Confession—What Is It?
The Journey to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the Disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the Disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20: 19-23
Good morning Prayer Team!
One of the most misunderstood aspects of our Orthodox faith is the sacrament of confession. When I was a child, probably about 9 or 10, I remember hearing about confession at summer camp. We were told to go see the priest and say our sins. We were all scared. I remember someone had $5 in his pocket and asked me to hold it while he went to confession. And when it was my turn, I asked him to hold my money. My camp confession was with Fr. Demetri Kangelaris, now priest in Winston-Salem, NC and a good friend. I don’t remember anything about this confession, other than the priest seemed nice.
After this experience, I never heard the word confession again until I was 19 years old and going through a difficult time and my priest at that time, suggested that I should go to confession. I did. During this confession, the priest, Fr. James Adams, who eventually also became a close friend, gave me a lot to think about. He also gave me a book to read. The “feeling” I had after confession I can’t say was amazing. My head was spinning from all the stuff he told me and it wasn’t until after I read the book he gave me and spent 30 days praying for the first time in my life, that I felt something awaken in me spiritually. Looking back on this conversation, which took place in August of 1991, I can say it was one of the most profound conversations of my life. When I went to thank Fr. James years later for what was a life-changing experience for me, he couldn’t remember the conversation. I remember thinking, how can he not remember this? Now that I am a priest, I hear confessions which many people tell me later have a profound impact on them. And like Fr. James, I don’t remember anything I hear in confession. As a priest once said to me, “The grace of the Holy Spirit that comes down on you to wipe out your sins, comes down on me to wipe out my memory of the conversation!”
The origin of confession can be traced to the Gospel of John, quoted above, where Christ gave His Apostles a gift and a responsibility to bind and loose sins. The Apostles passed this to the bishops, who grant this privilege to the priests. Confession is the most serious thing I am doing as a priest. Because while in a Sunday sermon, I may somewhat influence that lives of many people, in the private, personal encounter with someone in confession, I am directly responsible for their soul. This is serious stuff!
Confession is an opportunity to do several things—First it is the opportunity to own up for past failings. Many people are beset by guilt over things they’ve done wrong in the past. Confession is an opportunity to be loosed from guilt and shame.
Second, confession provides us an opportunity to answer for our sins in this life, rather than before the Awesome Judgment seat of Christ. The Gospel tells us that in the Last Judgment, all secrets will be revealed. It also tells us that our sins can be loosed in this life. This seems like a juxtaposition. I asked a priest about this one time and he said to me, “When you share something in confession, it is no longer a secret, as it is known by one other person.” The sins we have confessed are no longer secret. We can therefore be loosed of sin and not worry that we will again have to answer for sins we have confessed and repented of.
Which then leads to the question, “why not confess to God, why do we need a priest there?” The answer comes from scripture. Christ didn’t award each person the right to bind and loose their own sins. He gave that responsibility to His Apostles, who have granted it to others.
There is also a practical matter. Confessing in front of a priest affords you an opportunity to receive advice and guidance. It is always my goal in confession to help the person confessing to be oriented in the right direction, back towards God. Confession is not just a listing of sins, but creating a plan to repent of them. If life is like a book, confessing sins is like taking the bad pages of the story out of the book, and the conversation that follows is like replacing the bad pages with good ones. Confession and repentance go hand in hand. This is why the priest offers words of pastoral counsel to assist with repentance, in making a plan so that the sins that were confessed can be avoided (or at least attempt to be avoided) in the future.
Finally, I view confession as a form of spiritual encouragement. When confession is over, and the priest offers the prayer of absolution over the person who has confessed, the prayer ends with the words “Have no further anxiety over the sins you have confessed; depart in peace.” What great encouragement is that! It’s like saying “Despite what you’ve done, God still loves you!”
We will answer for everything we’ve done in this life. Confession affords us an opportunity to answer for what we’ve done prior to standing in front of God’s awesome judgment seat, to feel the burden of sin loosed so that we can feel full and complete, rather than constantly feeling burdened and sad.
Tomorrow, in a second reflection on confession, we will discuss the mechanics of confession, how to prepare, how often to go, etc.
O heavenly King, uphold our rulers, strength the Faith, calm the nations, give peace to the world. Protect (our church, our city and our nation); grant our departed fathers and brethren may dwell with the righteous, and accept us in repentance and confession; for You are good and love mankind. Amen. (Lenten Prayer, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
If you’ve never been to confession, consider going this Lent. If you haven’t been for a while, consider going again.
Photo Credit: St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church
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