The Sacraments: The Meaning and Importance of Liturgical Life
One of the best-known prayers of the Orthodox Church speaks of the spirit of God being "present in all places and filling all things." This profound affirmation is basic to Orthodoxy's understanding of God and His relationship to the world. We believe that God is truly near to us. Although He cannot be seen, God is not detached from His creation. Through the persons of The Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is present and active in our lives and in the creation about us. All our life and the creation of which we are an important part, points, to and reveals God.
There are special experiences in our corporate life as Orthodox Christians when the perception of God's presence and actions is heightened and celebrated. We call these events of the Church Sacraments. Traditionally, the Sacraments have been known as Mysteries in the Orthodox Church. This description emphasizes that in these special events of the Church, God discloses Himself through the prayers and actions of His people.
Not only do the Sacraments disclose and reveal God to us, but also they serve to make us receptive to God. All the Sacraments affect our personal relationship to God and to one another. The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments. He leads us to Christ who unites us with the Father. By participating in the Sacraments, we grow closer to God and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This process of deification, or theosis, as it is known by Orthodoxy, takes place not in isolation from others, but within the context of a believing community. Although the Sacraments are addressed to each of us by name, they are experiences which involve the entire Church.
The Sacraments of the Orthodox Church are composed of prayers, hymns, scripture lessons, gestures and processions. Many parts of the services date back to the time of the Apostles. The Orthodox Church has avoided reducing the Sacraments to a particular formula or action. Often, a whole series of sacred acts make up a Sacrament. Most of the Sacraments use a portion of the material of creation as an outward and visible sign of God's revelation. Water, oil, bread and wine are but a few of the many elements which the Orthodox Church employs in her Worship. The frequent use of the material of creation reminds us that matter is good and can become a medium of the Spirit. Most importantly, it affirms the central truth of the Orthodox Christian faith: that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and entered into the midst of creation thereby redirecting the cosmos toward its vocation to glorify its Creator.
The Holy Eucharist, which is known as the Divine Liturgy, is the central and most important worship experience of the Orthodox Church. Often referred to as the "Sacrament of Sacraments", it is the Church's celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ offered every Sunday and Holy day. All the other Sacraments of the Church lead toward and flow from the Eucharist, which is at the center of the life of the Church. The previous pamphlet in this series was devoted to the meaning and celebration of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.
The Sacrament of Baptism incorporates us into the Church, the Body of Christ, and is our introduction to the life of the Holy Trinity. Water is a natural symbol of cleansing and newness of life. Through the three-fold immersion in the waters of Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one dies to the old ways of sin and is born to a new life in Christ. Baptism is one's public identification with Christ Death and victorious Resurrection. Following the custom of the early Church, Orthodoxy encourages the baptism of infants. The Church believes that the Sacrament is bearing witness to the action of God who chooses a child to be an important member of His people. From the day of their baptism, children are expected to mature in the life of the Spirit, through their family and the Church. The Baptism of adults is practiced when there was no previous baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.
The Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) immediately follows baptism and is never delayed until a later age. As the ministry of Christ was enlivened by the Spirit, and the preaching of the Apostles strengthened by the Spirit, so is the life of each Orthodox Christian sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Chrismation, which is often referred to as one's personal Pentecost, is the Sacrament which imparts the Spirit in a special way.
In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the priest anoints the various parts of the body of the newly-baptized with Holy Oil saying: "The seal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Oil, which is blessed by the bishop, is a sign of consecration and strength. The Sacrament emphasizes the truths that not only is each person a valuable member of the Church, but also each one is blessed by the Spirit with certain gifts and talents. The anointing also reminds us that our bodies are valuable and are involved in the process of salvation.
The Sacraments of initiation always are concluded with the distribution of Holy Communion to the newly-baptized. Ideally, this takes place within the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. This practice reveals that Orthodoxy views children from their infancy as important members of the Church. There is never time when the young are not part of God's people.
As members of the Church, we have responsibilities to one another and, of course, to God. When we sin, or relationship to God and to others distorted. Sin is ultimately alienation from God, from our fellow human beings, and from our own true self which is created in God's image and likeness.
Confession is the Sacrament through which our sins are forgiven, and our relationship to God and to others is restored and strengthened. Through the Sacrament, Christ our Lord continues to heal those broken in spirit and restore the Father's love those who are lost. According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confess to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents both Christ and His people. The priest is viewed not as a judge, but as a physician and guide. It is an ancient Orthodox practice for every Christian to have a spiritual father to whom one turns for spiritual advice and counsel. Confession can take place on any number of occasions. The frequency is left the discretion of the individual. In the event of serious sin, however, confession is a necessary preparation for Holy Communion.
