Friday, January 14, 2011

Origen on Penance and Confession

Friday's Fast: Focusing on the Cross 

Origen of Alexandria lived around 185-254 AD and had a profound effect on the development of Christian theology and the Biblical canon. While this effect extended throughout all Christian traditions, he is especially acknowledged within the Alexandrian tradition which includes the Coptic Catholic Church and the Ethiopian Catholic Church who celebrate his feast on December 4th.

I was unable to locate an online original source for Origen's writings, though they are obviously in the public domain by now. Please let me know if you find one. The below compiles and primarily quotes from them. The direct quotes are italicized (original to the text).


The course of this purification, that is, conversion from sin, is divided into three parts. First is the offering by which sins are observed; second is that by which the soul is turned to God; the third is that of the fruitfulness and fruits which the one who is converted shows in works of piety. And because there are these three offerings, for that reason, it adds also that he must take "three tithe measures of fine wheat flour" (Cf. Lev. 14:10) that everywhere we may understand that purification cannot happen without the mystery of the Trinity154.

Origen believes in the practice of penance to a moderate extent, for “excess and lack of measure in abstinence are dangerous to beginners155.”

Origen states that believers are in need of unceasing repentance all their life.
Therefore the day of atonement remains for us until the sun sets; (Cf. Lev 11.25) that is, until the world comes to an end. For let us stand "before the gates" (Cf. Jas. 5.9) waiting for our high priest who remains within "the Holy of Holies," that is, "before the Father" (Cf. 1 John 2.1-2); and who intercedes not for the sins of everyone, but "for the sins" of those "who wait for him" (Cf. Heb 9.28) 156.

First is the one by which we are baptized "for the remission of sins” (Cf. Mark 1:4).

A second remission is in the suffering of martyrdom.

Third, is that which is given through alms for the Savior says, "but nevertheless, give what you have and, behold, all things are clean for you” (Luke 11:41).

A fourth remission of sins is given for us through the fact that we also forgive the sins of our brothers. For thus the Lord and Savior himself says, "If you will forgive from the heart your brothers' sins, your Father will also forgive you your sins. But if you will not forgive your brothers from the heart, neither will your Father forgive you” (Matt. 6:14-15). And thus he taught us to say in prayer, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

A fifth forgiveness of sins is when "someone will convert a sinner from the error of his way.” For thus the divine Scripture says, "Whoever will make a sinner turn from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (Jam 5:20).

There is also a sixth forgiveness through the abundance of love as the Lord himself says, "Truly I say to you, her many sins are forgiven because she loved much” (Luke 7:47). And the Apostle says, "Because love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

And there is still a seventh remission of sins through penance, although admittedly it is difficult and toilsome, when the sinner washes "his couch in tears" (Cf. Ps. 6:7) and his "tears" become his "bread day and night" (Cf. Ps. 41:4) when he is not ashamed to make known his sin to the priest of the Lord and to seek a cure according to the one who says, "I said, 'I will proclaim to the Lord my injustice against myself,' and you forgave the impiety of my heart” (Ps. 31:5).

Origen insists that penance for some serious sins cannot be repeated.
There is always an opportunity for recovery where, for example, some mortal guilt (culpa mortalis) has found us out, one which does not consist in a mortal crime (crimen mortale), as blasphemy of the faith, which is surrounded by the wall of ecclesiastical and apostolic dogma, but either in some vice of speech or habit... Such guilt can always be repaired, nor is penance ever denied for sins such as these. In more grievous sins, only one opportunity for penance is granted. But the common sins, however, which we frequently incur,-these always allow of penance and at all times are redeemed157.

Origen reasons that the two sanctuaries found in the Tent of Witness are to be interpreted according to a mystical understanding. According to this understanding, the first sanctuary represents the Church. The second is the heavenly sanctuary where Christ continues to serve as High Priest158.

See what holy Scripture teaches us, that it is not right to bury sin in our hearts.... But if a man become his own accuser, in accusing himself and confessing he vomits out his sin, and dissipates the whole cause of his sickness.

But observe carefully to whom you confess your sins; put the physician to the test, in order to know whether he is weak with the weak, and a mourner with those that mourn. Should he consider your disease to be of such a nature that it must be made known to, and cured in the presence of the assembled congregation, follow the advice of the experienced physician159.

The Israelite, if he should happen to fall into sin, that is, a layman, cannot remit his own sin; but he needs a levite, a priest, indeed he seeks out someone who holds an even more eminent position: it is the prerogative of the bishop, that he should receive remission of his sins160.

