“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” – James 5:16
“My child, may our Lord and God Christ Jesus by the mercy of His love absolve thee from thy sins; and I, His unworthy priest, in virtue of the authority committed to me, absolve thee and declare thee absolved of thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” – An Orthodox priest’s prayer of absolution
Repentance: few words in Christianity are as misunderstood as this one. This word literally means “to turn away”, to turn from our sin, to reject it and depart from it. Like our salvation, the process of repentance is not accomplished in a single instance, but it is realized over a period of time, a period of healing in which we are exhorted to use that most beautiful of channels of communication with God, prayer of the heart, to reach out to Him for comfort, for healing, and for the strength to walk in His light. The late and venerable Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, writing on the mystery of Confession, observes that the God we come to in Confession, the one whose grace and love we seek to find anew, is the “One who waits for us to come to be healed, to be consoled, to be supported—not to be condemned, not to be judged.”
In her two thousand years of wisdom, the Church has offered the mystery of confession so that her faithful may come to her priests, her servants, as if they were approaching a trusted confidante, a friend who is there just to listen and observe, to hear of your sorrows and your tribulations. You know your confessor is not the doctor of your soul but only the secretary facilitating the meeting, as the priest reminds us when he tells his spiritual child in the prayer read before Confession, “I am but a witness”. As Metropolitan Anthony observes, the priest “is called by Christ to be before the person, the sinner, a witness to the fact that he, the sinner, is loved, that Christ is there, that He has no other desire or intention but the salvation and the joy eternal of the one who has come today.” Think on this: the priest, the man who represents Christ to your parish, comes to you as a servant of your Creator, and he is there not to condemn you, or to presume to judge you, for God alone knows your spirit and what is written on your heart. The priest is there to point you toward the “joy eternal” the Savior would offer to you.
Who then are we meeting, to whom do we come with our spiritual illnesses, the tumors of sins and misdeeds weighing down our spirits? We come to our Creator, the Physician of our souls and sculptor of our very being. Metropolitan Anthony writes that “When we come to confession we come to meet a friend face to face.” This friend is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer! Rather than be afraid of Him, let us do as St. John the Beloved Apostle exhorts, and come to Him as His children, who “know the Father” and are aware of His Son’s love for us (1 John 2:12-13).
St. John promises us that we are beloved “children of God” (1 John 3:1-3). Our heavenly Father loves us and beckons us to become “like Him” purifying and sanctifying our bodies, spirits and souls in faith. The Lord’s Beloved Disciple reminds us that “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be” and that when the faithful shall someday see God “as He is”, “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:1-3). Think on this! It makes sense that if we are all His children, made in His image, with a unique spirit and a soul of His crafting, He would want us to become “like Him”! Only He knows our true potential, our true personhood which He fashioned out of nothing. If we have “this hope” to become like Him, we must purify ourselves of sin (1 John 3:3) and we do this through confession. Let us not be afraid, for to confess to Him is to return to His light, to leave behind the burdens of guilt or grief or shame, and to repent, to turn away from these things, and unto Him, our “Light of Light, true God of true God.” As the Prophet Isaiah reminds us, our sins separate us from God, obscuring from us the light of His face (Isaiah 59:1-2).
As St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin literally means “to miss the mark”, so, as you can imagine, most priests are sinners as much as any of their parishioners. This is why the priest acts only as a witness in confession. I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and in this Christian Tradition, similar to yet in many ways very different from the Orthodox faith, the priest similarly says, at the prayer of absolution ending the confession, “I absolve you of your sins” but without the humble reference the Orthodox priest invokes as God’s “unworthy servant”. Both Orthodox and Catholics cite John 20:23, when Christ bestowed upon His Apostles the authority to remit the sins of the faithful, for biblical proof that Christ gave their priests the power to absolve sins as successors to the apostles. Yet the Roman Catholic prayer of absolution does not implore Christ “by the mercy of His love” to absolve sinners, mainly because the Roman Church views their priests as ‘dispensers of grace’.
Unlike in Roman Catholicism, in Orthodoxy, when you confess, the priest is present, but only as a witness of your words. You confess directly to our Heavenly Father and to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As Metropolitan Anthony observes, when we come into the mystery of confession, “we are not coming to be judged or condemned. We do not come in terror of what will happen. We come to the One who, being God, beyond suffering, beyond death, has chosen, for the love of us, to become Man, to take upon Himself all our human destiny and to give His life for us.” We come to our Savior and Redeemer, who loves us with a love we can barely comprehend, a love we can hardly fathom from the depths of our heart! We do not quake or kneel before a terrible God of anger and wrath, but, as Metropolitan Anthony reminds us, we come to Him who took on our fallen form, the form He created that it might realize its innate divine purpose. We come to Him who gave His life so that we might, in cooperation and obedience to His will and His life-giving Spirit, realize His promise of eternal life.
