Confession: Sacrament of Compassion
“Repentance opens the heavens, takes us to Paradise, overcomes the devil. Have you sinned? Do not despair! If you sin every day, then offer repentance every day!”
St. John Chrysostom writes these beautiful words. Repentance is the joy of Christianity. It is the hallmark of our faith. The rest of the world cannot repent. It can regret. It can despair. But in Jesus Christ, we have a place to come, to wash, and heal. Repentance is the secret gift Christ came to offer. In the Orthodox Church, this mystery of refreshment always occurs within a sacrament, the sacrament of confession.
“As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (Luke 7:12-13).
No other passage is so saturated with grief and compassion.
Who knows grief the way a mother does grieving for a dead son? Moms have a connection with their children that no one else can fathom. For nine months they carry their child in their womb. It is an intimacy that goes beyond words. After giving birth, a woman’s womb stores flesh and DNA from that baby which she will never lose. This woman lost her only son. Beyond that, she was a widow. She had no one else to care for her. Our scripture today pierces the depths of human grief.
Then Jesus Christ shows up.
He saw her. He had compassion. He came forward, stepping right into the heart of the grief. He touched the bier and said, “Arise.”
This was a real event, a historical and literal miracle, witnessed, testified, and indisputable. It is also more than that. It is an allegory of how God can work in our hearts. Indeed, it is an allegory of the sacrament of confession.
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).
Christ instituted the sacrament of confession shortly before his crucifixion. He gave authority to forgive sins to his priests. From that moment on, the Church became a haven for confession and healing. This was the focus of the early Christian community. St. James describes the first century Church sayings, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the priests of the church…and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). For the last two millennia, the Orthodox Church has kept this practice at the center of its life — cherishing it, as the sacrament of Jesus Christ’s compassion. Today our Metropolitan Joseph urges the Church, in the very least, to confess no less than four times a year. Anything less than that, he explains, is to isolate yourself from Christ and set yourself up for a trap. He explains:
“Confession is not an option which we can choose or not choose to do. It is absolutely necessary for our spiritual healing and well-being.” (Metropolitan Joseph)
The saints of the Church encourage Christians to confess on a monthly basis. Sts. Symeon and Cosmos encouraged their flock to confess frequently, so that the act of opening one’s soul to God is a lifestyle. Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that anyone who receives the Holy Eucharist on a monthly basis must likewise make their confession with no less regularity, in order to approach God with a clean conscience.
The Sacrament of Confession is the core of what it means to be a Christian.
Why is this?
“Only an open wound can be treated, only exposed dirt can be cleansed,” St. Theophan the Recluse teaches.
“The action comes from the Lord. The spiritual father speaks and acts for Him. The Lord knows your sin, and even in your thoughts you cannot conceal it from Him, but the Lord wants to know whether you are prepared to confess your sins in His presence, if He Himself were standing before you, or whether you would try to conceal them like your forebears, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. That is why He appears to you in the person of your spiritual father to whom you confess.”
There are three stages in our biblical passage today, which shed light on holy confession. First, the grieving woman stepped out from behind the city walls. Second, vulnerable, in the open wilderness, with all her raw grief and death, she encountered Jesus Christ. Third, Christ stepped right into her grief, touched it, and raised the dead.
The Church invites us to confession because it knows we cannot make it on our own. The city walls represent our fear, self-protection, justification, and suppression. They are the bushes, in which Adam hid, while God called to him, “Adam, where are you.” Locked up in the privacy of our heart, we are walled up from God’s power. Christ meets us in the vulnerable desert.
Confession is the sacrament of healing our inner self. First and foremost, we come to confess our thoughts. The Greek word for confession, εξομολόγηση, means pouring out one’s inner voice. This is why the saints encourage us to confess our thoughts.
St. Paisius explains: “When our soul lives carelessly without watching over its thoughts, it will consequently fill up with dirty and sly thoughts. As a result, people start developing psychological problems which gradually pile up…The only solution is to become aware of the problem and confess it to a spiritual father.”
As soon as we have a negative thought, the kind of thought that persists, that keeps running through our heads, or keeps us up at night, Christ waits for us to run to the confessional, quickly and boldly. When we hold the thoughts in our head, they eat away at us and delude us. If we give them to Christ, they lose their power.
When we confess our troubled thoughts something miraculous happens. We find ourselves in the vulnerable desert where the grieving widow met Christ. We have revealed ourselves to Christ, and he meets us with divine compassion.
The miracle of confession is the bath of our soul. When a person confesses his thoughts, Elder Ephraim instructs, “He enters into this bath and he comes out entirely clean…We must celebrate and thank the Lord who allowed this bath on earth, who allowed this authority of ‘binding and loosing.’ Whatever things your spiritual father looses, God also looses. Whatever the representative of God forgives, the Lord also forgives.” It is the sacrament of freedom, always available, always purifying — Christ waiting for us in the desert.
“He came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God” (Luke 7:14-16).
This is the mystery of the Gospel. We are not alone. We do not need to carry our wounds and hurt in our hearts. At every moment, whatever is bothering us, if we venture beyond the walls of self-protection, and step out into the vulnerable wilderness of confession, we will meet Christ and he will heal us. The Christian gospel is a gospel of healing. Christ is the healer and waits for us with open arms and loving compassion.