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Sermon by Protopriest Sergei Chetverikov (+1947): The Meaning of Confession

 

The days of holy Great Lent are a time of preparation for confession and Holy Communion. These days have come to us once again. But how often do they pass us by without bringing us palpable benefit? Of course, this is not because they are unable to do us any good, but because we are too careless, we dismiss them too easily. Think seriously about what confession and Communion grant to us, and why they exist in the Orthodox Church.

First let us discuss confession. In order to properly grasp its meaning, let us turn to examining our inner spiritual life. We know that within us there is a constant struggle between good and evil. And the true Christian life begins in us only when we consciously take the side of good and attempt to defeat evil.

As long as we idly dismiss our internal life without discerning good and evil within it, and passively give ourselves over to our desires and amusements, whatever they might be, making no accounting of ourselves, we will not live a Christian life. Only when we painfully sense our failings, when we condemn ourselves and thirst for renewal, only then do we embark on the path of Christian life. Let us look at concrete examples. Consider the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. The Pharisee attends the Temple of God, performs many good deeds, but we still would not say that he lives a life of truth. Why not? Because he is completely satisfied with himself. He does not have the keen sense of pain over his impurity, he praises himself for his righteousness, he has not noticed the abyss of sin which lies within him. The Tax-Collector, on the contrary, has performed no good deeds. But he clearly sees the depth of his sinfulness and grieves. He asks one thing of God, mercy, that is salvation. This is the genuine Christian attitude.

Another example is from the sixth century, in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where a young sinner named Maria lived. Her sin was sweet and pleasurable. She was carefree and exuberant. She never even perceived the call of her conscience. She had no understanding of herself. Simply for the novelty of it, she joined a group of worshipers heading for Jerusalem to celebrate the Elevation of the Cross of the Lord. The whole way she sang sinful songs, poisoning the peace of the pilgrims in their lofty spiritual moods with her shameless acts and mockery. Finally, she arrived in Jerusalem and without thinking, just out of curiosity, followed her fellow travelers to the Church of the Resurrection of Christ. But what happened then? When she tried to step over the threshold of the church, some unseen power stopped her. She was horrified, and ashamed before the others. She did not wish to show that she could not enter the church, but all of her efforts were in vain. Then a bright light shone before her and she saw her entire past life. She saw things she had never noticed before. She saw that she was unworthy of entering the church, for she was too impure. And then she wept bitterly. From this moment, her internal struggle began, to which she dedicated the rest of her life.

So we see that sometimes man pays no attention to his faults and sins and lives for many years without care, and then, the time comes for his eyes to open. Some experience it in an instant, as did St Mary of Egypt, others experience it with great effort over a long period of time.

Let us apply all this to ourselves. Trace your own actions, your intentions, your words. Yesterday you might have hurt someone with a harsh word, with insulting suspicion or a poisonous barb; a day earlier some mean, lowly desire may have gnawed on your soul and yet you did not abandon dwelling on it but even tried to enjoy it; or you had the chance to sacrifice your peace or comfort to help someone, but you declined to do so, etc. If you are vigilant and honest with yourself, you would see that your life is a web, a huge network of such small but significant wicked moments, which comprise a significant part of your existence. If we ignore this, thinking that this is all normal, this means that you have not yet begun to live the Christian life. Our Christian life only begins when we say: No, I do not wish for such disgusting things to live in my soul! I wish to be pure and good! I wish to be a true Christian! But as soon as you attempt to take this path, you will be convinced of the following: the struggle against evil within yourself is exceedingly difficult, painful and exhausting. You will see how wicked your emotions are, how your filthy thoughts and desires, unwillingly, without your consent, take hold of you, push you towards one ugly deed or another. You may utter a harsh word or make a foolish move, and then you will begin to understand that you should not have said that, or done that, whereas before you never thought twice that whatever you said or did was wrong. You will begin to feel the great truth of the words of Apostle Paul: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (Romans 7:15).

Moreover, you become the plaything of your evil tendencies, you feel that your inner being is being tarnished, blackened by these wicked desires, your thoughts are confused, your passions are dirty, your will is weakened. How, one asks, does a person rid himself of all this filth? How is one to expel it? Will all of this remain forever? Sometimes when you share your spiritual sorrows with another, you feel unburdened. But when you do this, you only share your sorrows, you do not relieve yourself of them. Something else is needed, a truer means of salvation.

The renowned spiritual author St Theophan the Recluse, in one of his essays, tells us the following: there was a young man who was in deep sorrow that his many sins have stained his soul. Grieving, he fell asleep. He dreamt that an angel descended to him from Heaven, and with a sharp knife slit open his chest, pulled out his heart, cut it into pieces, removed all the rot and filth within it, carefully replaced it and healed the wound in his chest. The young man awoke and felt himself cleansed of his sin. Would it not be so good for us to experience just such a wondrous healing as this bright angel brought? But this angel is in fact given to us! It is the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Mystery of confession.

We know that Jesus Christ brought holy life to this earth. This holy life is imparted to humanity through the Church and the Holy Mysteries. Confession is the Mystery of holy repentance. It was established so that through it we could purify ourselves of all the filth of sin. As He established this mystery, Jesus Christ said to His disciples: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained ” (John 20:22-23). And to this day the pastors of the Christian Church, with the power given to them by the Lord, release the sins of those who repent, and the grace of the Holy Spirit purifies their hearts.

In this way, confession is not some vague, strange custom that we have to blindly participate in for some reason, but an extremely important and exceptionally crucial means of moral recuperation and correction, which answers the demands of our own moral nature. To refuse to confess is the same as if we suffer from some physical ailment and, knowing what the most effective medicine is, neglecting to take it out of ignorance or laziness, and so to allow the disease to worsen. Our sins are spiritual disease. The medicine for this disease is confession. To neglect to use this medicine means that we do not wish to lose our sinful impurity and accumulate more and more of it.