IT MUST be borne in mind that no member of the Orthodox Church may partake of the Holy Eucharist without previous confession, which, as one of the Seven Mysteries of the Church, may never be omitted except in extremis, when, as with us, the mere question whether the sick person repents of his sins and believes in the all-saving power of the redemptive death of Christ is regarded as sufficient.
Confession is heard in the open church in front of the iconostasis, at the north end, generally while the Hours are being read before the celebration of the Liturgy. The deacon naturally takes no part in this Rite. The Office opens with praise to God, followed by a short litany in which forgiveness is asked for the sins of the suppliant especially, and also for those of all sinners.
A prayer, by St. John Chrysostom, is addressed to Jesus Christ as "Son of the living God, both Shepherd and Lamb . . ." and praying:
"Do Thou ... in that Thou art good and cherishest not ill-will, graciously grant unto these Thy servants the word of absolution, remitting unto them their anathema and curse according to Thy great mercy."
After the Trisagion, Psalm 51 and various appeals for mercy, with the responses, "I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy upon me," and "God be merciful to me, a sinner," the following prayer is said over the penitent:
"O God, our Saviour, who, by Thy prophet Nathan didst grant to repenting David remission of his transgressions and didst accept the prayer of repentance of Manasseh, do Thou also receive Thy servant N. who repenteth of the transgressions which he has committed, with Thy accustomed compassion overlooking all his doings, Thou who pardonest offences and passest over iniquities. For Thou hast said O Lord, I do not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn and live, and that sins should be forgiven seventy times seven. For as Thy Majesty is incomparable, so is Thy mercy measureless; for if Thou shouldest regard iniquity, who can abide it? For Thou art the God of those who are penitent, and to Thee we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, now and forever, unto all eternity. Amen." [This prayer is the second half of that used in the rite of Holy Unction, at the time when the Gospel is held over the head of the person anointed.]
The priest having exhorted the penitent, who stands before him, to make his confession, he now places the corner of his stole upon his bowed head, and the penitent, kneeling and holding up his hands, recites the Nicene Creed, and proceeds as follows:
"O Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, verily I confess to Thee all the open and hidden sins of my heart and understanding which I have committed unto the present day. . . . Wherefore I pray forgiveness from Thee, the righteous and compassionate Judge, and grace to sin no more."
The spiritual adviser says in a "cheerful" [reassuring] voice,
"O Brother, as to that for which thou hast come to God and to me, be not ashamed, for thou dost not declare it unto me but unto God, before whom thou standest."
The confession having been made and received, the priest continues:
"My spiritual child, thou who hast confessed to my unworthiness [my unworthy self], I, a humble sinner, have not the power to forgive sins on earth but God alone can do this. Through that divine voice which came to the apostles after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and said, 'Whosoever sins ye remit they are remitted,' etc., we, trusting in it, say, 'Whatsoever thou hast confessed to my deepest unworthiness and whatsoever thou hast omitted to say either through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, God forgive thee in the present world and in that which is to come.' "
During the Prayer of Absolution which follows, the priest places his right hand upon the corner of his stole which is resting upon the bowed head of the penitent:
"O God, who, through Nathan the Prophet, forgave the sins of David after he confessed them, and to Peter, bitterly weeping, his denial, and to the harlot, shedding tears at His feet, and to the publican and the prodigal, may the same God forgive thee, through me a sinner, all thy sins in this world and in that which is to come, and may He stablish thee uncondemned before His fearful judgment seat. Without anxiety for thy confessed transgressions go in peace."
The Absolution follows, and at the words "In the Name of" the priest takes a cross in his right hand and touches with it the head of the penitent:
"May our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of His love toward mankind forgive thee, O spiritual son N., all thy transgression. And I, His unworthy priest, by the power which was given to me by Him, I say to thee that thou art forgiven and absolved of all thy sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
The final prayer is for "Those who have been released from their transgressions":
"O compassionate, good and man-loving Lord who, through Thy tender mercies, hast sent Thine Only-begotten Son into the world that He might tear in pieces the handwriting of transgressions against us, and loosen the bonds of those that have been fettered by their sins and that He proclaim deliverance to the captives, do Thou, O Lord, set free also Thy servant N. by Thy goodness from the bond laid upon him, and grant freely to him to appear guiltless before Thy Majesty at every fitting season and place, and with boldness and innocence to ask according to Thy rich mercy. For Thou art the merciful and man-loving God, and to Thee we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost now and for evermore. Amen."
It is evident from the prayers and the Absolution that the priest is only the intermediate instrument through which God works, ". . . he is not the judge of the penitent, but merely the witness of his repentance, a servant appointed expressly to minister to the salvation of men ... the man who sinneth, sinneth to God only, and he who repenteth, from God only receiveth pardon." (The Doctrine of the Russian Church, pp. 227, sq. Cf. Note 10.)