Tuesday, November 17

Confession: The Sacrament of Reconciliation

The doctrine underlying the sacrament of Confession - also known as Reconciliation - found in the Catholic Church and in various forms in the Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican and even Mormon churches is easily one of the most controversial among other Christians. Many in other Christian denominations point out that in Mark 2:6-7 we read, "Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 'Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?'" (emphasis mine). Based on this verse, the general understanding is, "why would I go to a priest for forgiveness since the Bible says that God alone forgives sins?" This is a bit of a complex question, yet at the same time, a very simple one. So in order to understand why the various Christian denominations continue this practice of Confession or Reconciliation, we turn to the Christian Scriptures. One of the most prominent things found in the teachings of Jesus as seen in the New Testament is the forgiveness of sins. The word "sin" comes from a Hebrew word, haramatia, meaning "to miss the mark" (as if one's arrow would miss its target). Now, it seems that nearly every page or every other page in the New Testament has something about forgiveness. In fact, the first words we have from Mark’s gospels are about forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key concept in Christianity, just as the main theme of the Christian Scriptures is that of forgiveness or reconciliation to God through forgiveness.

We read in John 20:21-23, "Again Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, I am sending you.' And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'" Before Jesus grants them the authority to forgive sins, Jesus says to the apostles, "as the Father sent me, so I send you." As Christ was sent by the Father to forgive sins, so Christ sends the apostles and their successors forgive sins. The Lord then "breathes" on the apostles, and then gives them the power to forgive and retain sins. The only other moment in Scripture where God breathes on man is in Genesis 2:7, when the Lord "breathes" divine life into man. When this happens, a significant transformation takes place. Here too, a significant transformation occurs. Lastly, Jesus says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained." In order for the apostles to exercise this gift of forgiving sins, the penitents (those being forgiven) must evidently orally confess their sins to them because the apostles are not mind readers. This is why the disciples would have had oral confession. That being said - there is nothing in Scripture or in history that says that the successors of the Apostles lost this gift.

In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says something similar - "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." This is more clearly seen in Matthew 16:18, "I tell you you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." St. Peter is considered the first Pope (“Papa”) by the Church. Historically and Scripturally, we know that the disciples appointed successors whom they laid hands on. This transfer of authority also transferred the ability to bind and loose, to administer sacraments such as Anointing, Confirmation, Confession, Eucharist (Communion), and Marriage. We may not question why a Priest or Pastor performs a marriage ceremony, but we do if he administers another sacrament of the church, it seems.

There are other New Testament examples. In 2nd Corinthians 2:10 - St. Paul forgives in the presence of Christ (some translations refer to the presences of Christ as in persona Christi - priests always forgive in the person of Christ, they do not themselves forgive the sins). In 2nd Corinthians 5:18, the ministry of reconciliation was given to the ambassadors of the Church. According to the Church, at least, this ministry of reconciliation refers to the sacrament of reconciliation, also called the sacrament of confession or penance. Then we have James 5:15-16. In verse 15 we see that sins are forgiven by the elders (the bishops, deacons or priests) in the sacrament of anointing of the sick. This is another example of man's authority (through Christ) to forgive sins on earth. Then in verse 16, James says “Therefore, confess our sins to one another,” likely in reference to the men referred to in verse 15, the priests and elders of the Church, although also to your brothers and sisters.

St. James seems to teach us that we must “confess our sins to one another,” not just privately to God. James 5:16 must be read in the context of James 5:14-15, which is referring to the healing power (both physical and spiritual) of the priests/elders of the Church. Hence, when James says “therefore” in verse 16, he is seemingly referring to the men he was writing about in verses 14 and 15 – these men are the ordained priests of the Church, to whom the Church believes sins are to be confessed to, as Jesus gave his power to the disciples, who, through succession and the laying on of hands, have passed this on to priests and bishops of the present day. This, then, is the basic notion behind Confession. In Acts 19:18, many came to orally confess sins and divulge their sinful practices. Oral confession was the practice of the early Church just as it is today. In Matthew 3:6 and Mark 1:5, we see people confessing their sins before others as an historical practice, here to John the Baptist, who is - as priests are considered to be - a representative of Christ, but not Christ himself. 1st Timothy 6:12 seems to refer to the historical practice of confessing both faith and sins in the presence of many witnesses.

It comes as a surprise to some Christians, but in the ancient Jewish church, confession was also a practice. For example, Numbers 5:7 shows the historical practice of publicly confessing sins, and making public restitution. In Nehemiah 9:2-3 we see the Israelites standing before the assembly and confessing their sins publicly and interceded for each other. In the apocryphal works (useful to show historical practice of the time), we find examples of the historical practice of confession. In the Wisdom of Sirach 4:26, God tells us not to be ashamed to confess our sins, and not to try to stop the current of a river. We see this also in another writing from that time period, Baruch 1:14 - again, showing that the people made confession in the house of the Lord, before the assembly.

There are other considerations as well. When I sin, I am not only sinning against myself and against God. I am part of the Body of Christ, so when I sin, I also sin against the Body. When a priest and an individual engage in Confession, he stands in as a representative not only of Christ but of the Church. This brings up another point. Perhaps one of the main reasons we have confession is the psychology of it all. When I sin against somebody, and then confess that to them and ask for forgiveness it feels good to get that off your chest. If you have done something wrong, it can weigh on you. We therefore need someone to talk to, to confess our sins to. This was commanded in James' letter and elsewhere, to confess our sins to one another.

This sacrament is the culmination of psychological research, centuries of Jewish and Christian history, the variety of Scriptural considerations and other such things. It has become Reconciliation between you and the Body of Christ, reconciliation between you and God, and between you and your inner self, so to speak. The Church never says that there is anything wrong with confessing to God directly. Indeed, that is encouraged. Further, public confession was not just an ancient Jewish and Christian practice (also recorded in early Christian literature not cited here), it was picked up by the Irish missionaries early on and made prominent who then developed penitential books and made the sacrament into private confession. Interestingly, today, in Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Anglican worship books that are under twenty years old, in the back is a section with the Rite of Private Confession or the Rite of Communal Confession.

The Second Vatican Council changed the emphasis on private confession, and sometimes a penance service would then come into play when there were not enough priests to fulfill confessional duties. However, by the 1960s many Catholics had stopped going to confession, so the change was not entirely noticed. There have been a number of possible reasons put forth as to why this has happened, such as the opening rite and prayer at mass being seen as forgiving the sins of the community, ecumenical councils and dialogues with other Christians who did not use regular confession and a number of other factors. Although there are still those who go to confession, the Eucharist has seemingly replaced penance or reconciliation as the primary way in which the forgiveness of sins is enacted for many. Protestants hold differing views on forgiveness, but both Protestants and Catholics tend to agree that forgiveness on any level is central to our Christian faith, and that reconciliation between us and God as well as our fellow men and women is crucial to living as the best versions of ourselves.

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