|Orthodox Worship, II: The Sacraments|
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An Orthodox child receives communion from infancy. Once he is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong and to understand what sin is — probably when he is six or seven — he may be taken to receive another sacrament: Repentance, Penitence, or Confession (in Greek, metanoia or exomologisis). Through this sacrament sins committed after Baptism are forgiven and the sinner is reconciled to the Church: hence it is often called a ‘Second Baptism.’ The sacrament acts at the same time as a cure for the healing of the soul, since the priest gives not only absolution but spiritual advice. Since all sin is sin not only against God but against our neighbor, against the community, confession and penitential discipline in the early Church were a public affair; but for many centuries alike in eastern and western Christendom confession has taken the form of a private ‘conference’ between priest and penitent alone. The priest is strictly forbidden to reveal to any third party what he has learnt in confession.
In Orthodoxy confessions are heard, not in a closed confessional with a grille separating confessor and penitent, but in any convenient part of the church, usually in the open immediately in front of the iconostasis; sometimes priest and penitent stand behind a screen, or there may be a special room in the church set apart for confessions. Whereas in the west the priest sits and the penitent kneels, in the Orthodox Church they both stand (or sometimes they both sit). The penitent faces a desk on which are placed the Cross and an icon of the Saviour or the Book of the Gospels; the priest stands slightly to one side. This outward arrangement emphasizes, more clearly than does the western system, 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 point is also stressed in words which the priest says immediately before the confession proper: ‘Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession. Therefore be not ashamed nor afraid; conceal nothing from me, but tell me without hesitation everything that you have done, and so you shall have pardon from Our Lord Jesus Christ. See, His holy icon is before us: and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things which you have to say to me. But if you conceal anything from me, you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest having come to a physician you depart unhealed (This exhortation is found in the Slavonic but not in the Greek books).
After this the priest questions the penitent about his sins and gives him advice. When the penitent has confessed everything, he kneels or bows his head, and the priest, placing his stole (epitrachilion) on the penitent’s head and then laying his hand upon the stole, says the prayer of absolution. In the Greek books the formula of absolution is deprecative (i.e. in the third person, ‘May God forgive…’), in the Slavonic books it is indicative (i.e. in the first person, ‘I forgive…’).
The Greek formula runs: ‘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. ’
In Slavonic there is this formula: ‘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 your sins. ’
This form, using the first person ‘I,’ was originally introduced into Orthodox service books under Latin influence by Peter of Moghila in the Ukraine , and was adopted by the Russian Church in the eighteenth century.
The priest may, if he thinks it advisable, impose a penance (epitimion), but this is not an essential part of the sacrament and is very often omitted. Many Orthodox have a special ‘spiritual father,’ not necessarily their parish priest, to whom they go regularly for confession and spiritual advice (In the Orthodox Church it is not entirely unknown for a layman to act as a spiritual father; but in that case, while he hears the confession, gives advice, and assures the penitent of God’s forgiveness, he does not pronounce the prayer of sacramental absolution, but sends the penitent to a priest). There is in Orthodoxy no strict rule laying down how often one should go to confession; the Russians tend to go more often than the Greeks do. Where infrequent communion prevails — for example, four or five times a year — the faithful may be expected to go to confession before each communion; but in circles where frequent communion has been re-established, the priest does not necessarily expect a confession to be made before every communion.