The Metropolitan observes, “We are so loved of God that we can come up to Him whether we are good or bad with hope that He will receive us with open arms; that if anyone is to cry over our unworthiness and our sins it is Him, for compassion, for pity, for love.” What an awesome, cosmos-shaking love this is! What a love which captivates and astounds people to this day! When you unburden your heart of your sins, putting them into words before the priest, you show God, who knows your sins before you even commit them, that you understand them and admit them for what they are. You thus begin the process of repentance even as you are confessing! As the Beloved Disciple of our Savior reminds us in 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” It is so simple: rather than deceive ourselves, we need only admit our sins, our “missed marks”, wherever we have done wrong or failed to do good, and, as St. John promises, “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).
He loves you, and wants to cleanse you “from all unrighteousness”, that you may be fulfilled to the very summit of your being, the very height of the purpose for which He created you in His image. Thus, when you are deliberating whether or not to go to confession, do not worry. Pray in simple words and humility to your Savior, pray to your Father in Heaven, and the Spirit of the Lord will move you to confess when God wants to illumine your spirit. If you feel promptings to go to confession which you did not previously, this is the Holy Spirit speaking within your soul! Go, then, to confession, when you have “missed marks” to speak of, be they wrongs committed or good deeds left unfulfilled. Go when you want to talk to a Friend who is waiting for you. Go when you feel the burdens of sin in your soul, in the quiet of your heart, and, as in prayer, you will find a constant Friend who knows your sins before you committed them, who has numbered every hair on your head and is already aware of every sin you will ever commit in your life.
You cannot hide secrets from Him Who is all knowing, for He made the hearts of holy saints just as He made the hearts of those who wish to deceive themselves and Him. As Metropolitan Anthony observes, do not think “of punishment or of rejection but with open heart pour out everything evil or doubtful there is in this heart. And Christ will receive you. He does not reject you. Come, open your heart, speak in all truth to Him, knowing that you are loved beyond judgment, to the point of sacrifice and death: His death, and your life—life in time and life eternal.” Go to your Lord, seek out your God, and fear not. He will never stop loving you. He craves for you to return to His loving embrace, His light which is the true path. Thus, He invites you to turn from whatever harmed you, whatever caused that disturbance in your soul, and turn to Him.
The witness of the Church, thus, is the antithesis of cold legalism. She closes her doors to no one, nor bars any of her children from the process of healing and repentance. The Church has never said, does not say, and will never say, “If you do this, go away, for you are lost”, or “If you sin this way, despair, for you are irredeemably lost!” For the Church to say this would be blasphemy. Instead she says “if you sin, if you transgress, do not flee from us, do not go away, but stay with us!” To those who flee from her in fear, shame, or trembling, she beckons, “Come back!” She is a loving mother—when her children are hurt, even if they tripped up and hurt themselves, she wants to help heal them. She is always waiting for them to come to her, always endeavoring to bring them unto the Physician of our souls, the Father of our spirits.
Whatever you have done or failed to do, whatever is ailing your spirit, plaguing your soul, she wants you to heal. Let her help you. Do not wallow in shame or guilt and become as an island unto yourself, for that leads to isolation, then loneliness, then a deep spiritual famine, a noetic starvation of the soul which can become a prison, a snare in which the Evil One becomes your master. This can lead to despair, in which God, though right next to you, waiting to dwell within you, can seem far away, absent, even uncaring.
As a caring mother, the Church, who raised you in the light of the Lord, brought you into communion with the Savior and Creator of your spirit. In baptism her servants helped you “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27) as a babe new to the world and spotless of sin, awaiting the promise of greater communion with Him as your life unfolded. In chrismation you confirmed the promises of your baptism, taking on the mantle of a Christian, an ‘anointed one’ who believes in the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world, and you received the transcendent grace and outpouring of the Holy Spirit which seeks at all times to dwell within you. In all these formational years, from your birth to your glorious years of youth, you see that the Church seeks to bring you and keep you in the light of God, and in this light “is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5-7) but cleansing “from all sin” by faith in the “blood”- the loving redemption- of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So the Church implores you: do not allow yourself to fall into the snare of guilt and despondency, but remain in the light of the God who cherishes you, whose beloved child you are. Remain here with us, among us, part of the Church, joined to the Body of Christ. Remain here, whatever you have done or failed to do, for you are no less worthy to bask in the light of God’s presence than I am, or any one of us standing next to you. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, Jesus told the mob in John 8:7 as they planned to stone a woman for adultery. This passage is not silent on the woman’s guilt: Jesus does not declare her innocent of adultery, for she was apparently caught “in the very act” (John 8:4). He does not wipe away what she has chosen to do, for that kind of a rewind does not lead to any real healing or repentance. What did Christ do for this woman, besides save her life when He told her “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11)? By telling her to “go, and sin no more”, He gave her the freedom to go on as she had been doing, continuing in sin, but exhorted her to “sin no more”. He commands her to turn away from adultery. He commands her to a life of new-found sanctity and repentance.
