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THE SACRAMENT OF
(The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt)
What is Holy Confession?
Holy Confession is one of the great Mysteries (or Sacraments) of the Holy Orthodox Church. Frequent participation in this Sacrament offers a superb opportunity for spiritual growth, by trying to overcome our sins (that separate us from God and lead to death), through repentance, forgiveness and spiritual counseling by our Father Confessor. There are four components of Confession: (1) Examination of our actions and thoughts to discern how we have sinned; (2) Repentance for our sins; (3) Confessing these sins to God in the presence of the priest who is our Father Confessor, while his stole (epitrahil) is over our head; and (4) Absolution --- the pronouncing of the Forgiveness of our sins by the priest, as he makes the sign of the cross over our head. Sometimes this Sacrament/Mystery is called the Sacrament of Repentance or Reconciliation.
Why Do We Go to Confession?
The Apostle and Evangelist, St. John the Theologian, writes in his First Epistle (1 John 1:6-10): "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..." We are constantly breaking our communion with God, with our fellow humans and with God's whole creation by our sins. Therefore, we go to Holy Confession in order to be forgiven, and to restore the state of reconciliation that we were granted by our Baptism --- in other words, to restore our Baptismal purity. In the earthly ministry of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He was constantly healing people, sometimes by declaring that their sins were forgiven. Our sins cause our souls to be sick, and frequently our bodies too. When we are sick, we go to a doctor to be healed. Because our souls are sick, we go to the spiritual hospital, the Holy Orthodox Church, to be healed by the Great Physician, through His priests, by means of the Mystery/Sacrament of Holy Confession.
After His Resurrection, Our Lord breathed the Holy Spirit onto His Apostles, and gave to them His divine power to forgive sins (John 20:22-23). This power has been passed on ever since then by the Laying-on-of-Hands (Ordination/ Consecration) in an unbroken line from the Apostles (the first bishops), to each new bishop. The bishops in turn delegate this apostolic power to forgive sins to each priest when he is ordained. When we are sick, we go to a doctor. Our priest (or Father Confessor) is our spiritual doctor, who not only grants us forgiveness of our sins in the Lord's name, but also can provide valuable treatment for the illnesses of our soul by means of spiritual guidance.
Confession and Holy Communion
Whereas there is enormous benefit to be received from the Sacrament of Holy Confession in and of itself, in practice, it is closely associated with the preparation for receiving another great Sacrament/Mystery---Holy Communion--- the "Medicine of Immortality" as St. Ignatious of Antioch calls Holy Communion. Our Lord tells us that if we do not eat His Body and drink His Blood, (that is, receive Holy Communion), we have no life in us (John 6:53), and that "He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him" (John 6:56). Our Lord invites us to be united with Him at every Divine Liturgy by receiving Holy Communion---His Body and Blood. It is a truly awesome and mind-boggling privilege to be united with the Lord by partaking of His Holy Gifts, and so we must not approach the Holy Things casually, frivolously, or without adequate preparation. We prepare ourselves by prayfully trying to cleanse ourselves of our sins, so that we might be suitable temples for the Lord to dwell in, for He wishes that we will allow Him to make His home in our hearts and bodies (Revelation 3:20). We cleanse ourselves by going to Holy Confession, by repentance, by fasting, by saying the Prayers Before and After Holy Communion, by attending Vespers the evening before, and by prayerfully approaching the Holy Chalice, consciously aware that we are partaking of Christ's Body and Blood and becoming united with Him. The Lord offers us a priceless gift---Himself! This is the best gift in the world---there is nothing better! He asks of us that we be willing to accept His gift of Himself, that He offers to us at His great Banquet Feast, and to prepare ourselves to become living temples of His Divine Presence, by going to Holy Confesssion, preferably after attending Vespers/Vigil the evening before. St. Paul cautions us about receiving Holy Communion in an unworthy manner (carelessly or without adequate preparation), saying: "He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner, eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's Body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you...." (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
When children are baptized in the Orthodox Church as infants, and raised in the Church, their parents, grandparents and godparents have just as much responsibility to feed the children's souls as they have to feed their bodies. One of the most vital sources of this spiritual nourishment is bringing the children to Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion every week. A person does not need to understand how Holy Communion provides nourishment for it to be effective, any more than it is necessary to understand the process of digestion for regular food to be effective. If people do not eat---whether a child or adult---they become weak, malnourished and may die. Likewise, our souls become weak, withered and may die without spiritual food. Children who attend Divine Liturgy every week since infancy learn at a very early age that receiving Holy Communion is something truly special, and they look forward to it with eager anticipation.
