The early Christians understood that events and persons in the Old Testament pointed forward to, or foreshadowed, the fullness that came in Jesus Christ. They understood this to apply to the sacraments as well. For example, they saw the salvation of a family through water in the Ark of Noah as prefiguring Baptism (cf. 1 Pt 3:20–21), or they understood the manna in the desert as having prefigured Jesus, the true bread from Heaven, who gives us his own divine life in the Eucharist (cf. Jn 6:58).
What about the Sacrament of Confession? How did the first Christians see it as foreshadowed in the Old Testament? In this and a later post, we’ll take a look at two key events which early Christians understood as prefiguring the Sacrament of Confession.
The Church Fathers loved to compare sin with leprosy. On the outside, leprosy kills the body little by little. It eats away at our skin and muscle. On a spiritual level, that’s what sin does to our soul. It eats away at our soul little by little.
Since leprosy was contagious, lepers were asked to live outside the city. They had to live apart, and small communities of lepers formed. If someone was cured of his or her leprosy, they could reintegrate into the community, but a priest had to make sure they had truly been cured. The leper would come before the priest, who would examine him outside of the camp (cf. Lv 14:2). If the priest found that the leper had truly been healed, then he would declare him clean (cf. Lv 13:6, 13, 17, etc.). At that point, the cured leper could reintegrate into the community.
St. John Chrysostom saw in this practice a prefiguration of the Sacrament of Confession. He says that while the priests of the Old Covenant could only confirm that someone had been cured, the priests of the New Covenant, the priests of Jesus Christ, have the power to actually cure the leprosy of the soul with absolution! Here are his words: “The Jewish priests had authority to release the body from leprosy, or, rather, not to release it but only to examine those who were already released, and you know how much the office of priest was contended for at that time. But our priests have received authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness—not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away” (On the Priesthood, 3:6).
This teaching of St. John Chrysostom illustrates two important truths about the Sacrament of Confession. Firstly, Jesus truly gave his priests the power to cure spiritual leprosy when he breathed on them and said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:23). Secondly, remember how the priest in the Old Covenant reintegrated the leper into the community? In a similar way, our sins affect the entire Mystical Body of Christ, and the priest, as representative of Christ and the Church, forgives the sinner on behalf not only of God, but also of the community, of the Church. We could say that the priest of Jesus Christ also helps the repentant sinner to integrate back into the full life of the community. As the Catechism says, “In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church” (CCC 1444).
In another post, we’ll take a look at another prefiguration of the Sacrament of Confession, and what we can learn from it—how God forgave David’s sin of adultery and murder through the prophet Nathan.