Think on this passage, and its truly awesome implications: Jesus Christ, who was present as the Logos, as the Word of God, at the very creation of the world, Who created each of us in His image, intervenes directly to save the life of a sinner, a woman rightfully condemned to death under Mosaic law, the law of His people Israel. Why does He do it? What does He say to her? He does not give her a free pass to continue sinning with impunity, nor does He humiliate her in public, for a permissive attitude toward sin does nothing but perpetuate and encourage its soul-destroying cycle which separates us from God, and public humiliation scourges our very soul, traumatizing us to the core of our being. No, what Jesus does for her is what He offers to us: the free will to continue to sin if we so choose, with the caveat, the invitation, to choose a different path, one of repentance, righteousness, and, in time, sanctity, holiness and even deification.
Jesus, that beautiful name by which we call the Son of God, means “O Lord, Save!”. He saves this sinful woman in such a direct, simple way. He quietly tells her, “Go, and sin no more.” He gives her the full freedom to go on her way, knowing full well what sins she has committed and what sins she will yet commit because He is her Creator. But He does not condemn her, nor does he humiliate her. He speaks to her gently. He understands her and knows her better than herself. He loves her, for she is His child, and He sends her on her way to heal. Christ’s treatment of this sinful woman is the greatest metaphor for how the Church is to treat her sinners as the living Body of Christ, the New Israel of the New Dispensation: gently, kindly, with quiet firmness, soft words, and warm and loving guidance. Put yourself in this woman’s place. You might feel shame for your sins, and you might feel tempted to run from real repentance if the reality of your sins overwhelms or scares you. Our Lord forgave this woman her sins, her offenses which carried the penalty of death under the Law of the Old Dispensation. Surely He will forgive you of yours!
As sinners struggling in our fallen condition, we need Christ and His Church to restore in us the fullness and promise of the faith and light found uniquely in God. We need the Bridegroom and His Bride, we need the Physician of our souls and His beloved Church, to heal us. As difficult as it may be to realize and admit, you need the Church. She is your beloved mother who feeds your spiritual consciousness by which you sense the presence of God. We need you here; you are a part of this body. And you need us. As part of the Body of Christ, as part of the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of worshipers here on earth and in the next world, we need each other. At the core of our being, we are meant to work out our salvation together through faith and the grace of God. We are saved not as lonely islands in an archipelago of individual sin and repentance and loneliness and spiritual famine, but together, as one whole, as one Body. The true weight of all our sins, and all our rejoicings, and all our love for God, comes together kata holikos– “according to the whole”.
In this is the true Catholicity of the Church. In this is its wholeness. The Church’s universality everywhere, its presence around the world and in heaven, is summed up and dependent on its wholeness– the fullness of its catholicity in your parish, in the monasteries where Christ’s faithful brides and bridegrooms pray unceasingly for us all, and in every Liturgy offered every day throughout the world. This is why we need you. This is why you are such a crucial member in the Body of Christ. As a child of God you have incredible worth in His eyes, and you are precious in the eyes of His Church. If you have been away from the Divine Liturgy, if you have been avoiding confession, do not be afraid. The Lord who raised you to the possibility of eternal life in His Church in your baptism, who sealed the fire of His Holy Spirit into your soul at your chrismation, beckons you to return to the fullness of the life uniquely found in His Church.
As soon as you sense the presence of God in your soul, prompting you in the depths of your heart to seek once more the noetic fulfillment which can only be found as a worshiping creature, I exhort you to respond. Seek after the perfection of God found in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48). Like a loving mother, the Church’s steadfast witness over two millennia is entirely positive. In her invitation to the transcendence of the Divine Liturgy, to the healing process found in confession, to loving service of one’s brethren, even to transformation of your nous, of your very being, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, the Church calls you to unite yourself to your Creator, Redeemer and Savior. Do this, that you might be transformed unto the very likeness of God. Do this, that you might be perfected as He is. Do this, that you might become holy, that you might be made a saint. God’s promise of “salvation and joy eternal” remains open to all who seek after it. He waits for your confessions as a Physician ready to heal you, one of His patients. He waits for your prayers as your loving Father to aid and protect you. He waits for your tears of sorrow, gratitude, and repentance unto life everlasting. “Come, open your heart. . .” and let the Spirit of God dwell within you.
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life; and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”—1 John 5:11-13
May the Lord bless you and shine His radiant light upon you. Amen.