Our Lord enters the city and looks up to behold the tax collector out on a limb from a large sycamore that spreads over the street just so he can see Christ. Without much fanfare the Saviour invites him come down and tells him He wants to be in his home that day. During this personal encounter with Christ, Zacchaeus confesses and repents his sins and the Lord eagerly announces, "Today salvation has come to this house" because "The Son of Man has come to search out and save what was lost."
Christ is the pre-eminent reconciler of sinful and separated mankind with the Father and the sacramental Mystery He establishes for the formal act of reconciliation in the Church when sin severs us from the life of Christ and His Body, the Church. Because reconciliation is the way to communion with our God when that very communion is broken by sin, it is often referred to in the traditional life of the Church as a renewal of baptism, or as the reestablishment of that condition of life with the Creator which was given us in the basic and elementary sacramental Mysteries of inauguration into Christian life. It is a restoration of our condition at the time of creation, when without sin, we were able to approach our God and have intimate communion with him. And the proud, wealthy and accomplished Zacchaeus is willing to climb a tree and go out on a limb to obtain it!
As believers, we know that not every sin requires the necessity of formal penance through the sacramental ritual. This becomes obvious since Christians are never completely without sin. Certain grave sins or the prolonged separation from holy communion, however, do call for the grace of reconciliation. Christians living in communion with Christ are eager to make use of the treasure of this sacramental Mystery periodically to humble themselves consciously before God and to receive guidance in Christian life from their spiritual father, who is generally pastor of the parish in which they commune. It is the fundamental appreciation of believers that sacramental penance is necessary for those receiving Holy Communion when they commit grave sins or when they have been separated from the eucharistic meal for a long time. Absence from the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is one of the greatest offenses man can hurl at his Creator, and is therefore a grave, grave, grave offensive sin. Being present from worship actually means from beginning to end, from the first Amen to the last Amen.
The sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation in the Church exists to allow for repentance and reconversion of Christians who have lapsed, and fallen away from the life of faith. We call this Mystery that of Reconciliation simply because of how St. Paul describes it. "This means that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old order has passed away; now all is
Popularly, we have called this mystery by a number of names, confession, penance, contrition, but these are but separate formal individual parts of the overall Mystery. The first is sincere sorrow for sin and for breaking communion with our heavenly Father. The second is an open and heartfelt confession of sin. At one time this confession was public in the midst of the Church, but in recent times it is usually done only in the presence of the spiritual father who represents the entire believing community and God in offering pardon. The third element of this mystery is the formal prayer of absolution through which the forgiveness of our heavenly Father through Christ is sacramentaly formally imparted to the repentant sinner. Thus reconciliation is achieved from sin to sinlessness, from offense to pardon, from separation to unity of faith.
Fulfillment always consists in the reception of the Eucharist and genuine reconciliation of the repentant sinner with God and believing man according to the commandments of the Lord. From this there obviously follows the necessity of a sincere attempt by the penitent to refrain from sin and remain in faithful obedience to God in uprightness of life.
Of course this sacramental Mystery, like all the rest is a vital element in the life of the Church which presupposes a firm belief and conviction that Christ himself is present in the Church by grace of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Church and the Church is Christ! A person without the experience of Christ in the Church will never understand the meaning of sacramental reconciliation and the need for confession of sin. When the Church is known and understood and experienced as new life in Christ and as genuine communion with God in his kingdom already present with man in sacramental mystery, then not only will sacramental confession of sin be understood, but be appreciated, as well as cherished as a sacred mystery of our loving God which is the unique possibility for reunion with our Creator after we have so willingly severed and broken it. It is understood as the means to save sinners who confess their sin and who sincerely desire to change their lives according to the way which God has ordained for us.
Consequently, it must be understood that Orthodoxy, the Body of Christ strictly adheres to the teaching of God's revelation to us in Scripture that only God can forgive sin, but that He eagerly does so through Christ in the Church, that his conditions are genuine repentance and promise of change which are witnessed by the actual confession and confession by definition is the open and public acknowledgement of sin before God and all mankind. This is what Zacchaeus did today as he slid down the tree. This is what we are called to do in our own circumstance of life.