The sacrament of Repentance (or Penitence, or Confession) begins to be administered to the faithful from the moment they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong and to understand what sin is (K. Ware mentions that this happens usually at age six or seven). Of course, all baptized adults are expected to confess regularly from the moment of their baptism, since, through this sacrament, sins committed after baptism are forgiven and the sinner is reconciled to the Church. Thus, it is often called a “second baptism.”
The sacrament is not merely judicial; rather it provides the double benefit of absolution as well as spiritual advice which is given as a cure for the healing of the soul. In the Orthodox Church, with theosis as the central dynamic of the Christian life, there is a great emphasis on the healing of the person, and not merely a sense of penal restitution. Yet, the prescription given in the spiritual advice will often include directing the penitent to take whatever steps necessary to restore the human relationships that have been affected by his or her sin, since sin is not only against God but also against our neighbor, against the community.
The recognition of the many ramifications of personal sins affecting others was such in the early Church that both the confession and the penitential discipline were public affairs; since then, especially with the greater recognition that forgiveness of sins after baptism was not limited to one or two times, confession has taken the form of a private conference between priest and penitent alone, and it is encouraged that this will take place regularly. The private character of the conference between the penitent and the confessor also requires that the latter (usually a priest) is forbidden to reveal to any third party what he has learnt in confession.
In Orthodoxy confessions are heard in any convenient place, usually at the church, but not necessarily so. Closed confessionals with a grille separating confessor and penitent are not used, as it is (or was) customary in the West. If the meeting takes place at church, it is usually in the open, immediately in front of the iconostasis, or sometimes standing behind a screen, or even in a special room set apart for confessions. Whereas in the West it is usual that the priest sits and the penitent kneels, in the Orthodox Church they both sit or both stand. The penitent often faces a desk on which are placed the cross and an icon of the Savior, or the Book of the Gospels; the priest stands slightly to the side.
This is important to note because the setting reflects the underlying theology of the practice. In the Orthodox Church, it is emphasized that in Confession it is not the priest but God who is the judge, while the priest is only a witness and God’s minister. This is why the Sacrament begins with, “Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession . . . but tell me without hesitation all the things that you have done, and so you will have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ . . . I am only a witness . . .”
Upon hearing the confession, the priest will often ask questions, and then he will give advice. After confessing everything, the penitent kneels or bows his or her head, and the priest places his epitrachelion on the penitent’s head. The priest then lays his hand on the stole, and says the prayer of absolution. In the Greek practice, the Priest says:
“Whatever you have said to my humble person, and whatever you have failed to say, whether through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may God forgive you in this world and the next…. Have no further anxiety; go in peace.”
The Slavonic formula of absolution, introduced by Peter Moghila, Metropolitan of Kiev, and adopted by the Russian Church in the 18th century, is as follows:
“May Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love towards mankind, forgive you, my Child [Name] all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy Priest, through the power given me by Him, forgive and absolve you from all yours sins.” Many Orthodox feel that in this 18th century form, in which the priest uses the first person pronoun in connection to the forgiveness and absolution of the sins of the penitent, is a declension from the traditional sacramental practice of the East, for in no other case does the priest speak in the first person singular.
The priest also may impose a penance (which has no juridical component, rather facilitating means of restoration of relationships or personal reorientation), but this is not an essential part of the sacrament, and in fact it is often omitted. Also, confession may be made to one’s spiritual father, who might or might not be one’s priest. As Metropolitan Kallistos points out, in the Orthodox Church spiritual guidance is given often by an unordained monk or by a nun, and less commonly by members of the non-monastic laity. When that is the case, they hear the confession and give counsel in God’s name, assuring the penitent of divine forgiveness; but this is not considered to be, in the strict sense, the sacrament of Confession.
In Orthodoxy there is no strict rule concerning how often one needs to go to Confession. Where communion is infrequent, the priest might expect the parishioners to confess each time before communion, but where communion is frequent, parishioners will not do so as often as communion takes place. The regular practice of Confession, however, is a vital means for the synergistic process of deification. As St Seraphim of Sarov stated, the Christian life is nothing else than the acquisition of the Holy Spirit; prayer, fasting, vigils and all other Christian practices – including repentance and sacramental confession which gives context to fasting, vigils and so on – are indispensable means of attaining that aim. In Confession, as in every sacramental action of the Church, the Holy Spirit is invoked. Also, as with all the other sacraments of the Church, confession is a personal sacrament, i.e., the means whereby God’s grace is appropriated individually to a Christian.
Repentance is an act of reconciliation and reintegration into the Body of Christ, which has been torn asunder by sin. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another … that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16). The motive for repentance is at all times humility, and the recognition of our dependence upon God not only for our forgiveness, but also for our strength to continually begin anew in his paths, putting off the old man and putting on the new man who is being created in the image of Christ. “For this life,” states John Chrysostom, “is in truth wholly devoted to repentance . . . This is why it is necessary to repent, not merely for one or two days, but throughout one’s whole life.” Repentance is a way of life, of transfiguration, a continuous act of seeking and acquiring the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is a continuous pathway and a perennial striving.
The Greek term for repentance, μετάνοια, denotes a change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamentally different way of knowing oneself and looking at the world. “Repentance,” says Basil the Great, “is salvation, but lack of understanding is the death of repentance.” The words for “confess” in Greek (ἐξοmολογέω, ὁmολογέω) denote an acceptance of and submission to the divine Logos beyond and above the nature and condition of man. To confess is not so much to recognize and expose a failure as to go forward and upward, to respond from within to the calling of God.
There are two dimensions of repentance: divine initiative and human response. God’s initiative has been primarily in his coming to us when we have turned from him, as Christ became incarnate for us and for our salvation. God is love, and he offers his love to all who repent and come to him. He objectifies his love and gives it unconditionally, in the person of his Son, and he sheds his love abroad in our hearts in the person of the Holy Spirit. The response to this ineffable outpouring of love is its acceptance. The sacrament of Confession is one of the most important means for the connection between the repentant sinner and his restoration through his acceptance of God’s love, reciprocated by the penitent’s commitment to turn from his ways and live. St. John says that if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).