Penance is one of the mysteries or sacraments performed in church. It means to regret for a sin committed, and to seek forgiveness and redemption. Since man is continually subject to sin, penance is a permanent necessity for him. It involves the whole life of a true Christian, from the day of his conversion to the date of his death. Through penance man is cleansed from sins he has committed after baptism, the influence of grace is revived in him, and by becoming worthy of holy communion, his former unity with God is reestablished.
The holy fathers have divided penance into three parts: repentance, confession, and retribution.
Repentance is the first effort a person must exert in order to be freed from sin. After recognizing his sin or recalling it, the Christian must immediately repent before God. Repentance is expressed through sorrow and self-condemnation. The greater a person’s love for God, the greater, deeper, and final is the penance. A Christian who repents decides indefinitely not to repeat the sin, asking God: “Do not bring me to the time of trial, but rescue me from the evil one.”
However, it is one thing to desire, and another to be able. Since man is imperfect, he is subject to committing sin time and again, regardless of how deeply he repents for a sin and renounces it. He needs not only God’s help, but also the help of the faithful, because he is weak in faith and love.
He can find this help in the Church by realizing the next step of penance - confession.
According to orthodox tradition, all those who have repented must also confess their sins to the priest. Following confession, the priest grants them absolution, discharging them from sin by the heavenly grace given to him, and thus the condemnation because of sin becomes permanently erased.
For this reason, he who confesses feels great joy, confident that the sins he has confessed will not be recalled at the Last Judgment.
In order for a sinner to rid himself permanently of a sin, confession and absolution are not enough. He needs to fulfill the retribution appointed to him by the confessor. Retribution can be fulfilled through special prayers and prostration, and on occasion through fasting and alms.
Retribution must be the adverse of sin in order to eliminate it. When a Christian fulfills the retribution with devotion and feels hatred against his sin, he refrains from repeating the sin and worship grows in him.
After completing the order of penance, the faithful receives communion upon the permission of the priest. In a certain way, penance means to get ready for communion.
For this reason, the periods of fasting that precede the great feasts are considered periods of penance when the faithful receive communion.