Greetings Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we complete the 5th week of Great Lent, we know full well by now that we have been focusing on the process of repentance: our turning away from our sins and turning to God with contrition and firm purpose of amendment of life. The Church has kept this fresh in our minds, as we have gone to Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete this past week. Also, this weekend, we shall hear the great story of St. Mary of Egypt, a former harlot who repented with tremendous tears and extreme fasting through which she attained holy purity and is now a model for all Christians of how we should repent and completely surrender ourselves entirely to God. Our Lord made clear that repentance is the essence of Christian life.
Christ exhorted His faithful to repent from the very beginning of His ministry (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus said multiple times that we must repent otherwise we shall perish (Luke 13:3, 5). The Apostles taught repentance is necessary for forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Mark 6:12; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 8:22, 17:30, 26:20). We see in the Scriptures that the Church is called to continual repentance by Christ Himself (Rev. 2:5, 2:16, 2:21-22, 3:3, 3:19).
From reading the Old Testament, specifically the Torah (Pentateuch), we learn that God’s covenant people repented of their sins through God-ordained means of sacrifice and confessing their sins through the intercession of the priest. Hear the word of the LORD in Leviticus 5:5-6:
“When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.”
Again, in Numbers 5:5-7:
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that mean commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person is guilty, he shall confess his sin which he has committed…”
We know that in Christ our Lord, everything of the Old Covenant is transformed and fulfilled (Matt. 5:17). So if God ordained His covenant people confess their sins with a sacrifice through the intercession of the priest for forgiveness of sins in the Old Covenant, how would God bring about fulfillment of this divine mandate through Jesus in the New Covenant?
In order to see how Jesus fulfilled this sacred rite of the Old Covenant, we have to first read the story of the healing of the paralytic in the Gospel. In this scene, we see Jesus’ personal forgiveness of sins, which is what we experience in the Church. Let’s hear the Gospel in order to begin to grasp the significance of Jesus’ words and actions:
“He said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, take up your pallet and go home.’ – Mark 2:5-11
Jesus, the Son of God, has authority on earth to forgive sins. We learn from this passage God the Father granted God the Son (the Son of Man) authority to forgive sins on earth. Did Jesus keep all this authority all to Himself, or did He possibly share this authority to forgive sins on earth?
It is in fact that Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Confession (Repentance) as the means of grace for the Christian faithful to continually return to God and receive His personal forgiveness throughout our lives. Jesus shared this authority to forgive sins on earth with His Apostles in a personal, practical way. If we have any doubt about this, consider our Lord’s words in the Gospels of Matthew and John:
Jesus to His Apostles: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18
Jesus to His Apostles, after His Resurrection: “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” – John 20:21-23
These words show that Jesus gave His Apostles the authority to forgive sins and that if they forgave sins; God forgave them (it was understood that by the Apostles forgiving sins, God was forgiving sins in and through the Apostles on earth). And this authority was not limited to the Apostles alone, it was also given to their successors, down to the present day; consider the following verses:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess you trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much.” – James 5:14-16
“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
By Jesus’ sharing of His authority with His Apostles and their successors, the Son of Man continues His authority on earth to forgive sins. Jesus’ power to forgive sins on earth continues to this present day through His Apostles and their successors. But who are the Apostles’ successors? The Elders of the Church—Priests. We confess our sins to God in the way He ordained through Jesus Christ—to the priest. This is because Jesus ordained His Apostles as priests of the New Covenant. We see Jesus ordaining His Apostles as priests in the institution of the Eucharist when He told them to “Do this in memory of Me.” We know this because the Eucharist is first and foremost, a sacrifice. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Jesus’ live-giving Passion began in the upper room and was completed on the Cross. By Jesus consecrating bread into His Body and wine into His Blood, we see the essence of sacrifice—the separation of body and blood. Also the words “broken” and “poured out” are words of libation, of oblation—sacrifice. These words are words that would only be uttered in the context of a sacrifice, hence we can know that by Jesus instituting the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and telling His Apostles to continue to offer the sacrifice of the New Covenant—this clearly shows that the Apostles were ordained as priests of the New Covenant at the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Jesus shares His High Priesthood with His Apostles. Remember, in the Old Covenant, priests didn’t just offer sacrifice, but they also mediated between God and men so that the faithful’s sins would be forgiven when the faithful confessed their sins. So if the Apostles were priests, that necessitates that their successors be priests as well—elders of the Church. The term for “elder” in the Greek is:
