Holy Confession is a sacrament of the Orthodox Church. Frequent participation in this Sacrament offers a superb opportunity for spiritual growth, since it helps us to face and overcome our temptations and sins.
There are four parts to Confession:
Examination of our actions and thoughts to discern how we have sinned;
Repentance for our sins;
Confessing these sins to God in the presence of the priest who is our Father Confessor; and
Prayer of Forgiveness – the pronouncing of the forgiveness of our sins by the priest while his stole (epitrahili) is over our head. Sometimes this Sacrament is called the Sacrament of Repentance or Reconciliation or Penance.
While 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 – Holy Communion – the “Medicine of Immortality”, as St Ignatius of Antioch calls it. Our Lord Himself tells us that if we do not eat His Body and drink His Blood, we have no life in us (John 6:53), and 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.
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: “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, 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).
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Why Do We Go to Confession?
The Apostle and Evangelist, St John the Theologian, writes “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…” (1 John 1:6-10). We are constantly breaking our communion with God, with our fellow human beings and with God’s creation as a whole 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 through our Baptism – in other words, to restore our Baptismal purity. During Christ’s earthly, He was constantly healing people and forgiving their sins. 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 through sin, we go to the ‘spiritual hospital’ – the Church – to be healed by the Great Physician Himself, through His priests, by means of His Holy Sacrament of Confession.
After His Resurrection, Our Lord imparted the Holy Spirit onto His Apostles, and gave to them His divine power and authority to forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). This power has been passed on ever since then by the laying-on-of-hands (Ordination/Consecration) in an unbroken line from the Apostles, to each new bishop. The bishops in turn delegate this apostolic power to forgive sins to each priest when he is ordained but, in particular, when appointing the priest as Father Confessor (as is the practice in the Greek 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? Unfortunately, due to historical circumstances, some believe that receiving Holy Communion just a few times a year is sufficient. They have forgotten, however, that receiving Holy Communion is the fulfilment and purpose of every Divine Liturgy and, that it is the means par excellence of actualising the goal and purpose of Orthodox spiritual life – ‘if we do not eat His Body and drink His Blood, we have no life in us’ (cf. John 6:53).
The best way, then, of ascertaining the frequency that we should receive the Sacraments of Holy Confession and 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.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR CONFESSION?
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.
WHAT HAPPENS AT CONFESSION?
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.
At what age should a child make their first confession?
When children are baptised 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.
When children are seven or eight 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 this age is good for children to start going to Holy Confession and fasting before receiving Holy Communion.
In preparation for their first Confession, it would help if children were instructed about what sin, repentance, Holy Confession and forgiveness are, and what to do and say when they go to Confession. Occasionally, a person may be a teenager or even an adult when they have their first Confession; they too, will benefit from learning what Holy Confession is and how best to prepare for it. For an adult convert to Orthodoxy, their first Holy Confession will be heard soon after their Baptism and/or Chrismation and their reception into the Orthodox Church.