This post is part of a series about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church. In this post, we will look at the Orthodox Christian Sacrament of Confession.
The Orthodox Study Bible defines confession in a way that acknowledges both aspects of the word as it is used in the Orthodox Church. Confession is “The sacrament of the forgiveness of sins, whereby the repentant sinner confesses his sins to Christ in the presence of the priest, who pronounces God’s absolution of those sins.” It is also “The avowal or verbal witness of faith in Christ, leading to salvation (Rom. 10:9).” (1, p. 1777) In this blog post, we will not be focusing on the second definition (“confession of faith”), but rather on the first; the sacramental aspect of the word, the sacrament which allows us sinners to be restored to right relationship with God.
The mystery or sacrament of confession, also called penance by the Church, is the means by which we are reconciled to God when we have sinned and thereby cut ourselves off from Him and His Church. We are created for communion with God and each other, that is, communion in the sense of life in harmonious community. When we sin, we sever that communion. But we have also been created to partake in the sacrament of communion (or eucharist). Sin severs us from the eucharist, as well. God has kindly made confession/penance available to us, so that we are able to be restored to both communions.
In Fr. Thomas Hopko’s article on penance, he writes that receiving the eucharist fulfills our act of penance, and restores us to communion with our fellow humans. He also offers steps for right living beyond that reconciliation. “The fulfillment of penance consists in the reception of Holy Communion and the genuine reconciliation of the repentant sinner with God and all men according to the commandments of Christ. From this there obviously follows the necessity of a sincere attempt by the penitent to refrain from sin and to remain in faithful obedience to God and in uprightness of life before Him and all people.” (2)
“In His mercy, God provides the sacrament of confession (more properly called the sacrament of repentance) to give us deliverance from sin… Thus, we come before the holy icon of Christ, to whom we confess, and are guided by our spiritual father in a cleansing inventory of our lives. When we tell God all, naming our sins and failures, we hear those glorious words of freedom that announce Christ’s promise of forgiveness of all our sins. We resolve to ‘go and sin no more’ (Jn 8:11).” (1, p. 1698)
Fr. Hopko’s article details the three main elements of penance. “The first is a sincere sorrow for sins and for the breaking of communion with God. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sins… The third element of penance is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of God through Christ is sacramentally bestowed upon the repentant sinner.” (2) So, we must begin with genuine sorrow for what we have done, followed by a thorough examination of our hearts, then an equally complete confession. At this point, it is the priest who steps in to complete the act by praying the prayer of absolution. As he does, he extends Christ’s forgiveness to us while covering our head with his epitrachelion as Christ covers our sins with His forgiveness.
“According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confess to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents both Christ and His people. The priest is viewed not as a judge, but as a physician and guide.” (3) Fr. Thomas Hopko’s article reaffirms that it is only God who forgives sins, and that He does it through Christ in the Church. God requires that our repentance be genuine and that we promise to change. Confession is the chance for us to acknowledge before God and other humans that we are a sinner.
Glory to God for His gift of the sacrament of confession!
- Various editors. (2008). The Orthodox Study Bible. USA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. (available here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/osb-hardcover )
- Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments: Penance. Retrieved from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/penance
- Fitzgerald, Rev. Fr. Thomas (1985, June 11). Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Retrieved from https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments
Here are some ideas of ways to teach your students about this important sacrament, as well as a few suggested resources to help you better understand the sacrament. What resources have you found helpful? Comment below and share them with the community!
The Teaching Pics ( http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/teachingpics) offer a series of pictures on baptism that can be very helpful as you teach a lesson on the subject to any age group. Picture S9 shows someone in confession. The accompanying text helps to explain this sacrament in a way that children can understand. Purchase your own copy of the teaching pics here: http://orthodoxchristianed.com/files/4114/9885/4473/ocec2017_2018.pdf
This lesson on keeping our hearts clean could begin a discussion of the importance of confession for younger children: https://www.goarch.org/-/cleaning-my-temple. After reading the story in the lesson, ask why the students think it is that the same man could pose twice for DaVinci? How many times have we made choices in our life that turn us from being beautiful to less than beautiful? What can we do to keep our hearts beautiful?
This object lesson (not Orthodox, but easily adaptable) can help children understand the need for confession, by comparing our sins to dirty, stinky clothes: https://www.kidsofintegrity.com/lessons/righteousness/hands-options/we-must-confess-dirty-clothes-make-mess
This object lesson would be a memorable part of a lesson on confession. It has a very hands on (literally!) way to help children understand the sticky situation we have on our hands when we sin, as well as how perfectly Christ cleanses us when we confess our sins: https://www.christianitycove.com/free-sunday-school-lesson-plans-jesus-cleanses-us-from-our-sticky-sins/848/
Elementary or older students will not quickly forget the activity in this lesson that helps to solidify the reality of what happens during confession: http://orthodoxeducation.blogspot.com/2008/06/weight-of-our-sins.html
Middle years and older students will appreciate the activity in this lesson that helps them think about the importance of the Sacrament of Confession: https://www.goarch.org/-/confession
Find lessons on the sacrament of Confession for each age level here:
Share this article with older students and invite discussion. What do they think of the article? What stands out in their mind after reading it? Do they agree or disagree, and why? http://dce.oca.org/assets/files/inserts/repenting-is-not-just-lamenting.pdf
After a lesson on confession, consider sending home a letter encouraging parents to interact with their child(ren) about this sacrament. Perhaps you will want to include some of these suggestions: http://ww1.antiochian.org/christianeducation/childrenandrepentance
Here are a few books/articles that can be valuable resources as you prepare to teach a lesson on confession: