Theology of the Sacrament

The sacraments in the East are understood in ways that differ from the Roman Catholic Church.

“These sacraments are understood less as isolated acts through which a ‘particular’ grace is bestowed upon individuals by properly appointed ministers acting with proper intention, and more as the aspects of a unique mystery of the Church, in which God shares his divine life with humanity.”[1]

Particularly, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, emphasis is placed upon the healing power of Christ.  The prayers of absolution, as we have seen, highlight the power of Christ through the priest– the emphasis is on Christ who absolves: “We go to the priest as to a physician who has received the power of healing in the name of the Lord, as pointed out by the Council of Intrullo (692): ‘Those who have received the power to bind sins or retain them should behave like careful physicians who find the healing remedy for each individual penitent and his particular sins.’”  Thus, the absolution formulas in the East are often called “deprecative,” that is, “formulas which beg the Lord to give pardon, but which make no express mention of the ministerial action of the priest” (Chapungco, p. 106).  Nevertheless, these formulas do absolve the penitent from sins and have always been considered to do so (Chapungco, p. 107).

This is a departure from the Roman Catholic understanding which highlights the importance of the priest in the act of absolution: “I absolve you…”  Interestingly, as many Eastern Churches entered into communion with Rome, they often incorporated this Roman understanding, thus using two prayers of absolution in the sacrament.

(Perhaps this element of Eastern sacramental theology can shed light on the Roman’s current Book of Blessings).

But, to add not one more bit of clarity to the matter, in the Syriac tradition, Christians “do not particularly distinguish between the formulas of absolution and the prayers that accompany them” (Chapungco, 107).

It is also important to note that “In Byzantine theology, there is no actual listing of “mortal” and “venial” sins.  The prayers of the Sacrament of Penance seek a general forgiveness of sin “deliberate and indeliberate, committed by word and deed, by day or night….”

“Confession is regarded as an extension of the holy waters of baptism.  Hence it is sometimes called the “second baptism.” (Byzantine Daily Worship, p. 927).


[1] George Appleyard.  Light of the East. Co-published by Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of St. Josaphat in Parm and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, 2000.  p. 20.  Citing Father john Meyendorff

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2 Responses to Theology of the Sacrament

  1. Deacon Jerome says:

    Deacon Gerber,
    I thought is was very interesting that in the Byzantine Liturgy there is no listing of mortal and venial sins. I believe that this is connected to their understanding of grace as I remember Fr. John Michael describing it from last year. Their whole concept of original sin seems almost similar to the protestant view of grace. I may be wrong on this and would need further study in this area. It’s food for thought but they still have a sense of right and wrong in the confession of sins.

    • ajgerber says:

      I would say that they have just as good a sense of right and wrong as Roman Catholics do. I’m not quite sure why this Byzantine rite does not have the specific listing of venial and mortal sins– that is a good topic for a thesis, I think. At the same time, there are Byzantine churches who, in their rites, have the confession of individual sins. Some may argue that this is a Roman insertion, but I’m not sure about that.

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