As we approach the season of Great Lent we begin to think about the importance of repentance and confession. One of the perennial questions asked about confession is, “Why do I have to confess to a priest?" Of course, the first answer to this question is that we are not confessing to the priest but to God. But everybody knows that, I presume, and it doesn't change the fact that people still wonder why this confession to God has to take place in the presence of a priest.
A second and essential reason, among many others, that we confess our sins in the presence of a priest is simply that, since our sin is a communal act, so must our repentance be. Or, to be clear, we should say that our sin - all sin - is destructive of community: it is, in other words, anti-communion. Dostoevsky once said, “One sin pollutes the entire universe,” and, since our sin is anti-communion, our repentance must be a restoration to communion and healing of the community.
Human beings were created to be persons who exist in community and, even more importantly, in communion. This does not simply mean that we are social beings, raised in families and living in towns, etc. It means that we were created to live in communion with God and with other persons. This truth is reflected in the fact that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself. The commandments lead us to divine life and so the fact of the two great commandments being the commandments of love points to our purpose as persons living in communion.
Sin, however, more than simply the breaking of a Divine rule or duty, is the destroyer of communion with God and others. All sins proceed from pride and self-love and thus always destroy communion. Even with sins such as fornication, in which two people sin together, they are not acting in communion but as individuals who are, we might say, alone together. Throughout the Scriptures we see the power of sin as the destroyer of communion: in the story of Adam and Eve; in Cain killing his brother Abel; in the sin of David with Bathsheba. But of course, we can read our own life, not just the Scriptures, to see the corrosive affects of sin and how it leads us away from communion into the solitary Hell of destruction.
It is because of this anti-communal nature of sin that it was not uncommon in the Church during the first millennium for persons to confess particularly serious sins before the whole Church community. Likewise, the canons of the Church require such persons to have a period of public penitence prior to their return to Holy Communion. And while we no longer see this as frequently, the nature and destructive power of sin as an anti-communal force has not changed.
All of this to say that since my sin is not simply a private affair between me and God, but destructive and corrosive of the very fibers of my communal being, repentance must be communal as well. The priest’s presence in confession, then, serves a double purpose: he represents Christ and is able to offer through the prayer of forgiveness restoration to communion with God; he also represents the Church and signifies the restoration of the penitent to fellowship and communion in the Body of Christ. This double purpose, the priest representing Christ and the Church. is reflected clearly in the prayer of forgiveness spoken by the priest after the confession of sin:
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
He who does any evil, who gratifies any passion, is punished enough by the evil he has committed, by the vice he has served, and above all by the fact that he withdraws himself from God, and God withdraws himself from him - it would therefore be insane, and inhuman, to nourish anger against such a man; one might as well drown a man who is already sinking, or push into the fire one who is already burning. To such a man, as to one in danger of perishing, we must show more love than ever, and pray fervently for him, not judging him, nor rejoicing at his misfortune.
+St John of Kronstadt
If you cannot close the mouth of one who reviles his brother, at least avoid conversation with him.
+St Isaac the Syrian
God and the devil are found at opposite poles. No one can turn his face to God who has not first turned his back on sin. When a man turns his face to God, all of his paths lead to God. When a man turns his face away from God, all of his paths lead to perdition. When a man finally rejects God by word and in his heart, he is no longer fit to do anything that does not serve for his complete destruction, both of his soul and of his body.
+St Nicholai of Zica