If we do this, and reveal our sins not only to God, but also to those who can heal our wounds and sins, our sins will be wiped away by Him, who says: “I have blotted out your iniquities as a cloud, and your sins as a mist.” 161

Even when the sin is secret ought one to enter into penance, such as is customarily imposed on sinners. He says in the fourteenth homily on Leviticus: “Wherefore now if anyone of us is conscious of a grievous sin, let him fly to penance and voluntarily take upon himself the destruction of the flesh162.”

In earlier years confession was made publicly, and Ambrose recommends that it be made before the people, but he also permitted a private confession. Origen also allowed the penitent to confess privately to the pastor, "to declare his sin to a priest of the Lord and to ask for the cure," St. Augustine recommends that confession "be made to the bishop163."

This public procedure was participated in by the whole community. It was a solemn function, and all took part in it. In his Homily on Psalm 37, he says that he who has sinned must suffer much when he converts to penance and to the amending of his life; and he must remember that his friends and neighbors will leave him. But if he is sincere he will not mind the shame before his friends. The shaming of the penitent before the congregation was considered not only necessary but even advantageous, in that it worked conversion and complete repentance. Origen calls on sinners to come out into the open and confess their sins: “if therefore there is some one so faithful that he is conscious of some sin, let him go out into the middle and let him become his own accuser164.”

Such a person disregards human respect and confesses his sin, even before the assembled congregation165.

A study of Origin’s words will show that all grievous sins had to be submitted to the public penance. In one of his homilies on the Psalms he seems to indicate just that, when he says166:
There is something marvelous in this mystery when it commands "to confess sin.” And indeed, everything we do of any kind is to be proclaimed and brought out in public. If "we do anything in secret" (Cf. John 7:4), also if we commit anything secretly either in a single word or even an inward thought, this is necessary for everything to be revealed, for everything to be confessed. Indeed, it is to be confessed by that one who is the accuser and inciter of sin. For now this one urges us to sin and also accuses us when we do sin. If, therefore, in this life we anticipate him and are ourselves our own accusers, we escape the wickedness of the devil, our enemy and accuser. For elsewhere, the prophet also speaks thus: "first tell your injustices in order that you may be justified” (Isa. 43:26). Does he not evidently show the mystery which we are dealing with when it says, "you speak first" to show you that you ought to anticipate him who was prepared to accuse you?167

He who for his sins makes confession to God, and in Spirit he is sorry while he does penance, knowing what punishment awaits the sinner after death says these things, explaining how much a man must suffer when he turns to penance and improvement of life, how his friends and neighbors desert him and stand away from him because he turns to exomologesis and sorrow for his sin... If therefore such a man, mindful of his sin, confesses the sins he committed and with human confusion he little regards those who abuse him while he confesses... and sneer at him; he however realizes that in this way he will receive pardon... so that he refuses to hide and conceal his stain, but he pronounces his sin; nor does he desire to be a whited sepulcher, which without appears beautiful to men, that is, that he might appear just to such as behold him, but within is full of every uncleanness and of dead men’s bones. If therefore there is someone so faithful that if he is conscious of some sin, let him come forth before the congregation and let him be his own accuser168.

Elsewhere Origen speaks of public confession. He says:
Consider then a man who is faithful but sick, who could be overcome by some sin, and because of this lamenting for his iniquities, and seeking however a cure and to recover his health. If therefore such a man, conscious of his iniquity, confesses whatever he has committed... disregards those who abuse him... so that he refuses to hide and conceal his stains, but he confesses his sin, that he might not be a whited sepulcher, which without appears beautiful to men... within however he is full of every uncleanness and dead men’s bones. If therefore there is someone so faithful that if he is conscious of a sin, let him come out before the community and let him be his own accuser169.

Further in the same homily Origen seems to demand public confession. He says:
Consider therefore what Sacred Scripture teaches us, that we must not conceal our sins in our heart. For as they who are troubled with indigestion and have something within them which lies heavy upon their stomachs, are not relieved unless it be removed; in like manner sinners, who conceal their practices and retain their sin within their hearts, feel in themselves an inward disquietude and are almost suffocated with the malignity which they thus suppress. But if he will only become his own accuser, while he accuses himself and confesses, he at the same time discharges himself of his iniquity and digests the whole cause of his disease... If he shall judge your disease to be such as should be laid open and cured before the whole assembly of the Church, for the possible edification of others and for your own ready healing, this should be done deliberately and discreetly170.

There is in the works of Origen another allusion to public confession. In one of his homilies on Jeremiah he says:
Consider therefore how candid the prophets are: they do not conceal their sins, as we do, but openly they proclaim their sins, not only to the men of their age, but to all generations. Indeed even I do not dare here to confess my sins before a few, because they who hear me would condemn me. But Jeremiah, when he had transgressed, is not ashamed, but rather puts his sin down in his writings171.

In one of his earlier works on the Psalms he says in his Commentary on Psalm 135, that exomologesis signifies a thanksgiving and glorification. But it is also used for the confession of sins, as in this place 172.”

The word exomologesis has a threefold meaning.

The first is a confession of sin to God alone.

The second is an avowal of one’s sins before men, in order to receive divine pardon.

The third is the exomologesis of the public and solemn penance as imposed on sinners by the Church. This is the type Origen refers to so often when he says that “chains are also the bonds of sins: which bonds are broken not only by divine baptism, but also by martyrdom suffered for Christ and through the tears of penance173.” He mentions the “severest penance,” and describes how the soul is converted to peace, “either through baptism, or through tears and penance174.”

Origen stresses on different accessions that strictly speaking there is only one forgiveness of sins, that of baptism (Mark 1:4), because the Christian religion gives the power and grace to overcome sinful passion176. However, there are a number of means to obtain remission even of sins committed after baptism. Origen lists seven of them: martyrdom, almsgiving (Luke 11:41), forgiving those who trespass against us (Matt. 6:14- 15), conversion of a sinner (according to Jam. 5:20), fullness of love (according to Luke 7,47) and finally through penance and by a confession of sins before a priest. The latter decides whether the sins should be confessed in public or not.

That the thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed..." Luke 2:35.

There were evil thoughts in men, and they were revealed for this reason, that being brought to the surface they might be destroyed, slain, put to death, and He Who died for us might kill them. For while these thoughts were hidden and not brought into the open they could not be utterly done to death. Hence, if we have sinned we also ought to say," I have made my sin known to You, and I have not hidden my wickedness. I have said I will declare my unrighteousness to the Lord against myself" (Ps. 32:5). For if we do this and reveal our sins \not only to God but also to those who can heal our wounds and sins, our wickedness will be wiped out by Him who says, "I will wipe out your wickedness like a cloud," Isa. 44:2.

Certainly, the Christian should be under strict discipline (more than those men of the Old Testament times), because Christ died for him... Now listed to all the ways of remission of sins in the Gospels:
First, we are baptized for the remission of sins.

Second, there is the remission in the suffering of martyrdom.

Third, the remission given in return for works of mercy (Luke 11:44).

Fourth, the forgiveness through out forgiveness of others, (Matt. 5:14, 15)...

Fifth, the forgiveness bestowed when a man "has converted a sinner from the error of his ways," James 5:20.

Sixth, sins are remitted through abundance of love (Luke 7:4).

In addition, there is also a seventh way of forgiveness which is hard and painful, namely the remission of sins through penitence when "the sinner washes his bed with tears, and tears are his bread by day and night," Ps. 6:6, 42:3; and when he does not hold back in shame from declaring his sin to the priest of the Lord and asking for medicine (James 5:14)...177.

153 Quasten, p. 84. 
154 In Lev. hom. 8:10 (Gary Wayne Barkley- Frs. of the Church). 
155 Jean Daniélou: Origen, NY, p. 299. 
156 Homilies on Leviticus 9:5 (Cf. Frs. of the Church).
157 In Lev. hom. 15:2 PG 12:560-561; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 103.
158 In Lev. hom. 9:9.
159 Hom. on Ps. 37, 2:6. 
160 In Numb. hom 10:1 PG 12:635. 
161 In Lucan Homilia 17 PG 13:1846. 
162 In Lev. hom. 14:4. 
163 Sermon on Lev. 2:4; Carl A. Volz: Life and Practice in the Early Church, Minneapolis, 1990,
164 In Judices Homilia 2:5 PG 12:961; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 91-92.
165 In Psalmum 37 Homilia 2:1 PG 12:1381 
166 Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 103. Laval 1949, p. 70.
167 In Lev. hom. 3:4 (cf. G.W. Barkley - Frs. of the Church). 
168 In Psalmum 37 Homilia 2:1 PG 12:1380-1381; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance,
169 In Psalmum 37 Homilia 2:1 PG 12:1281; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 102.
170 In Psalmum 37 Homilia 2:6; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 103.
171 In Jer. hom. 19:8 PG 13:517; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 103. 
172 In Psalmum 37 Homilia 2:1 PG 12:1380-1381; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 70. 
173 Selecta in Psalmos PG 12:1577. 
174 Ibid. 1576; Earnest Latko: Origen’s Concept of penance, Laval 1949, p. 90. 
175 Quasten, p. 84. 
176 Exhort. ad mart. 30.
177 In Leviticum hom. 2:4.

Book two
Preparatory edition 1995
Coptic Theological College in Sydney, Australia
English text is revised by

Retrieved online:
PP 728-737

Friday's Fast features homilies, lectures, interviews, and biographies on topics such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance. For in the cross of Christ crucified lies both the power of God and the wisdom of God for those being saved (I Corinthians 1:24).

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