Bare Feet and Dusty Roads
A Homily on Holy Confession by Father John Bockman

Seventy years ago when I was going on ten, my younger brother and I used to spend a month each summer with our grandparents on their ranch in Montana. The nearest town was Libby, where I had been born. Libby in those days still resembled a town in the Wild West. Except for the road through the very short business district, there were no paved roads in town. They had to be oiled in summer to keep down the dust. Along the side of every road was dust six or more inches deep, like fine talcum powder. We often walked through it without shoes, raising clouds of dust. Therefore, foot washing was a daily evening ritual.

This is exactly the way it was in the Holy Land in the days of our Savior. Since most people walked without shoes of any kind, feet got very dirty. Even if people were scrupulously clean otherwise, they had to wash their feet before they entered a home or sat down to eat. Even wealthy people wore only sandals attached to the foot by a thong. Sandals might provide some protection for the sole of the foot, but did not prevent dirt from entering the top and sides.

Jesus Washes Peter's Feet

The Savior Washes the Feet of the Apostles

On the evening of the Last Supper, the Lord rose from the table where He and the Apostles were eating. Their feet must have been relatively clean, because they were already well into the meal, and the Jews were very scrupulous about cleanliness.

Nevertheless, the Savior took a basin and filled it with water and seriously came around and washed every Apostle's feet, drying them with the towel He had wound around His waist.

When He got to Simon Peter, the latter cried in surprise and indignation: "Lord, are you really going to wash my feet?" This was less a question than an objection and a rejection of the idea.

The Lord remained patient and said, "What I am doing you cannot understand now, but you will come to understand later." In other words, there was a great, but mysterious, significance in the Lord's action, but only time and the Holy Spirit would reveal what that was.

"No," said Saint Peter more emphatically, "you shall not wash my feet." (The word used here was nipto, which means washing to ensure cleanliness of a part of the body.)

Jesus answered enigmatically, "Unless I wash you, you will have no part in me" This is a critical statement because it says much about salvation and who shall attain it. If Saint Peter were to continue to refuse to let the Lord wash his feet, he would remove himself from the company of the Apostles. He would have been barred from the Kingdom.

Realizing now how serious the Lord was, and despite his inability to understand the deep meaning of the Lord's words, Peter gave in to the Lord's demand, saying, "Not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well."

Considering that Saint Peter did not yet understand what this was all about, his willingness now to let the Lord wash his hands and head was very fortuitous. If the feet are the prime collectors of dirt from the surrounding world, the hands and the head are not far behind.

Jesus then explained why washing the feet was necessary: "One who has had a bath," he said, "is clean. (The Greek word here is louo, meaning to wash the whole body.) Therefore only the feet need to be washed now. You are all clean except one of you," for He knew Judas would betray Him.

The implication is that under other circumstances, it might be necessary for other parts of the body to be washed as well.

The larger content of all this is that the Lord is about to institute the Eucharist, the mystery of His Body and Blood, in which His followers will receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion that very evening and regularly from that moment on until the end of time. All of us Orthodox Christian people who have lived and still live are an integral part of that grand context.

While the Apostles had been baptized by triple immersion earlier, and thus were clean, their feet had inevitably come in contact with the world and had become dirty. The world's contamination had to be removed from them before they received Holy Communion. The feet, of course, are symbolic of the whole person, body and soul, who suffers this contamination from the world, and who needs to have this contamination removed from his soul.

Today, we who live in a physically sanitized world can walk through it without our feet getting any dirtier than the rest of us. But the spiritual world which surrounds us is full of corruption, filth, and rot. We are inevitably contaminated by this environment.

We were washed clean through Holy Baptism and Chrismation, but living and walking through the abysmal corruption of the world, we get spiritually dirty every day. We cannot be baptized again, but we still need to be cleansed before we approach the Communion cup. That cleansing is done through the Mystery of Holy Confession, which corresponds spiritually to the washing of the feet.

The Founding of Holy Confession

Holy Confession was established by our Lord Jesus Christ after His Resurrection from the dead. He breathed upon His Apostles and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:22–23). By means of these words, the Savior granted the Apostles the power to release people from their sins, but also to bind them in their sins. The latter would happen only if there were not sincere repentance or other necessary condition.

From the beginning the Holy Church of God has understood and made use of this power as an obligation imposed by Christ Himself. At first, when the Church had few members, the power was exercised only by bishops. But by the second century the Christian population had increased so much that priests were authorized to act in the name of the bishops to forgive or bind sins.

In the second and third centuries confession of sins was often done publicly in front of the whole congregation, at least when major sins were being confessed, such as apostasy, betrayal of Christians, heresy, and public sins like adultery. For such sins a long period of repentance and testing was rrequired before readmission to communion. In the third century, starting in Africa, public confession and long periods of repentance began to be relaxed, and the mystery of confession became more like what it is today.

The Need for Holy Confession

There is no one who does not need confession. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives" (1 John 1:8–10).

If we don't confess our sins, we make the devil happy, and our spiritual state grows worse and worse. The eventual result is spiritual death and expulsion from the Kingdom.

Therefore, we should welcome this opportunity to rid ourselves of the world's contamination as often as possible. Some confess every day, others every week or month, but everyone should confess at least four times a year.

An excellent practice is to examine our conscience before God every day, especially concerning such matters as our faithfulness to God's commandments — whether we have judged others, for example, and spoken unkindly to them or about them, whether we have kept our prayer and fasting rule. Then we should thank God for all the blessings he has bestowed upon us that day, and we should express our repentance for failure to cooperate with God's grace.

