In last month's newsletter, I mentioned that in the early church there was no sacrament of Confession as it is understood and practiced today. Holy Baptism was seen as the sacrament of repentance. By Baptism and Chrismation the one enslaved to sin and death was freed from this fallen reality and was empowered to live the Christian life.
In Baptism death becomes a falling asleep because Christ has risen from the dead trampling down death by His own death on the Cross. One could also say that through Baptism and Chrismation we are no longer slaves to sin but that for the Baptized and Chrismated Christian, sin becomes a choice and is no longer an inevitability. This might have led to the early belief in the Church that anyone who returned to their former way of life (as mentioned last month) could not be restored to Communion. So how did Confession as a sacrament come into being? In the first three centuries of the Church, Christians were regularly persecuted, tortured, and put to death by the Roman emperor or his representatives because they would not renounce Christ and worship the pagan Gods of the Roman empire. How ever some were not able to withstand the threats, and torture and they did renounce Christ. This action in essence separated (excommunicated) them permanently from the Church. By the mid third century there were a number of people who had renounced Christ, experienced regret and remorse for their decision, and sought to be restored to communion with the Church. They confessed their desire to follow Christ once again and regretted their previous renunciation of the Lord. Thus, the practice began of restoring these people to communion in the Church. For this reconciliation to occur, those who had apostatized (fallen away), had to complete a series of actions to show they were truly sorry for what they had done and show they were ready to be restored to Communion. These actions or "penances" could involve such things as kneeling at the threshold of the church before people as they entered and asking their forgiveness and their prayers. Then they might be allowed into the narthex (where the catechumens stood) but were still not able to commune. All in all, this time of penance might have lasted five years before the person who had apostatized (renounced Christ) was fully reconciled to the Church and could once again receive the Holy Eucharist. This same approach was also applied to people who had committed adultery or some other sin such as murder. If one looks at some of the penitential canons of the first four centuries you will find that for a certain sin committed, a number of years of penance was called for before someone could be restored to communion. This could be five, ten or twenty years depending on the nature of the sin. It is hard to know how consistent the practice was during that time of applying these lengthy penances to people. Once the penance was completed, a prayer of absolution was read over the penitent person and he or she was restored to the Eucharist. Some have maintained that in the early church people publicly announced their sins before the community and would ask forgiveness before the people. I have my doubts that this was the case, but what church life does bear witness to is the public act of penance that people performed to show they were repentant and sorry for what they had done. Was this sin known to the community? Probably, because these public penitential actions were for some of the sins mentioned above. I don't think people knew of the sin because the one who sinned publicly announced it to people.
In the late fourth century you have evidence of the beginnings of a private practice of Confession. St. Ambrose, Pope Leo and St. Basil, and St Ephrem, all speak to the impropriety of a bishop or priest publicly divulging the confession of a person to the church. They felt it would discourage people from coming forward and expose them to contempt from people if the sin was publicly revealed. In the late 4th century, the church historian Sozomen describes the practice where bishops began appointing priests as confessors to privately hear confessions. Those same appointed priests would then assign penances (things you did to show you were sorry for your sin) for those who confessed to work them out by themselves. Thus you have this shift from a one time public act of reconciliation practiced in the church in the mid third century to a private act of confession and penance starting in the late 4th century. There are several factors to account for this change which I won't get into because it would make this note way too long.
What then can we learn from this early understanding of Confession/Penance in the first five centuries in the life of the Church? One might maintain that the early church was too harsh on people who returned to a previous way of life after being baptized. The fact that Penance or Confession arose bears witness to the fact that the Church was open to giving people a second chance. It also seems consistent with the gospel teaching of our Lord that sins are not be forgiven "seven times but seventy times seven." However it also seems that the Church understood the damage ongoing sin after baptism did to the icon of what it meant to be a human being. If you read the lives of many canonized saints in the Church, you will commonly find that they saw themselves as the worst of sinners; still walking the pathway of repentance even up until their death beds. It seems as if the closer these saints drew to the Light of our Lord, the greater they were able to see how even the smallest of sins separated oneself from Christ and the Church. The fact that a number of our church canons call for ten or twenty years of penance for certain sins before someone could be restored to the Eucharist also reflects this sensitivity to ongoing sin and how it disfigures humanity. I say this because it seems today we have gone to the other extreme. We have become indifferent to how harmful sin is to us, or in denial of the fact we are fallen human beings in need of redemption. Many of you are aware of the football player Michael Vick pleading guilty to funding a dog fighting operation and participating in the killing of dogs who didn't perform properly. What is interesting is that some have characterized his behavior not as sinful or wrong, but as a mistake. How often do we respond to actions of wrongdoing with the words, "What do you expect? I am only human." We characterize the sin of adultery as having an affair or other sins such as pre-marital sex as no big deal because everyone else does it. Since we now seem to equate doing something wrong, with "being human" it almost seems as if it has now becomes a license to continue the behavior. This is so far away from the Orthodox Christian understanding of what it means to be human being. It also amounts to a rejection of our Lord's action to redeem us by His death on the Cross. Christ didn't voluntary suffer and die on the Cross because of our mistakes. He died on the Cross to conquer death which came into the world because of "one man's sin". He came to restore us to the true dignity of what it means to be human being created in the image and likeness of God. When God created the first man, He looked upon His creation and "God saw that it was good." As human beings we created to be in communion with God. Sin is a renunciation of that reality.
The second thing we can learn from this early understanding of Confession is that Confession is not just simply a matter of admitting what you do wrong, saying you're sorry, and promising you won't do it again. There seemed to be this understanding that in one's desire to return to Christ and be reconciled to the Church, one had to do something to show they really meant it when they said they regretted what they did. If sin is breaking away from God, then repentance is also doing something to try and fix what you broke (to the extent that is possible). The perfect example of this is found in the gospel story of Zacchaeus that we read as one of the preparation readings for Great Lent. Zacchaeus just didn't say he was sorry for defrauding poor people. He gave half his goods to the poor, and vowed to restore anyone he had defrauded "four fold." That was his penance he did to show he was sorry for his sin; and he did so joyfully! If siblings in a family fight over possessions and compete over them, it seems the way you show you are sorry is by learning to cooperate and share what God has entrusted you with. Penance is not a punishment, it is an action of healing, an action of reconciliation.
Now that I have given this inadequate summary of the history of the Sacrament Confession, I will endeavor in the next few months to talk about the sacrament itself and describe its baptismal character. I also want to address how partaking of Confession on a regular basis helps us in our preparation for Communion and remembering our Lord.