Tonight's Reading in the Evening Prayer for the Friday after Ash Wednesday is from James 5:15-16.
Declare your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may find healing, reminded me of the teaching my formation team and I gave last weekend, on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
James is talking about the early church, when they had public confession. At first, the people just confessed to one other, i.e., "I'm sorry I used your tools without your permission; I'm sorry I lied to you..."
However, a big sin, like apostasy, was a mortal offense against the entire church community. Remember Christianity was against the law. One who sinned against the entire community by denying Christ, or snitching where the place their Mass was being held, needed to apologize to the community. The community would then assign the penitent, a penance. Once the penance was completed, the bishop was called in to give absolution.
Note that this sequence is opposite of our current Sacrament of Reconciliation. Then it was to do the penance first, then you get absolution.
Theology grows in understanding, just as we human beings do. We once thought the world was flat. Now we know different. So also, theology and the church grows. During the Middle Ages, Christians felt they needed more in confession and often asked the clergy and local religious for spiritual direction to become better people. The Celtic monks were known for this. The Irish missionary monks and nuns guided people spiritually and developed an examination of conscience in reconciling them to God. Eventually, bishops saw the value of this type of spiritual reconciliation.
BTW, it was in the sixteenth century that St. Charles Borromeo invented the confessional box. He saw the need for privacy. Also, the Council of Trent defined a rite for Confession. Also, the seal of confession was enforced. Secrecy was promised.
The Second Vatican Council renewed the Sacrament of Confession. It is preferred to call the sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Reconciliation is stressed, not penance. Penances are not physical works, anymore. The sacrament asks the penitent to change his life. Everyone needs to orient themselves towards God. The confessor assigns a token penance and gives absolution. THEN the penitent goes away on his own and performs his penance. It's absolution before the penance.
This reading is a reminder of the love and mercy Jesus is always giving. He wants us to get as close to Him as possible. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you...Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will exalt you. James 4; 8-10