from the Roman tradition that simply passed on into the Protestant and Evangelical tradition, where the authority vested in the minister or the priest is given, and by that power he makes these pronouncements. Although in the Baptist Church confession as a sacrament was not practiced, nevertheless, the Roman formula typically sounds very much the same in the sacrament of confession. “Whatever you have said to me, I forgive you.” I think this was problematic for me, growing up, and I think it’s still problematic somewhat. There is a sense of participation there. The Lord said that whatever sins ye loose, they’re loosed, and whatever sins you retain, they’re retained.
Nevertheless, in the ancient tradition, these formulas were typically rendered in the passive voice, and still are to this day in our Church when we baptize we say, “The servant of God is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and [the person] is immersed at the invocation of each of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, so we practice a triple immersion. In the sacrament of holy matrimony, the priest says, “The servant of God is betrothed to the handmaid of God; the handmaid of God is betrothed to the servant of God. What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” We will see, when we go through the specific service of the sacrament of confession that this passive voice is used again in the sacrament of repentance.
The way I look at it and the way it was explained to me is that we should see, understand, and accept that Lord Jesus Christ himself is the great High Priest and that the pastor, the priest, in the Church participating in this great high priesthood says the words of Jesus Christ, and the Lord acts through him and speaks through him these words, so that Jesus is doing the baptizing; Jesus is doing the marrying; and Jesus is doing the forgiving. If we believe that, then wouldn’t that give us more confidence to come into this sacrament of confession, the sacrament of repentance? So that the priest, then, is there standing as a spiritual guide, as an elder brother, as a father confessor, as one who is assuring the penitent that he has been forgiven by God and perhaps offering some advice or counsel in dealing with and overcoming the sins that plague and oppress him.
Let’s look now for a minute at the order of confession as it appears in the little red pocket prayer book published by the Antiochian Archdiocese. It’s the form that I typically use. The penitent comes and, having said some preparatory prayers—the Trisagion prayers, Psalm 50—then comes before the icon of Christ with the priest standing there and says, “I have sinned, O Lord. Forgive me, O God. Be gracious unto me, a sinner.”
That says a whole lot right there. Who is the penitent talking to? The penitent is talking to the Lord, standing in front of the icon of Jesus Christ, talking to him. Then he continues with another prayer:
Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I confess to thee all the hidden and open sins of my heart and mind, which I have committed unto this present day. Wherefore I beg of thee, the righteous and compassionate Judge, remission of sins and the grace to sin no more.
At this point, what I usually do—and of course not every priest conducts things exactly the same way—[is] I will place my stole over the head of the person who’s confessing their sins. This placing of the stole could mean several things, but what I try to encourage people [to understand] on the most simple and fundamental level is whatever is said under this stole is secret. It’s not secret in the sense that God the angels can’t hear it, but that it’s confidential. It’s confidential in that anything that is confessed under that stole will not be repeated. This gives the penitent confidence to get everything out, believing that it’s not going to be blurted out.
So the priest says:
My brother—or my sister—inasmuch as thou hast come to God and to me, be not ashamed, for thou speakest not unto me, but unto God before whom thou standest.
Here again the priest is reminding the penitent, “You’re talking to God.” I remember growing up there used to be a Gospel song: “Let’s just have a little talk with Jesus. We’ll tell him all about our sorrows.”
Not to trivialize what’s going on here, but we’re having a talk with Jesus. I’ll usually try to prompt the person who is confessing their sins to say, “What is it that you wish to confess to the Lord?” Again, I’m trying to direct this person to speak directly to God, and that I’ll listen, rather than them confessing to me, as it were.
The penitent will confess their sins, and the priest listens. Maybe he’ll have some questions; maybe he’ll have some advice; maybe he won’t say anything. But when the confession appears to be complete, I usually ask, “Is there anything else you wish to confess?” Sometimes there’s a pause there, and then something else comes out, because this isn’t easy. We don’t like to go to the doctor, and we don’t like to go to the dentist, and we don’t like to go to confession. Nobody’s saying this is easy or simple or fun, but it’s necessary if we have this burden of sin or if we have a sin that constantly besets us. We need to believe that there is power in this sacrament, just like there’s power in baptism, just like there’s power in chrismation, just like there is power in receiving the Holy Communion, that there is power to overcome our sins, not just to be forgiven, but to be cleansed and healed of our sins in this sacrament of holy confession and repentance.
When the person has completed, the priest says two prayers.
My spiritual child, who has confessed to my humble self, I, humble and a sinner, have not power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone. Yet, through that divinely spoken Word which came to the Apostles after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying, “Whatever sins ye remit, they are remitted, and whatsoever sins you retain are retained,” we, too, are emboldened to say: Whatever thou hast said to my most humble self, and whatever thou hast not succeeded in saying, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, whatever it may be, God forgive thee in this present world and in that which is to come.
And then the priest adds a final prayer:
God it was who forgave David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins; Peter, weeping bitterly for his denial; the sinful woman in tears at his feet; and the Publican and the Prodigal Son. May that same God forgive thee all things through me, a sinner, both in this present world and in that which is to come, and to set thee, uncondemned, before his dread judgment seat.
And now, having no further care for the sins which thou hast confessed, depart in peace. May Christ our true God, through the intercessions of his most pure Mother, and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, forasmuch as he is good and loveth mankind. Amen.
Do you remember the story of David and Nathan? King David had committed two terrible sins, of adultery and murder, and he hadn’t really admitted them. God sent to him a holy man, Nathan the Prophet. And still, he wouldn’t admit it until after Nathan had told him a story about an innocent young man and said, “What do you think ought to be done to the man who took this lamb?” And King David was enraged and said, “He ought to be killed.” And the Prophet Nathan said, “You’re the man.” David didn’t say a whole lot, but he was cut to the quick. All he said was, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But later he wrote this famous psalm, Psalm 50, “Have mercy on me, O God,” and it’s become the psalm of confession.
Can we confess our sins not in the presence of the priest and outside of the sacrament of confession? Well, of course. We do that all the time. We do that every day. But sometimes, if you’re like me, I need to be assured. I need to have somebody else tell me, “You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven by God. God loves you.” And we can have that. We can have that; we can hand over these burdens, hand them over to God and be released from these things in the sacrament of confession and repentance.
So many of us, I think especially coming from a Protestant and Evangelical background, we embrace the sacramental life, but I sometimes think we embrace six sacraments and not seven. We avoid this one. No, don’t. Don’t avoid it. We have these penitential seasons of the year, the season of Advent and the season of Great Lent, the season of the Apostles’ Fast, the season of the Dormition Fast in August. These penitential seasons are great times to look inside of ourselves, to be serious, not just to fast from food, but fast from sin.
I had a man ask me once at the beginning of Lent, he said, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I said, “Sin.” He looked at me with this kind of confused look and walked away. Why don’t we give up sin? This sacrament of holy confession and repentance may help us to do that. God bless you as you consider this sacrament and the power that it can have in your life, not only to be forgiven, but to be cleansed and to be healed. Amen.