Marks of a Good Confession

There are four steps to a good confession:
1. Forgive your enemies or those with whom you have had disagreements or quarrels.
2. Find a good confessor and tell him your sins.
3. Accuse only yourself and no one else, and do so without going into unnecessary detail.
4. Leave confession firmly resolved that it is better to die than to sin again.

Forgiveness Is Essential.

The Lord commanded us to leave our gift at the door of the temple and go reconcile ourselves with our brothers before we make our offering to God. This is a very serious matter, and we must not treat it lightly. If anyone says he cannot or will not forgive his brother, he may not receive Holy Communion.

Finding A Good Confessor is Critical.

What is a good confessor? A good confessor is one who is truly Orthodox, has sufficient experience in the spiritual life, and whom you feel you can trust. Unfortunately, a spiritual father's experience is not immediately evident. But it must be stressed that age and secular education and secular experience will not substitute for a solid spiritual life. A really good spiritual father will always believe he is unworthy, but that does not mean he is not a good confessor.

We are all responsible for our own Orthodoxy. We cannot claim that we are incompetent to distinguish Orthodoxy from Heterodoxy. In a world which is filled with false Orthodox, true Orthodox Christians must make the effort to discern true from false Orthodoxy.

A good place to start is to question whom the priest commemorates during the Divine Liturgy. If he commemorates the Pope of Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Moscow, or the archbishop or bishop of any church which belongs to the World Council of Churches, one must not accept him as one's spiritual father, nor may one become a communicant in that church.

If there is no legitimate Orthodox priest available, one may confess his sins to a pious experienced Orthodox layman or laywoman, and go to a priest for absolution when possible. Moreover, we have the telephone today, giving us the opportunity to confess to a true Orthodox priest anywhere in the world by telephone. Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston is such a place.

The Holy Fathers Speak

On Applying the Remedy of Repentance

Let the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46) teach you that a mighty audience will be seated [at the Last Judgment] to review both good deeds and those that are not so. Likewise let blessed Paul instruct you, when he says: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).

And again: "Who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness?" (1 Cor. 4:5) Have you done anything wicked or thought it, and are you concealing it from man? You are not hiding it from God, however. But you care nothing for this, since it is the eyes of men that are fearful to you. Well, then, consider that you will be able to manage concealment not even from men in that day. Then all things will be set before our eyes, as in a mirror, so that each one will be self-condemned. . . .

Well, then, I beseech you, let each one of us, even if no one sees our deeds, enter into his own conscience, and set up his reason as judge, and bring to light his transgressions. And if he should not wish to become a spectacle in that fearful day, let him apply the remedy of repentance and let him thus heal.his wounds.

It is possible, it is possible for one replete with countless wounds to go away healed. "For if ye forgive men their trespasses," He says, "your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt. 6:14–15). Indeed, just as the sins forgiven in baptism do not still remain, so these also will vanish, if we wish to repent. Moreover, repentance consists in no longer doing the same things, for he who reverts to the same sins is like a dog returning to his vomit (Peter 2:21,22), and also like the person who, according to the proverb, cards wool into the fire and draws water into a container full of holes.

We must, then, refrain both in deed and thought from previous sins, and while refraining from them we must apply to the wounds remedies which are the opposite of our sins. What sort do I mean? Have you stolen, cheated, and acted greedily? Refrain from rapacity, and apply almsgiving to the wound. Have you been impure? Refrain from impurity, and apply purity to the sore. Have you spoken evil of your brother and done him harm? Cease from evil-speaking and apply kindliness.

— Saint John Chrysostom

Forgiveness: The Best Rx

Sometimes, as we struggle to improve our spiritual well-being, we forget the absolute spiritual necessary for forgiveness. If we can't forgive others, neither will God forgive us. (See the homily "Bare Feet and Dusty Roads" in this issue.) But even in the secular world forgiveness is recognized as an essential component of our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The following is an adaptation of an article which appeared in the Ladies' Home Journal.  — Editor

Your mother always told you never to hold a grudge. Now there's proof that learning to forgive and forget is good for your health. Recent studies have found that people who were able to forgive a person who had hurt them had fewer chronic illnesses than those who could (read "would") not. It's heart-smart, too: During a University study, it was found that when volunteers talked about being betrayed by a loved one, their blood pressure and heart rates increased. Those numbers dropped when the subjects talked about resolving their problems, but stayed high when they didn't want to be reconciled with the per-.son who had offended them.

In fact, forgiveness may be powerful enough to change one's outlook on life. One professor found that incest survivors who learned to forgive their offender were able to develop normal levels of self-esteem and hope, while those who could not remained depressed.

Experts believe that forgiveness releases bottled-up anger. Staying steamed causes your body to produce adrenaline, while the levels of the mood-boosting brain chemical, seratonin, dip. They speculate that over time this combination may put a damper on your immune system. Holding a grudge may deplete your resources, whereas letting go helps relieve the stress, so you're better able to cope with illness.

Remember that forgiving someone doesn't mean you condone their actions. Neither does it mean that you have to argue interminably over the issue until some kind of "meeting of the minds" or "resolution" occurs. By forgiving you reduce the bitterness and anxiety, and thus reap the [spiritual and physical] health benefits of letting go of the hurt.

Adapted from an article by Kim Atkinson appearing in Ladies' Home Journal, Health News Section, November 2000, p. 84.

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