18 December 2013

The Holy Mysteries of Penance/Confession and Unction

Those coming from a Protestant background may not understand that Confession and Holy Unction are Biblical Mysteries/Sacraments and confession of sins was called for even in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament.

The Mystery of Penance/Confession

The Book of Numbers 5:6-7a “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, “When a man or woman commits one of the sins that human commit, and actually disregards a neighbor, that soul has committed a trespass. Then he shall confess openly the sin he committed...”

The Book of Nehemiah 9:2-3 “Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God, and they were confessing to the Lord and worshipping the Lord their God.”

The Book of Baruch 1:13-14 “Pray for us too the Lord our God, because we have sinned against the Lord our God. Even to this day the wrath of the Lord and His anger is not turned away from us. And you shall read this book which we are sending you, in order to make a confession in the house of the Lord on the feast days and on the solemn days.”

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew 3:5-6 “Then Jerusalem, and all of Judea, and all the country round about  the Jordan were going out to him, and were being baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.”

The Gospel According to Saint Mark “And all the land of Judea, and all of Jerusalem, were going by out to him; and all were being baptized in the Jordan River by him, confessing their sins.”

The gift of God's forgiveness is received through private prayer, corporate worship, the disciplines of prayer and fasting, penitential services and above all through the sacrament of Holy Confession.

The value of Holy Confession is twofold. First, through this sacramental act of the ordained presbyter/priest and the Christian believer we have the assurance of divine forgiveness, according to the words of Christ:

The Gospel According to Saint John 20:22-23 “And after He said this, he breathed on them, and saith to them, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: if ye forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven too them; if ye retain the sins of any, they are retained.””

Secondly, Holy Confession provides the opportunity to talk about one's deep concerns, to receive counsel and to be encouraged toward spiritual growth, all of which are universally recognized as extremely beneficial to personal life.

Remember that you are confessing to God. The presbyter is there as a witness, and help you not fall back into that sin. You should really be repentant and be willing to change your mind/way as this is what mentanoia means. After confession, the presbyter may give you an epitimion/penance, which may consist of prayers or spiritual reading to help you not fall in to this sin again and realize the seriousness of your sin.

Holy Confession is appropriate whenever an Orthodox Christian feels the need for it. It is also an essential part of our total spiritual preparation during the fast periods leading up to the great feasts of Pascha/Easter, Nativity/Christmas, Dormition, and the Feast of Twelve Apostles. This is a minimum of 4 times a year. However, Holy Confession is especially necessary:

  1. when a serious sin has been committed;
  2. when a habitual sin has overwhelmed a Christian, or
  3. when a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reexamination of priorities.

We confess our sins to God and the power of forgiveness is God's. However, the gift of God's forgiveness, although assured, is not magical. It does not automatically spare us from spiritual struggle - the continual vigilance against evil and the unceasing warfare against sin. Holy Confession will bear fruits in the Spirit only when the believer hates evil, utterly rejects sin and patiently cultivates positive habits of the life in Christ:

The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans 6:11-13 “Thus reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore let us not sin be reigning in your mortal body, so that ye obey it in its desires. Cease presenting your members as weapons of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as weapons of righteousness to God.”

How can one prepare for Holy Confession? Preparation for Holy Confession is a prayerful examination of feelings, thoughts, words, acts, attitudes, habits, values, priorities, goals, direction, and way of life. This prayerful self-examination includes not only the personal religious life, but also family relationships, social activities, job conduct, business dealings, political commitments and even recreational pursuits, because our entire existence should be lived in under the light of the Holy Spirit is not to condemn ourselves, but to affirm our true selves in Christ who has given us access to God's mercy and forgiveness and who has taught us to live for God's glory.

Pray and think and your confession over several days. Ask God to help you perceive your sins and to make a thorough confession of them. Sometime before the sacrament of Holy Confession, pray Psalm 50(51) & 51(52).

Now, without justification or self-pity, make a prayerful examinations of your conscience regarding all things. As a help, reflect on your life in the light of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Take pencil and paper and specify your sins so that, at the time of the sacrament, you will be able to make a thorough confession from the list, without confusion or lapse of memory.


Exodus 20:2-3 “I am the Lord your God... You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Has God been the source, center and hope of my life? Have I put myself, others or things before God? Have I failed to trust in God's existence, love and mercy? Have I failed to pray to God, to worship Him and to thank Him for His blessings? Have I tried to serve God and keep His commandments faithfully? Have I murmured or complained against God in adversity? Have I praised and glorified God through my words and deeds?

Exodus 20:4-6 “You shall not make for yourself an idol...”
Have I valued anyone or anything above God? Have I given to anyone or anything the love, honor and worship that belongs to God alone? Have I made an idol of any person, idea, occupation, or thing?

Exodus 20:7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain...”
Have I blasphemed God's holy name in any way? Have I sworn a false oath? Have I broken any solemn vow or promise? Have I entered into an agreement, promise or contract against God's law? Have I cursed or used foul language?

Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy...”
Have I worshiped regularly on Sundays and major feast days and have I helped others to do the same? Have I worked unnecessarily on Sundays or major feast days or caused others to do so? Have I spent the Lord's Day in a wholesome and edifying ways?

Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and mother...”
Have I loved and respected my parents as I should? Have I neglected them or failed to help them? Have I disobeyed them, deceived them or caused them pain by my words or deeds? Have I treated all my family members with patience and love?

Exodus 20:13 “You shall not murder.”
Have I caused the harm, injury or death of anyone? Have I wished my own or anyone's harm or death? Have I been cruel to animals or destroyed any life unnecessarily?

Exodus 20:14 “You shall not commit adultery.”
Have I committed any immoral acts alone or with others? Have I caused others to commit immoral acts? Have I committed immoral acts in my heart?

Exodus 20:15 “You shall not steal.”
Have I taken anything that was not mine from anyone or from anywhere? Have I cheated anyone? Have I caused others to steal or cheat? Have I tried to find the owners of lost things I have found? Have I damaged or destroyed anything that belonged to another? Have I defrauded anyone of rightful wages? Have I paid my debts? Have I given to the poor and to philanthropic causes in proportion to my means?

Exodus 20:16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Have I given false testimony against anyone? Have I spoken evil, told lies or spread rumors about anyone? Have I disclosed to anyone the sins and faults of another? Have I made careless statements or done anything else to harm the name and reputation of another? Have I engaged in idle gossip?

Exodus 20:17 “You shall not covet...”
Have I looked with envy jealousy or hatred toward the possession talents or achievements of others? Have I desired the downfall or loss of others out of evil intent that I might benefit? Have I grieved that God has bestowed greater blessings on others than on me?


Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.”
Have I truly recognized my complete dependence on God? Have I been proud arrogant and self-righteous in my ways? Have I been selfish, possessive and self-seeking? Have I sought after status, power, and wealth?

Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Have I endured difficulties and afflictions with faith and patience? Have I felt sadness for the sufferings of the poor, the hungry, and addicted; the sick, the lonely and the sinful of the world? Have I truly been sorrowful for my sins and faults?

Matthew 5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Have I tried to serve or rather to dominate others at home, school, work, office, Church and elsewhere? Have I nursed against anyone? Have I been resentful, bitter, unforgiving or insulting and abusive to others? Have I loved my enemies?

Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Have I truly yearned for God's will to be done in all things? Have I worked for justice in my family, society and the world in ways with in my reach? Have I tried to cultivate a righteous life through prayer, fasting, worship, receiving Holy Communion and deeds of love toward others?

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
Have I shown compassion and help toward the poor, hungry, lonely and needy around me? Have I tried to understand and forgive others? Have I been indifferent judgmental or legalistic?

Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Have I loved goodness, purity and holiness? Have I succumbed to evil motives and intentions? Have I given way to impure thoughts, words or deeds? Have I been guilty of bias and prejudice? Have I been hypocritical, pretentious or self-indulgent to sinful passions?

Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Do I have God's peace in my heart? Have I been unfairly angry, aggressive or impatient? Have I worked for peace at home, work, Church and in society? Have I been irritable, polemical, or divisive?

Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted on account of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.”
Have I complained when persecuted for God's sake? Have I prayed for my persecutors? Have I failed to defend anyone in the truth for fear of humiliation or persecution? Have I had the courage to stand up for what is right despite criticism, ridicule or persecution?

Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are ye whenever they reproach you and persecute you, and say every evil word against you falsely on account of Me; Be rejoicing and be exceedingly glad, for your reward is great in the heavens.”
Is the joy of Christ in my heart even in trying moments? Have I been pessimistic despondent or despairing? Have I truly delighted in the promise of God's treasures in heaven?

Remember that the presbyter/priest is there as God’s ordained witness, not as a judge, and that there should be no fear in approaching the Mystery.

Your first confession is a lifetime confession, confessing all sins before you were Baptized and Chrismated. After that, your confession will be sins since the last confession only, as your previous sins are forgiven and forgotten.

The Mystery of Holy Unction

The General Epistle of Saint Iakovos (James) 5:14-16 “Is anyone among you infirm? Let him call the presbyters for the Church; and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the one who is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be one who hath committed sins, it shall be forgiven him. Keep on confessing your transgressions too one another and praying for one another, that ye might be healed. The entreaty of a righteous man hath much strength when it is energized.”

So Saint Iakovos/James describes the anointing of the sick, providing the apostolic foundations for the sacrament of unction, or more properly, "the oil of prayer" (euchelaion). In keeping with the biblical injunction, the Orthodox order for the celebration of this sacrament calls for a group of presbyters to be present at it but this requirement is only of secondary importance. Nor is it required that the person receiving the sacrament be mortally ill as some have supposed. Bodily healing as well as the forgiveness of sins are the primary purposes of this sacrament and only in cases of imminent death can it be considered a preparation for it.

Orthodox theology has always stressed the unity of body and soul and this means that there can be no sharp dichotomy between physical and spiritual; the readings and prayers used in the rite of unction certainly do not assume that physical healing is assured framework of repentance. The anointing symbolizes ultimate pardon in the face of sickness and even death, physical results of the spiritual disease of sinfulness. Unction itself has frequently been associated with penance as a single action and in some instances it has even superseded penance. The popular public celebrations of unction on Holy Wednesday in many Orthodox celebrations of unction on Holy Wednesday in many Orthodox churches might be incorrectly interpreted as a substitute for actual confessions of sins by individuals in preparation for the pascal Eucharist. Needless to say, anointing is meaningless without true contrition.

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