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Understanding Penance

The Sacrament of Penance or Confession The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is a “new Baptism”. It has also been called the Mystery of the Second Baptism since it involves the forgiveness of all sins committed after Baptism. Fr. Meyendorff writes:

Originally a public act, required from sinners who either had been officially excommunicated or had performed acts liable to excommunication, penance, gradually and especially after the fourth century, took the form of private confession, followed by a prayer of absolution pronounced by a priest. It then identified itself almost completely with the practice of private spiritual direction, especially widespread in monastic communities.

Not every sin requires the necessity of sacramental forgiveness since we are never completely without sin. The Church has regarded sacramental penance as necessary for grave sins, i.e., murder, apostasy, adultery and for those sins of disobedience which serve to separate us from God and the love of our fellow humans. Christians who live in communion with Christ are expected to avail themselves of sacramental penance periodically as a form of spiritual check-up, as a means of humbling themselves before God and in order to receive guidance in the spiritual life from their pastor. Confession has never been viewed legalistically in the Eastern Church, i.e., as a way of sentencing and punishing guilt. On the contrary, the sinner is considered to be a prisoner of Satan, and, as such, a morally sick person.

Christ comes through the Sacrament of Penance to liberate and heal rather than to judge. One can find in the Orthodox Church an important theology of tears. Just as in Baptism our sins are cleansed by water, so the sins committed after Baptism are cleansed by water, i.e., tears of repentance. St. Symeon the New Theologian calls them the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” and teaches that sins committed after Baptism cannot be forgiven without tears. Thus St. John Climacus wrote: Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.

Because baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, then few indeed would be saved. There are two kinds of confession in the Orthodox Church: private confession by prayer and sacramental confession. Whereas our Roman Catholic brethren tend to hold to sacramental confession only, and our Protestant brethren to confession by private prayer only, the Orthodox Church, following the apostolic way, avoids both extremes. It holds that divine forgiveness may be received either by private prayer or by the Sacrament.

In the case of a grave sin, confession by private prayer should be supplemented by sacramental confession. In case of uncertainty as to what constitutes a grave sin, one should consult one’s priest. Sacramental confession before a priest even for lighter sins is a recommended practice in the Orthodox Church at least once a year. Whichever way of confession we choose, in any given situation, either private or sacramental, or both, it must be followed by receiving Holy Communion since this is the sacrament by which our sins are forgiven and washed in the Precious Blood of Jesus. The entire beauty and mystery of the Sacrament of Penance is expressed in the following exhortation which the priest addresses to the penitent in the Russian rite. It portrays the role of the priest in Confession as that of a witness rather than a judge.

Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession; therefore, do not be ashamed or afraid, and hide nothing from me; but tell me without hesitation all the things that you have done, and so you will have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. See, his holy image is before us; and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all the things you have to say to me. But if you hide anything from me, you will have greater sin. Take care, then, lest having come to a physician you depart unhealed.

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