God is active in our lives. It is He who joins a man and a woman in a relationship of mutual love. The Sacrament of Marriage bears witness to His action. Through this Sacrament, a man and a woman are publicly joined as husband and wife. They enter into a new relationship with each other, God, and the Church. Since Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, there are no vows in the Sacrament. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom. A husband and a wife are called by the holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. In the Orthodox Marriage Service, after the couple have been betrothed and exchanged rings, they are crowned with "crowns of glory and honor" signifying the establishment of a new family under God. Near the conclusion of the Service, the husband and wife drink from a common cup which is reminiscent of the wedding of Cana and which symbolized the sharing of the burdens and joys of their new life together.
The Holy Spirit preserved the continuity of the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Through ordination, men who have been chosen from within the Church are set apart by the Church for special service to the Church. Each is called by God through His people to stand amid the community, as pastor and teacher, and as the representative of the parish before the Altar. Each is also a living icon of Christ among His people. According to Orthodox teaching, the process of ordination begins with the local congregation; but the bishop alone, who acts in the name of the universal Church, can complete the action. He does so with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of his hands on the person being ordained.
Following the custom of the Apostolic Church, there are three major orders each of which requires a special ordination. These are Bishop, who is viewed as a successor of the Apostles, Priest and Deacon, who act in the name of the Bishop. Each order is distinguished by its pastoral responsibilities. Only a Bishop may ordain. Often, other titles and offices are associated with the three orders. The Orthodox Church permits men to marry before they are ordained. Since the sixth century, Bishops have been chosen from the celibate clergy.
Anointing of the Sick (Holy Unction)
When one is ill and in pain, this can very often be a time of life when one feels alone and isolated. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or Holy Unction as it is also known, remind us that when we are in pain, either physical, emotional, or spiritual, Christ is present with us through the ministry of his Church. He is among us to offer strength to meet the challenges of life, and even the approach of death.
As with Chrismation, oil is also used in this Sacrament as a sign of God's presence, strength, and forgiveness. After the reading of seven epistle lessons, seven gospel lessons and the offering of seven prayers, which are all devoted to healing, the priest anoints the body with the Holy Oil. Orthodoxy does not view this Sacrament as available only to those who are near death. It is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit. The Church celebrates the Sacrament for all its members during Holy week on Holy Wednesday.
Other Sacraments and Blessings
The Orthodox Church has never formally determined a particular number of Sacraments. In addition to the Eucharist she accepts the above six Mysteries as major Sacraments because they involve the entire community and most important are closely relation to the Eucharist. There are many other Blessings and Special Services which complete the major Sacraments, and which reflect the Church's presence throughout the lives of her people. Some of these are discussed in the following pamphlet in this series.
At the center of the life of the Church is the Holy Eucharist, which is the principal celebration of our faith and the means through which we participate in the very life of the Holy Trinity. The major Sacraments are closely related to the Eucharist and they bear witness to the continuing presence of Christ in the lives of His people.
Besides the Eucharist and the major SACRAMENTS, the Orthodox Church has a number of Special Services and Blessings which are associated with the needs, events, and tasks of human life. In celebrating these various Services and Blessings, the Church is constantly bearing witness to the presence and action of God in our lives. Our God is one who loves us, cares for us, and is near to us. The liturgical Services and Blessings also serve to remind us that all of life is important, and that the many events and gifts of life can be directed toward God and receive their fulfillment in Him.
The Special Services are often referred to as Non-sacramental Services in the sense that they are events of community worship which are not usually counted among the major Sacraments. However, they clearly have a sacramental quality in the sense that they reveal the presence of the Holy Trinity. Many of these Services, such as the Funeral, the Blessing of Water, and the Entrance into Monastic Life, just to name a few, are very significant to the life of the Church. The various Blessings are brief ceremonies which are occasional and do not necessarily involve directly the entire parish community.
The Church blesses individuals, events such as trips, and objects such as icons, churches, flowers, fields, animals, and food. In so doing, the Church is not only expressing our thanks giving, but also affirming that no gift, event, or human responsibility is secular or detached from God. For the Orthodox Christian, all good things have God as their origin and goal. Nothing is outside of God's love and concern.
The death of a Christian not only affects the family, but also the entire Church, for we are all part of the Body of Christ. The Orthodox Funeral Service, which expresses this fact, is not to be seen primarily as an opportunity to extol, in a sentimental way, the virtues of an individual. Rather, the various prayers and hymns emphasize the harsh reality of death, as well as the victorious Resurrection of Christ through which the power of death is conquered. The Funeral Service comforts those who mourn; it is also the means through which the Church prays for one of its members who has died in the faith of Christ. Orthodoxy views the end of physical existence only as the termination of one stage of life. God's love is stronger than death, and the Resurrection of Christ bears witness to this power.
The Orthodox Funeral consists of three Services. First, there is a Vigil Service after death, which is usually conducted at the time of the wake. This service is called the Trisagion Service. The Church prays to Christ "to give rest with the Saints to the soul of Your servant where there is neither pain, grief, nor sighing but life everlasting." While the Church prays for the soul of the deceased, great respect is paid to the body. Orthodoxy believes the body of the Christian is sacred since it was the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
The body will share also in the final restoration of all creation. The Funeral Service is continued at the Church, where the body is brought on the day of burial. Ideally, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. After the Funeral Service, the congregation offers its Farewell to the deceased. The Trisaghion Service is repeated at the graveside.