“Presbuterous, which literally means ‘elders,’ but which is the root of the English word priest [. Referring back to the passage in the Epistle of James we looked at earlier in this newsletter] Whenever you see the word therefore in Scripture, you have to ask yourself what it’s there for. In [the passage quoted from the Epistle of James], James is clearly setting the practice of confession in connection with the priest’s healing ministry…Note that St. James does not exhort his congregation to confess their sins to Jesus alone; nor does He tell them to confess their sins silently, in their hearts. They may do all these things, and all to their credit, but they will not yet be faithful to the word of God preached by St. James—not until they confess their sins to ‘another,’ and specifically to a presbyter, a priest.” (Scott Hahn Lord Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession)
Church history is remarkably clear that confession was a Sacrament always practiced by the Church from the beginning. Listen to the Diadache (written between 50-110 A.D.):
“Thou shalt confess thy transgressions in the Church.” – Diadache 4:14
“On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, first confessing your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.” – Didache 14:1
The phrases “breaking bread” and “giving thanks” (in Greek, eucharistesate) are clear ancient references to the Eucharist, Holy Communion. Also note how “breaking bread,” “giving thanks,” and “sacrifice” are all linked together. This is some of the earliest clearest evidence we have of the Church’s theology of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, not just a memorial service. So therefore, from the very first days of the Church, Christians would first make sure they confessed their sins to the priest and received forgiveness through the mediation of the priests before they would partake of Holy Communion. Through His Church, Jesus continues to share His authority of earth to forgive sins, because He is forever our High Priest. Through the priests, Jesus exercises His High Priestly ministry, offering sacrifice and forgiving sins—in fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing around 105-110 A.D. states: “To all those who repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God and to communion with the bishop” (Epistle to the Philadelphians 8:1). And again, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Philadelphians 3:2). These quotes demonstrate that the Church understood that sin not only separates us from God, but also from His covenant people, the Church. Therefore, by receiving forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Confession, the faithful are reunited to full communion with the Church, and hence are admitted to the Eucharist—Holy Communion.
St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid 200’s A.D. says the following:
“I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sin, while he who has sinned is still in this world, while his confession may be received, while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are pleasing to the Lord. Let us turn to the Lord with our whole heart, and, expressing our repentance for our sin with true grief, let us entreat God’s mercy…”
Origen, around 250 A.D:
“wrote of the ‘remission of sins through penance…when the sinner…is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord and to seek a cure according to the one who says, ‘I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then you forgave the guilt of my sin’” (Psalm 32:5 MT). (Scott Hahn Lord Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession)
St. Basil the Great, in the fourth century A.D:
“Confessing of sins must be made to those to whom the dispensing of God’s sacraments has been committed.”
St. Ambrose of Milan in the late 300’s A.D:
“Christ granted this power to the Apostles, and from the Apostles, it has been transmitted to the office of the priests alone.”
St. John Chrysostom in either the late 300’s or early 400’s:
“Priests have received a power which God has not given either to angels or to archangels…they are able to forgive our sins.”
The practice of confessing sins in the presence of the priest for receiving forgiveness of sins is as old as the Scriptures, yet why do we run away from this precious gift of God? Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky states in his book Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:
“In the Mystery of Repentance [Sacrament of Confession] the spiritual afflictions of a man are treated, impurities of soul are removed, and a Christian, having received forgiveness of sins, again becomes innocent and sanctified, just as he came out of the waters of Baptism.”
St. Theophan the Recluse teaches us that:
“In the Sacrament… of Confession the Lord enters into man by His grace, vividly establishes communion with him, and gives him to taste of all the sweetness of the Divine…”
Pascha is right around the corner, we can sense it in the change of the weather, and in the hymns sung at Church, but are we preparing for this “Holy Day of Holy Days?” The Church exhorts us to make sure we make a good, saving confession before Pascha, so that we may fully partake in the Resurrection of Christ without condemnation. Let us wait no longer, let us run to our father-confessors and ask them to hear our confessions with tears and true contrition, so that we may receive the fullness of God’s blessings He offers to us in His Holy Pascha. Amen.