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)
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)
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.
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.
Confession is an important and integral aspect of Christian life. Its foundation is Scriptural and its practice goes back to Apostolic times. The ongoing forgiveness of sins in the Church rests in Him that makes all things possible in the Church: the Holy Spirit sent by Christ from the Father to those who are His.
When Jesus sees the Apostles after His resurrection, He breathes on them and says, “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). The presence and the power of Christ’s forgiveness remains in the Church in which all of His gifts reside.
Jesus tells His disciples to hear the sins of the people and impart His forgiveness, just like at the Last Supper He tells them to perform what we know as the Eucharist and Holy Communion. Confession was a public part of Christian life in the early Church. In his epistle, James teaches his readers to “confess to one another” (James 5:16). In fact, in the early Christian Church, confession was public. Secret and private confession (at home by oneself) is a modern idea completely unknown in the Bible and throughout Christian history. A Confession which is not made before God, humanity and creation, is no confession at all. This is the Orthodox Faith.
In the early Church, confession was made to the whole congregation. Afterwards the priest read a prayer over the person which manifested God’s forgiveness. With time this practice became difficult to keep up because of growth in Church membership. Confession to the whole congregation ceased by the fourth century and the priest came to represent the whole congregation in Confession.
The priest would hear the person’s sins, offer guidance and encouragement and then pray over the person. This is how confession is still practised today. Confession is totally based on the Bible and Holy Tradition. Any person who is seriously trying to live an Orthodox Christian life will go to Confession regularly. They will choose a priest they feel comfortable with and make time to confess their sins and seek guidance in their spiritual life. The priest is not a judge, but a fatherly friend. He cannot forgive sins, only God does that, but Christ has given him the authority to hear sins and pray over the person for forgiveness. The priest helps our confessions to be more reflective, less rationalised and more honest, He can act as a mirror for us which feeds back things we would be more likely to avoid on our own. The priest may guide us into a deeper prayer life and Scripture reading. He slowly becomes what the Orthodox call, our Spiritual Father, nurturing us with the words of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in our Journey to the Father.
If you haven’t been to confession, then pray for guidance, see a priest and make some time to get together. Ask him how you should prepare and then make the commitment to seek regular confession in a spirit of sincere repentance and faith in God. The rewards to your life will be immense.
According to St Ignatius of Antioch (+ 107 A.D.), Holy Communion is the “Medicine of Immortality”. Our Lord Himself tells us that if we do not eat His Body and drink His Blood, we have no life in us (cf. John 6:53), and He also tells us that “Those who eat My Flesh and drink My Blood abide in Me, and I in them” (John 6:56). Our Lord invites us to be united with Him at every Divine Liturgy by receiving Holy Communion – His Body and Blood.
But, how frequently should we receive Holy Communion? Unfortunately, due to historical circumstances, some have come to believe that receiving Holy Communion a couple of times a year is sufficient. They have forgotten, however, that the reception of Holy Communion is the fulfillment and end-purpose of every Divine Liturgy and, that it is the means par excellence of achieving the goal of Orthodox spiritual life – remember, if we do not eat His Body and drink His Blood, we have no life in us (cf. John 6:53). The goal and purpose of the Orthodox Christian life is to be united with the Lord and to become increasingly like Him, little by little by His Grace. Ideally then, we should receive Holy Communion at every Divine Liturgy and, perhaps, even Confess before each Liturgy! In practice, however, the Church advises us to receive the Sacraments ‘frequently’ and always under spiritual guidance.
The best way, then, of ascertaining the frequency that we should receive Holy Communion is to simply discuss it with our Father Confessor. The more our strengths and weaknesses are known, the more guidance can be given as to how much ‘medicine’ is required for healing, renewal, and growth.
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 the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion at least every Sunday. 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.
Our Preparation for Holy Communion.
It is a truly awesome and an amazing privilege to be united with the Lord by partaking of His Holy Gifts, and so we must not approach casually, frivolously, or without adequate preparation. We prepare ourselves by prayerfully 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. He says to us: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).
We are cleansed by sincere repentance, by Holy Confession, by fasting, by saying the Prayers Before and After Holy Communion (see http://www.goyouth.org.au/content/dailyprayers.php ), and by prayerfully approaching the Holy Gifts, 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 properly prepare ourselves to become living temples of His Divine Presence.
St Paul cautions us about receiving Holy Communion in an unworthy manner (carelessly or without adequate preparation), saying: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).
Again, the best way to prepare for Holy Communion is to always approach according to the specific spiritual guidance given to us by our Father Confessor.