When children are seven years old, they have reached what is called "the age of discretion," that is, they know the difference between right and wrong, and are able to take responsibility for their actions. Therefore, for children actively raised in the Church and regularly attending Divine Liturgy and receiving Holy Communion, around the age of seven it is expected that children start going to Holy Confession and fasting before receiving Holy Communion.
The customs associated with children's First Confession in North America vary considerably in different ethnic traditions and between parishes. Naturally, of course, in preparation for their First Confession, children should be instructed about what Holy Confession, Holy Communion, sin, repentance and forgiveness are all about, and what to do and say when they go to Confession. On this very special day they usually wear special clothes: the girls frequently wear a white dress, and the boys might wear a white shirt and dress pants, and maybe even a tie, vest or suit. They have their actual First Confession either after Vespers the evening prior to Liturgy, or before Divine Liturgy in the morning. During Liturgy they usually hold candles and stand together at the front of the church, and are the first to receive Holy Communion. It is common to have a meal/party in their honor after Liturgy, either at church or at their home. Friends and relatives outside the parish are sometimes invited for a child's First Confession---the biggest event ever in the life of a seven-year-old. If a child is older when they have their First Confession, they may or may not observe all of these customs. Occasionally a person may be a teenager or even an adult before they have their First Confession. For an adult convert to Orthodoxy, their First Holy Confession will be heard in conjunction with their Chrismation and the Rite of their Reception into the Holy Orthodox Church.
How Frequently Should We Go to Confession?
The answer to this question is interrelated with the similar question---how frequently should we receive Holy Communion? The goal and purpose of the Orthodox Christian life is to be united with the Lord, which can occur only as we become increasingly like Him, little by little. Therefore, since being united with Him in Holy Communion and overcoming our sins by frequent Holy Confession are very effective means (within a life daily prayer) of moving towards this goal of the spiritual life, ideally we should receive Holy Communion at every Divine Liturgy, and go to Confession before each Liturgy, or at least once a week, or maybe every other week. In practice, however, this varies enormously, especially between different ethnic traditions. In contemporary American Orthodoxy, there is the tendency to receive Holy Communion more frequently, but often without the adequate preparation that includes frequent Holy Confession. It is fairly common today that if a person receives Holy Communion every week, it is considered acceptable that they go to Confession once a month. (But if a person is ever absent from a Sunday Liturgy, they should always go to Confession before coming to Communion again.) In some Orthodox traditions it is thought that receiving Holy Communion just a few times a year is sufficient. Then, of course, fasting and prayers in preparation are strict, and naturally, Holy Confession is required. We wish to suggest that, due to historical circumstances, we Orthodox have frequently forgotten that receiving Holy Communion is the fulfillment and end-purpose of each Divine Liturgy, as well as a means of achieving the goal of Orthodox spiritual life. Therefore, we should not reject our Lord's invitation to be united with Him at His Banquet Feast.
In conclusion, as we said above, our sins have made all of us sick in our souls (and sometimes bodies). Therefore, we need to visit our spiritual physician (our Father Confessor) and receive the "Medicine of Immortality" as frequently as possible, if we are to have any hope of overcoming our sins and receiving healing of our sin-sick souls and bodies. Let us strive to do the most possible to be united more fully with the Lord, rather than to settle for the least we can get by with. It is virtually impossible to love the Lord too much, or desire to be united with Him too much. Similarly, it is virtually impossible to receive Christ's Body and Blood too often, or to go to Confession too often, as long as we participate in these Holy Mysteries with sincere prayer and preparation.
© 2004, St. Innocent/Firebird Videos, Audios & Books.
This article is available in a pamphlet format on 5½ X 8½ single-fold, heavy-weight parchment paper, in packets of 25 for $5. They are especially ideal to give out at a child's First Holy Confession. Click here to go to the page for ordering Pamphlet #3: THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY CONFESSION
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