A HOMILY ABOUT CONFESSION
Brothers and sisters!
Today I would like to say a few words about Confession. I have not spoken about this topic for some time, and we all need to be reminded periodically of important truths we already know, lest we grow heedless of them.
The first thing we must remember about Confession is that it is a Mystery of the Church. As is true with the other Mysteries, the person who performs it outwardly, the Bishop or priest, is merely the representative of Christ, Who is invisibly present and is the One Whose power actually benefits us. In Confession, Christ’s grace benefits us in three ways: by assisting us to repent wholeheartedly, if we have come to Confession with a contrite spirit and a desire to cleanse our heart; by assisting our confessor in advising us wisely, if we are willing to humble ourselves and do as we are told; and by remitting our sins, at the entreaty of our confessor.
When we come to Confession, we must realize that we have presented ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ. This is why the Gospel and cross, the symbols of Christ, and sometimes an icon of Christ, are set before us in the place where we confess. When we confess, we should speak as though directly to Christ, for our confessor is present only as His representative. It is quite inappropriate to laugh or joke at Confession, much less to complain about the behavior of others. If we have to mention what others have done, it should be only as background to explain our own problematical thoughts or bad behavior, or to elicit the advice of our confessor.
If the Lord is the actual performer of the Mystery of Confession, then why does He not simply appear and confess us directly, instead of using a priest as intermediary? He does not do this because sinful mortals cannot endure the sight of His glory. When, on Mount Tabor, Christ showed the disciples the smallest portion of His divine splendor, they were thrown to the ground in every direction, as we see in icons of the Transfiguration. If this was the case with the three chief apostles, whom Christ specially prepared as chosen witnesses to the brilliance of His glory, then what do you think would happen to us, who are soiled by every sin, if He were to appear? Nevertheless, we should never be so foolish as to doubt His presence and operation in the Mystery of Confession.
When we come to Confession, we must remember also that this is not an ordinary conversation with the priest about our everyday affairs and concerns, but that a fearful Mystery is about to be enacted. If we make a good, a full, a true Confession, then all our sins are blotted out; but if not, they not only remain on our souls, but we add to them by our irreverence, our insolence, our disrespect for the Mystery. In any case, what could possibly be the point of failing to make an honest, full Confession, when the Lord already knows all our sins, all our weaknesses, all our shiftiness, hypocrisy, insubordination, self-love, aversion to prayer; our aversion to every good deed? The Lord already knows that we do not want to read the Scriptures and other soul-saving books, that we do not like to stand in church, that we come to church only because it is a duty, and not because we love Him and His holy house and the Divine Services. He already knows that we hate to give alms and much prefer to horde money or spend it on ourselves, that we have hardly any interest at all in the spiritual life, that we constantly judge other people in our thoughts and often in our speech, that we are envious of others and do not wish them well. He knows that we are never satisfied with our life, that we take for granted His blessings, and that we think everyone must treat us well, even though we mostly deserve the opposite. The Lord knows all this and everything else about us very well; nonetheless, there is no repentance without humbling of oneself, so it is imperative that we admit our faults explicitly before Him and before His appointed representative, our spiritual father.
When we confess, we must actually tell our sins, and not just say, “I am guilty of every sin.” To say “I am guilty of every sin” is not much better than to say, “I am not particularly sinful.” It is another way of saying, “Everyone sins, so perhaps I do so as well; but since everyone sins, my sins have no particular significance.” It is another way of saying, “Nothing I think, say, or do particularly bothers my conscience, so I really have no need to repent. I am here only because Confession is an obligation.”
Yet, it is also insufficient merely to list all our sins one by one, enumerating them as though we were reading a list. If we are repeating the same sins — as all of us do to some degree — then we certainly must need help, we certainly must need advice in overcoming them, because we obviously cannot overcome our sins unaided. To enable our spiritual father to counsel us profitably, we must bare our soul, provide him sufficient detail and background, and ask him appropriate questions.
Besides this, it is essential to remember that our chief sin is not any of our particular failings or even all of them together, but the fact that, in general, we live far from God, that we have no particular relationship to Christ, that our life is godless, that Christ is absent from it. We exist almost totally on an earthly level: here is my wife, here are my children, here is my job, here is my house. But where is Christ? At best, I come to church for an hour or two once a week; maybe I pray for five minutes in the morning or ten in the evening. Once in a very great while I pick up a spiritual book and read a few pages or I glance at a religious posting or article on my cell phone. This is what our Christian life consists of. And as for the rest, what can we say?
Sin is not just a matter of doing something terrible to another; sin is whatever separates us from God. But what is the purpose of the Christian life? Why did Christ establish His Holy Church? Was it not so that we could be with and in Him, and He in us, always and forevermore? But we only think of the Church and spiritual matters as necessary when someone is born, marries, or dies; when it is the feast of Nativity or Passion Week or Pascha; when we are quite ill; or when it is our name day and we feel we should commune. But why should we re-orient ourselves thus on our name day, and not this Sunday: this Sunday, after a week of being tortured by the evil one; after a week of him dragging us about by the nose? Do we need to be united with Christ only on our name day, and not now? Or is one Liturgy less effectual than another?
If we want our existence to conform to the minimal requirements to enable a life in Christ, then we must constantly watch over our soul; we must learn to develop a Christian conscience, a conscience that searches out our sins, rather than covers them over; we must learn what is simplicity and purity before God. When we do sin, we must repent before God, seeking forgiveness from Him with a pained heart. But we must not do this, simply to allow ourselves casually to repeat the same sin the next day. If a person is thinking or behaving in a manner contrary to the Lord’s commandments or Christian piety, then he must beg God to help him not to repeat the sin.
The very word repentance, metanoia, means to turn about, to stop doing what you have been doing, and to do the opposite. So, for example, you admit, “It is true, I do not come to church as often as I should.” But we all know that, unless there is some compelling reason, Christians are obliged to come to church every Lord’s day and feast, in the evening for Vespers or the Vigil, and in the morning for Matins if it is served then, and of course for the Liturgy. Not to do this is to violate the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Maybe worse, it is self-injurious: it disenables the devout life to which Christians are called. It is, perhaps, a beginning to acknowledge one’s failure in this regard as in any other. But, if you do not resolve firmly to begin attending church as you should, to change your ways, to turn around your behavior, then, even if you shed tears over your failure, this is not yet repentance. If a person sins, and deliberately determines to continue to commit that sin, then he is obviously unrepentant.
Without real repentance, there is no real spiritual life. According to the Holy Gospel, not just Saint John the Baptist, but the Lord Himself began his ministry with the proclamation, Repent! 1 Repentance is the very first component of the Christian life, the very first word in its vocabulary. We go nowhere at all without repentance. This is why the Mystery of repentance, Holy Confession, is so vital. With each honest, fervent Confession, we take a step towards God. “Behold, Lord,” you say from your heart, “I have sinned in thus-and-thus. Forgive me, Lord, and with Thy help, I will do my best not to repeat my sin. With Thee at my side, I will take a step towards the Heavenly Kingdom.”
If you approach repentance like this, dear brothers and sisters, day after day, week after week, year after year, you will realize one day that you have in fact arrived at the Kingdom of God; that, as Christ says, The Kingdom of God is within you.2
May it be so.
Lord, help us! Amen.
1. Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:15
2. Luke 17:21