Aphrahat on Confession

I translated a chunk of this ancient homily on confession by one of the Fathers of the Church of the East named Mar Aphrahat, not knowing there was already a full English translation from almost a century ago. It was fun to do though, and this piece illustrates a handful of important points:

1. There was not only forgiveness of sins in the early Church (this piece was probably written around 336 or 337 AD), but INDIVIDUAL confession to a priest (here named “the medicine of repentance”), which is clearly indicated in the admonition to penitents not to be embarrassed to “show their wounds” to the “doctor” who is a “disciple of our Wise Doctor” Christ. There would be no need for embarrassment if there was only “group absolution,” which very stupid historians claim was the only thing the ancient Church did. Also, Aphrahat treats all this as an already well-established practice, and his “disciples of the Wise Doctor” metaphor implies he believes it to go back to Christ himself.

2. There is also a strong admonition to confessors to keep what we now call the seal of confession, which of course is more evidence that the penitent confessed to the priest individually and privately.

3. The fact that this work, and Aphrahat in general, isn’t given WAY more attention (besides a few notable scholars), is yet another piece of evidence for how much the history, liturgy, patristics, and theology of the Church of the East are neglected by everyone. Even those who should care. Which is everyone.

Admonitions to Penitents and Teachers of Confession

(Selection from Demonstration VII)

Mar Aphrahat

337 AD

There are medicines for every sickness, and they heal when a wise doctor finds them. For those who are struck down in our struggle, there is the medicine of repentance which they place on their wounds, and they are healed. O doctors, disciples of our wise Doctor: take up this medicine, by which the wounds of the sick are healed!

When a doctor finds warriors who are wounded in a battle by the hand of the one they fight, he sets out their healing that he may heal the wounded. When once the doctor has healed him who was wounded in battle, he receives gifts and honors from the king. In the same way, beloved, he who works in our trade, and whose enemy comes upon him and strikes him, it is just to give him the medicine of repentance while the regret of the one who is wounded is great, for God does not reject the penitent. Indeed, Ezekiel the prophet says: “I am not pleased with the death of one dead in sin, but rather that he repent from his evil path and live.”

Indeed, one who was wounded in battle is not embarrassed to place himself into to the hands of a wise doctor, because the battle defeated him and he was wounded. And when he is healed, the king does not look down upon him, but rather counts and reckons him among his army. Thus also it is wrong for a man whom Satan has struck to be embarrassed to confess his stupidity, and pass over it, asking for the medicine of repentance. Indeed, whoever is ashamed to show his wounds gets gangrene, and thus his whole body is endangered. Whoever is not ashamed is healed of his wounds and is able once again to return to fight the battle. Whoever has gotten gangrene, however, is not able to be healed, and the armor he has taken off he will not wear again. Thus whoever has been defeated in our struggle has this chance to be healed, as he says “I have sinned” and asks for repentance. But whoever is embarrassed does not find healing. For he does not wish to confess his wounds to the doctor (who takes two denarii with which he can heal all who are wounded).

And to you, O doctors, disciples of our victorious Doctor, it is right that you do not hold back healing from anyone who needs to be healed. Give the medicine of repentance to anyone who shows you his wound, and advise him who is ashamed to show his wound not to hide it from you. And do not spread what he has revealed to you, lest because of him even the victorious be thought to be defeated by many enemies. Any rank that falls to death is thought to be weakness for the entire army by their enemies. Thus when the wounded are found among them, those not wounded heal their wounds and do not reveal them to their enemies, for if they make them known to everyone, the whole army takes on a bad name, and the king in charge of the army is angered at those who spread it. They then receive from him injuries worse than those they received in war.

And if those injured do not want to reveal their wounds, the doctors are not guilty of anything for not healing the sick that were injured. If the injured wish to hide their wounds, they cannot even wear armor, for they have gotten gangrene in their flesh. And if they have gangrene and still dare to wear their armor, when they fall in battle, their armor overheats them and they rot, and their wounds putrefy, and they are killed. Then when the carcasses of those who hid their wounds are found, they are mocked for hiding the wounds of their injuries, and their corpses are not buried; they are thought to be stupid, evil, and rebellious.

However, he who shows his wound and is healed is careful with that spot that was healed, that he may not be hurt there a second time, for whoever is hurt a second time is hardly able to be healed even by a wise doctor. For any injury on an already sore spot is not healed, and even if it is healed, it is difficult to wear armor, and if one dares to wear armor anyway, he gains a habit of guiltiness.

O you who have put on the armor of Christ: learn the discipline of battle, les you fail and become weak in the struggle. Our enemy is skilled, but his armor is weaker than ours.

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