March 2013 Newsletter The Apostle
During Great Lent, and in the next several weeks the Church calls us to do what we should be doing all year round. We are instructed to fast, pray, do charitable works, worship in the church, and so on. We must also include in the list participation in the Sacrament of Holy Confession. In his book, “The Lenten Spring,” Fr. Thomas Hopko (Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary) addresses some of the questions and issues regarding this neglected sacrament.
It is not enough for us to know our sins and hate them. We must also confess them before God and man. We must acknowledge them before heaven and earth. We must expose them to the whole of creation in order to be rid of them from within our secret hearts. Confession is part of the spiritual life. Indeed it is part of life itself. There is no authentic existence for human beings without it. And there is certainly no authentic repentance. “If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)
Some say that there is no need to confess sins openly and publicly. They say that people can confess directly to God. Such an idea is total nonsense. Confession to God in secret is no confession at all. It is simply the acknowledgment before the Lord that we know what He knows! Confession by definition is open and public. If it is not, it is simply not confession.
When the people were repenting in preparation for Jesus at the preaching of John the Baptist, it is written that they were baptized “confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). This does not mean that they were telling God in the privacy of their hearts what He already knew. It means that they were proclaiming the evils that they had done for all to hear. And St. James commands Christians: “Confess your sins to one another!” he is not advising them to be aware of their transgressions in the secrecy of their souls. He is ordering them to reveal their wickedness’s to each other so that they might be healed (James 5:16)
If confession is by definition the open and public acknowledgment of sins, why then do the Orthodox confess privately to their priests? It is not because the priests have some special power which others do not have… Priests have no power personally to forgive sins. Only Jesus Christ has such power. But the pastors have the ministry of witnessing the confession and repentance of God’s people, and of officially sealing that confession and repentance with the assurance of divine forgiveness through the prayers of absolution.
The reason why people now confess to their pastors in private is because of the weakness of the body of Christians as a whole. Confession used to be public. It was done openly in the presence of all the members of the Church. Anyone willing to confess in this manner today is welcome do so. But it would most likely serve only to lead other in temptation rather than to inspire prayerful compassion… When confession is done to the priest alone, it should be understood that it is to him as if it were it were to all. Or to put it another way, it is to all – God and man and the whole of creation – in the priest’s person as the head of the church community and the sacramental presence within it of the Lord Jesus Himself.
Great Lent is a time for confession. All Christians should make their confession. A person who does not is hardly a Christian. He is certainly not Orthodox.
Posted in Monthly Newsletter