Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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 20:22-23 Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Pascha
Good morning Prayer Team!
Christ is Risen!
In yesterday’s reflection, we examined the sacrament of ordination, which has its genesis in John 20:22. In the very next verse, we have the genesis of the sacrament of Confession. Christ knows that life is hard. It’s hard to always have our focus on Him. He watched His Disciples, His closest friends, fail again and again to trust in Him, and to do the right thing. So, He created this sacrament as a way of “encouraging” His followers, by giving them a means to eliminate sins and guilt in this life. And to not lose hope if the sins were great!
Christ gave His Disciples both a gift and a responsibility when He said to them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Only God alone forgives sins, but through this gift, God’s servants—His Disciples, Bishops and now Priests—are given the opportunity to “loose” sins of the faithful, so that the faithful are not beset with guilt.
We spoke about the concept of “Apostolic Succession,” which means that Christ ordained the Apostles, endowing them with the Holy Spirit. The Apostles then “ordained” the next generation of church leaders, whom we call “Episkopoi” or “bishops”. Later on, the office of “presbyter” was added.
As an aside, the first office of the clergy to be created with the rank of “Bishop.” These were the Apostles who founded the churches in the various cities where they spread the Gospel. When a “new” church was established in a new city, a new “bishop” was “ordained” to shepherd the new church. Deacons were “ordained” to assist the Bishops. In Acts 6, we read about the “ordination” of the first deacons:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon and Parmenas and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the Apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. (Acts 6:1-6)
And later, the office of “Presbyter” was created so that as more churches were established in each city, and the Bishop could not preside over all of them, the Presbyter was representing the Bishop in the satellite parishes, with the Bishop presiding over the “Cathedral” parish and occasionally visiting the others. (This practice is still followed in our church to this day.)
The Bishops were given the authority to bind and loose sins through their Apostolic Succession. The Presbyters (who we now call priests) are given this authority through their Bishop through a prayer of elevation to the office of “Confessor.” Not every priest has this responsibility. In fact, a priest usually serves for a period of time before being given this awesome responsibility. (A deacon does not hear confessions, he is not given this responsibility.)
It is one of the greatest feelings in the world to be told that you can live your life “without any anxiety” about the things you brought to confession. It is one of the greatest gifts God has given to His Church. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. This gift is possible through the sacrament of confession. God really has taken care of the needs of His faithful. He has given us a great way to feel encouraged and hopeful by giving us a mechanism to be released of past guilt.
The choice to “forgive” or “retain” a sin is given over to the “discernment” of the priest or bishop hearing the confession. Why would a priest “retain” a sin that someone has confessed? I can’t answer for all priests, but let me give you my personal reason. At the end of confession, there is a prayer called the “prayer of absolution” that is offered over the person who has confessed their sins. The prayer includes the words “Have no further anxiety about the things you have confessed, depart in peace.” Sometimes I ask the person who has confessed if they still feel “anxiety” about what they’ve confessed and many times, the answer is “yes,” they still do. Instead of offering a prayer that they are not ready to accept, I ask them to do a “penance”. Many people associate penance with punishment, after all “penance” and “penalty” share the same root. I look at penance more like a project. For instance, I might ask someone to read a Psalm for 40 days, like Psalm 50/51 that speaks about “create in me a clean heart,” and then after 40 days to check in to see if the anxiety has subsided. For someone who hasn’t received Communion in a long time, perhaps a “penance” that they receive for a period of time. (Some priests ask people to not receive Communion for a period of time, I do not do that because I don’t think it is spiritually healthy to do that to someone). For someone who has had an abortion, who still carries sadness over this sin, I ask them to write a letter to the child they didn’t keep and this has always helped bring healing to the wounded heart and soul. Again, I use “penance” very infrequently. What I “discern” when I listen to a confession, is the “contrite” heart that says “I want to come back.” Then it is with great joy that I offer the prayer of absolution, granting each person who comes to confession, the new start and unburdening of sin they so desire. (Another important suggestion for confession, you should go with someone who you know and feel comfortable with.)
Today’s verses represent one of God’s greatest gifts to us, the ability to start over again, granted to us from Christ, to the Apostles, through the Bishops, and to the priests, who impart it to the faithful. Receiving absolution through the sacrament of confession is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself!
O Giver of Life, You did not break the seals that secured Your tomb. And likewise after Your awesome rising from the Sepulcher, You unhindered entered the room where Your glorious Apostles were, the doors being shut, O Christ, and cause them to rejoice. And You granted them Your governing Holy Spirit, for mercy immeasurable. (From the Praises of Orthros, Thomas Sunday, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
If you didn’t go to confession during Lent, make an appointment with your priest so you can receive this gift! It’s available all year!
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