Why do we Confess?
God is the source of all life and joy. Our separation from His life, from the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, inevitably leads us to corruption, despair and death. In coming into this world and becoming one of us, God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, defeats death through His own death and resurrection and offers to all who believe in Him and join themselves to Him the possibility of eternal life.
In the sacrament of Baptism we are mystically, yet really, joined to Christ and to His Living Body – the Church – through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit working in the baptismal waters. In Christ’s own words ‘…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5) Unfortunately in our everyday life, even after Baptism, we continue to reject God’s gift of life and His values in so many ways. As we come to terms with this fact and see how often we ‘miss the mark’, we understand that sin still has a hold over us and places a barrier between ourselves and God. ‘If we say that we have no sin,’ writes St John, ‘we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)
The sacrament of Confession then becomes for us the means by which we renew the saving work of Baptism in our lives and allows the healing power of God to restore the broken relationship between us and Him caused by our sin. ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:9)
Why is it important?
All sin disrupts our relationship both with God and with our neighbour. There is no such thing as a ‘private’ sin. Even our innermost thoughts ultimately have an impact on the way we behave and relate to others and God. It was understood by the Church from the earliest times that the only way to reconcile us once again with God and with those whom we have hurt, either directly or indirectly, was to have a public confession of sin. And so St James writes in his epistle: ‘Confess your trespasses to one another.’ (James 5:16) In this way sin is exposed and uprooted and is not allowed to spread either within the life of the individual or the Church like a spiritual cancer silently eating away at whatever is good and healthy.
In the early Church confession was made before the whole congregation but over the centuries the priest remained the sole witness of the Church before whom we make our confession to Christ. This maintained the ‘public’ nature of the sacrament while at the same time preserving the integrity of the act from people who might not show it due respect. The priest then exercises, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the authority which Christ bestowed on His apostles to proclaim God’s forgiveness on the one who has truly repented and confessed openly. ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:23)
How to prepare for Confession?
The Sacrament itself is the final act in a process of self-examination and repentance before God. It cannot be done mechanically and without any spiritual preparation for we can only be forgiven for those things which we truly seek to put behind us. Before we go to Confession we need to spend some time alone in prayer and reflection so that we can come to terms not only with our actions but with who we are and what we are becoming. In silence we must ask God to reveal to us those things in our life which have become a barrier to our relationship with Him. If it is our first confession it is a good idea to look over our whole life so far and note down on a piece of paper those major incidents over the years for which we feel guilty or which in some way still occupy our conscience. Then we will look over our more recent life – the last few months, weeks and days – more closely. As a guide to prompt us it is good to read the 10 commandments (Exodus 20) and our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). These passages act as a spiritual mirror in which we can see a reflection of our inner self. As God brings things to mind we note them down and can then take this ‘list’ with us to confession. In this way we can make sure that actually say everything we had intended and avoid skipping those sins which may cause us most embarrassment or shame.
What happens at Confession?
Every priest may conduct Confession slightly differently but generally the priest (wearing an epitrachilion or stole) will say an introductory prayer and then invite us to sit facing an icon of Christ and make our confession. Sometimes the priest may ask questions to prompt us or to clarify a point but generally we should approach the meeting as we would a visit to the doctor. We come to describe to the priest our sins which are the symptoms of our spiritual disease as honestly and as openly as we can so that he can pray to God for our forgiveness and also advise us as to how to tackle and overcome these sins in everyday life. Our confession therefore has to be clear, without excuses and without discussion of the sins of others. We must trust that God knows all of our circumstances and He will excuse us if need be. We have to take to Him and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable part which is the sin. At the end of our confession the priest may advise us and sometimes give us an epitimio or penance which is not a punishment, rather a ‘medicine’ to help eradicate sin from our life. He will then ask us to kneel while he places the epitrachilion over our head and reads the prayer of forgiveness encouraging us to be confident in God’s mercy and love for us. For every Orthodox Christian a heartfelt confession is an opportunity cleanse our inner life and to make a new beginning in our relationship with God – an opportunity to enter once again into the life and joy of God’s Kingdom.
Rev. Anastasios Bozikis