PENANCE, the performance of specific expiatory acts assigned by a priest. The severity of a penance is proportional to the gravity of the sin committed. It is given as remedial discipline to the penitent for the purpose of healing his soul and helping him resist any relapse into similar kinds of wrongdoing at a later stage. Penance, following sacramental confession, may take the form of additional fastings, prayers, genuflections, almsgiving, or temporary exclusion from Communion, to generate within the penitent a genuine sense of contrition, sorrow, and detestation for his sin.
The authority to give absolution from sin is part of the power of binding and loosing conferred by Jesus Christ on His disciples (Mt. 16:19, 18:18; Jn. 20:23) and passed on, in succession, to the priesthood. Various ecclesiastical councils, such as those of Ancyra (314), Nicaea (325), and Laodicea (343-381) discussed the ways and means of administering penances, and promulgated relevant canons, recorded by the early fathers.
During the early centuries of Christianity, the church apparently adopted a rigorous penitential procedure by which penitents had to pass through four stages or stations of penance before they were readmitted to full membership in the church:
1. Mourners. Mourner-penitents were forced to stand at the porch in the open area in front of the church door and appeal to other members of the congregation as they entered. It is likely that reference is made to these penitents in particular when, toward the end of the liturgy and just before Holy Communion is administered to the faithful, the deacon says, "Pray for all Christians who have asked us to remember them in the House of the Lord."
2. Listeners. These penitents were allowed within the door in the narthex of the church so that they could listen to the Scriptures and the sermon, but were obliged to depart before the Divine Liturgy commenced.
3. Kneelers. At this stage, penitents were allowed within the walls of the church in the part below the pulpit (or AMBO), but had to kneel down while the congregation stood during prayers. Before going out, they had to prostrate themselves in obeisance to the bishop who would lay his hands on their heads. Together with the CATECHUMENS, they left before the commencement of the Liturgy of the Faithful.
4. Costanders. This is the most advanced class of penitents; they were allowed to attend the whole of the Divine Liturgy, standing with the rest of the congregation, hearing the prayers, but not allowed to partake of Holy Communion.
Certain non-Orthodox churches appear to hold a different concept of penance and interpret it as a form of reconciliation between God and one who has, through sin, offended divine justice and hence must appease the Creator. This is contrary to the Orthodox belief that Christ Jesus has once and for all repaid God's debt through His blood, which He shed on the cross to ransom humanity. Penance is an individual effort with a twofold effect: it heals the sinner's bruised soul, and it makes sin appear all the more detestable in his eyes.
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