Where’s that in the Bible?
“As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. . . . 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 20:21–23).
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)
“Whoever . . . eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
Where’s that in the Early Church / Post-Apostolic Age records?
“[A final method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, ‘I said, “To the Lord I will accuse myself of my iniquity”’” (Origen; Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Confession may well be the most misunderstood mystery or sacrament of the Church.
First, we should remember that the purpose of all the Church’s mysteries (or divinely prescribed actions) is to unite human beings to the mystery of Jesus Christ. How does confession fit in?
Confession is the acknowledgement that even after baptism and anointing, Christians may commit sin. There is a difference between committing sin and embracing a life of sin. When we commit sin, we must confess it to the Lord Jesus Christ who is able to intercede and atone on the basis of his shed blood. Yet, there is a level of sin that we perceive, or that is perceived by the community as a whole, or by the pastor, as cutting off a Christian from the chalice. In other words, sin cuts, little by little, the branch is that our connection to the Life of the Lord. Confession was established, as we can see from the Gospel of the John, by the Lord himself, so that those with apostolic authority in the Church may proclaim God’s forgiveness, which brings peace and assurance to those who bear the burden of sin.
Can we not simply confess to God or Jesus? We certainly must! But we must also ask: why did Jesus give this authority to bind and loose, and also to forgive sins (Matthew 16; 18; John 20)? This ministry exists for a reason, and Christians should have recourse to it.
How it is done
In the Orthodox Church, a Christian who wishes to confess his or her sins (either to receive guidance and counsel, or to receive the full assurance that his sins are forgiveness, or to return to communion after committing a serious sin) can approach the parish priest. There is typically a time set aside every week when the priest is available (after Great Vespers on Sunday). A Christian coming to confession will actually confess to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord, while the priest stands to the side as witness and counselor. At the end of the confession, the priest lay his stole on the penitent’s head to indicate that the mystery of reconciliation is not his own but on behalf of the Church, and prays:
May the same God, who through the Prophet Nathan forgave David when he confessed his sins, who forgave Peter when he wept bitterly, the prostitute when she washed his feet with her tears, the publican, and the prodigal son, through me, a sinner, forgive you both in this life and in the next and enable you to appear before his awe-inspiring tribunal without condemnation, he who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen