The Sacrament of Confession in the Ethiopian and Syrian Churches

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In the first part of this article, we described some distinctive features of the texts of absolution prayers read over the penitent in the sacrament of confession as practised by different Eastern churches. In this part, we focus on the prayers of absolution used in the Ethiopian and Syrian churches.

Ethiopian church

In the Ethiopian church, confession is a sacrament that bestows upon the penitent the twin blessing of forgiveness of the sins and reconciliation with God. Each faithful of the church must confess their sins to partake in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This rule -shared by the Catholics at least until the Second Vatican Congress (1962 – 1965) and still honoured by the Russian Church – is grounded in the desire for a worthy Communion, which is only possible when one has repented their sin. “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup,” wrote Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:28). The sacrament of confession in the Ethiopian Church is grounded in this verse.

Fearing their unworthiness, Ethiopian Christians take Communion very rarely, typically once in a year or less. Not every willing believer is allowed to approach the Cup. In general, children and the elderly are more likely to get communed than all the rest. To be able to take communion, a believer visits the home of his spiritual father. The priest sits in a chair, and the penitent takes his place at his feet. To avoid embarrassing the penitent, the priest does not look at him during the confession. After the confession, the penitent kisses the hands and feet of the priest as an expression of thankfulness. Any confession is usually followed by a strict penance rule, such as a forty-day fast, multiple bows, or almsgiving. In the older times, penance could last up to several years, depending on the gravity of the transgressions. A believer may not approach the Cup until he completes the rule.

The Syriaс and Malankara churches

Most East Christian churches with long histories do not practise Confession or adopted this practice relatively recently under the influence of the Roman or Greek Churches (Orthodox Encyclopedia). According to an account of the ancient Church writer Aphraat, which dates back to the third and fourth century, repentance could be performed only once in a lifetime and was only recommended to believers with a grave affliction of the spirit (Aphr. Demonstr. 7 17). The confession took place before a bishop in strict privacy. The nature of the penitent’s sins could not be revealed under any circumstances. If the penitent’s transgressions were grave enough, anointment with baptismal oil was performed. Syriac canons also provided for the imposition of penance, but the practice is quite rare.

Because the Syriac Christians have entered a union with Rome, they use the Latinised rite of confession. However, similar to other Oriental Orthodox churches, Syriac Christians use formulations that underline the role of the priest in the forgiveness of sins. Let us refer to this text of the forgiveness prayer. It combines the statement of the absolution of the sins, an appeal to the Father and the Son, a plea for the penitent’s reconciliation with the Church and a reference to the Holy Spirit: “Sin is taken away from your soul and your body in the name of the Father. Amen. You are made clean and holy in the name of the Son. Amen. May you be forgiven and share the Holy Mysteries in the name of the Holy Spirit for everlasting life. Amen”.

The Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and its successor, the Malankara church, use different prayer texts for members of the clergy and laymen. The prayer over the penitent layman reads: “May God have mercy upon you, and may He guide you to everlasting life through the authority of priesthood which was entrusted by our Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples who, in turn, entrusted it to their successors until it was given me; I who am weak and sinful, absolve you, brother (sister) of all the sins that you have confessed and are repentant of them, as well as of all the transgressions which have escaped your memory in the Name of the Father, amen, and of the Son, amen, and of the Holy Spirit for everlasting life. Amen”. The text used if the penitent is a priest contains elements of the imperative mood and a reference to a priest’s power to forgive sins, but it also contains the following plea for the spiritual healing of the penitent clergyman. “May God, Who blessed his holy disciples, bless you. May He preserve you from all evil deeds and perfect you in the gracious ones that you may be the keeper of His commandments and the fulfiller of His laws. May He make you a chosen vessel that is fit for the service of His glory. May you enjoy peace in Him, and may He be pleased with you and according to His Good Will, may you be blessed, absolved and consecrated, in the Name of the Father, amen, and of the Son, amen, and of the Holy Spirit for everlasting life. Amen. (The Sacrament of Repentance. syriacorthodoxresources.org.).

Let us also briefly mention the sacrament of repentance in the Assyrian Church of the East. This church stands out among all others in that it lacks the practice of an oral confession altogether. Instead, it uses the rite of heartfelt repentance. Therefore, for the Assyrian church, repentance is treated as a sacrament.

As we can see, most Eastern churches practise confession before a priest as a religious sacrament, and most consider priests to have the authority from the Apostles to forgive sins, impose and impose penance rules to help the penitent heal from the infirmity of the spirit. Let us hope that these observations will make us more aware of our religious practices, including our differences and similarities.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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