Hearing the confessions of soldiers shortly before they go into combat is one of the most important and symbolic duties performed by priests who serve as military chaplains representing Christianity’s ancient churches.
After all, the soldiers are going into harm’s way and there is no way to know if they will return. In a way, the priest knows that he could be hearing the penitent’s final confession — turning this encounter into a kind of Last Rites for a person who is not sick unto death, but may be moments from death.
This brings me to the first photo — pictured above — in a remarkable online slideshow produced, using photos from a number of different news sources, by the foreign-affairs desk at The Washington Post.
This particular photo is from Getty Images. There is no way for me to know what kind of information was attached to this photo that could have been used by the copy-editor or editors who produced this feature. There is no way to know if the photographer had any way to talk to the specific priest or this penitent to obtain more information about what was happening in this dramatic scene.
As readers can see above, the photo caption reads:
A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014, in Kiev.
This is, I guess, a literal statement about what the photographer saw.
However, for the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of Ukrainians at the scene, that is not what was taking place.
The priest in this picture has placed his stole over the man’s head and is reading prayers. This is what happens at the end of the rite of confession, which under ideal conditions would take place in a sanctuary with the penitent facing an icon, often the icon known as Christ Pantocrator. The penitent is confessing his or her sins to Christ, with the priest hearing this confession representing the church.
Is there another circumstance in which a priest would place his stole over the head of a kneeling believer and then say prayers? There may be, but not one that I know of as an Eastern Orthodox layman. The same was true for my priest, to whom I took this question over the weekend.
Would it have been more dramatic to say that this believer, in the midst of territory that was turning into a war zone in downtown Kiev, felt the need to say his confession?
I would say so.
Is he confessing his sins because of something he has just done? There is no way to know that.
Is he confessing his sins because he believes he is about to be placed in a situation resembling combat, a setting in which his life will almost certainly be at risk? I would say that this is the safest interpretation of the information contained in this photo…