Death alters but does not destroy the bond of love and faith which exists among all the members of the Church. Orthodoxy believes that through our prayers, those "who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection" continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. Therefore, the Church prays constantly for her members who have died in Christ. We place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom.
The Orthodox Church remembers the departed in the prayers of every Divine Liturgy. Besides this, there is a Memorial Service in which the Church also remembers the dead. According to tradition, the Memorial Service is offered on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after a death, as well as on the yearly anniversary of the death. In addition to these times, the Memorial Service is always offered for all the faithful departed on four "Saturdays of the souls." These are: the two Saturdays preceding Great Lent; the first Saturday of Great Lent; and, the Saturday before Pentecost. In the United States the Service is also offered on Memorial Day. When the Memorial Service is offered, it is customary for the family of the deceased to bring a dish of boiled wheat to the Church. The boiled wheat is placed on a table in the center of the nave during the Service. The wheat, known as kollyva, is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: "Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)
The Great Blessing of Water (Megas Agiasmos)
Epiphany, one of the oldest and most important Feast days of the Orthodox Church, commemorates the manifestation of the Holy Trinity which took place at the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River. Recognizing rich meaning in this event, Orthodoxy believes that when Christ was baptized, it not only marked the beginning of its public ministry and revealed the Trinity, but also signified that the entire creation is destined to share in the glory of redemption in Christ. While Christ entered into the Jordan to be baptized, two things were happening: He was identifying Himself with the people He had come to save; and, He was identifying Himself with the whole of Creation which was represented by water. Through His baptism, the Lord revealed the value of the created world and He redirected it toward its Creator. Creation is good and it belongs to God.
The Great Blessing of Water is held on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany and on the day itself, following the Divine Liturgy. The Blessing not only remembers the event of Our Lord's baptism and the revelation of the Holy Trinity but also expresses Orthodoxy's belief that creation is sanctified through Christ. The Blessing affirms that humanity and the created world, of which we are a part, were created to be filled with the sanctifying presence of God. After the solemn blessing, the Holy Water is distributed to the faithful and is used to bless homes during the Epiphany season. When the faithful drink the "Epiphany Water," we are reminded of our own baptism. When the Church blesses an individual, or object, or event with the water, we are affirming that those baptized, their surroundings, and their responsibilities are sanctified through Christ and brought into the Kingdom of the Father through the Spirit.
In addition to the Great Blessing of Water, there is a Lesser Blessing of Water service which can take place at anytime. Usually, it is celebrated when a home is blessed, on the first day of the month, the beginning of the school year, and beginning of new responsibilities.
The Blessing of Bread (Artoklasia)
The Blessing of Five Loaves of Bread is a brief service of thanksgiving through which we express our gratitude for all the blessings of life. Oil, wine, wheat, and the loaves of bread which are used in the service, are viewed as the most basic elements necessary for life. The Blessing reminds us of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish by which Christ fed the multitude. This Blessing is usually offered during Vespers or after the Divine Liturgy on Feast days and other special occasions. After the Service, the bread is cut and distributed to the congregation.
The Orthodox Church worships God alone. Yet, she does offer veneration to individuals who have been important human instruments of God in the history of salvation. Among those so venerated is Mary, the Mother of God the Theotokos. The Orthodox Church greatly honors Mary because she was chosen to give birth to the Son of God. As one of the hymns declares:
"By singing praise to your maternity, we exalt you as a spiritual temple, Theotokos. For the One Who dwelt within your womb, the Lord who holds all things in his hands, sanctified you, glorified you, and taught all to sing to you ... "
The most beautiful and poetic service of the Orthodox Church in honor of Mary, the Theotokos, is the Akathist Hymn. The word akathist means without sitting. The congregation stands throughout the Service out of respect for Mary and her unique role in our salvation in Christ. The Akathist Hymn is chanted in four parts during the first four Fridays of Great Lent. On the fifth Friday, the entire Service is chanted.
The Service of Supplication (Paraklisis)
The Service of Supplication, which is also known as Paraklisis, is one offered especially at times of sickness, temptation, or discouragement. The various prayers ask the Lord for guidance, personal strength, and healing. Many of the hymns and prayers are directed toward Mary, the Theotokos, and they ask for her assistance. Orthodoxy affirms that each of us, with Mary, the Saints, and the faithful departed is united in a bond of faith and love in Christ. Therefore, just as in this life we can turn to each other for prayer, the Church believes that we can also turn to Mary - the human being closest to God - and ask her to pray to God for us. This belief is expressed in the hymn which says:
"O never failing protectress of Christians and their ever-present intercessor before the Creator; despise not the petitions or sinners who have recourse to you, by your goodness extend your help to us to call upon you with confidence. Has O Theotokos, to intercede for us, O who have always protected those who honor you."
There are two forms of the Service of Supplication: the Greater and the Lesser. It is Lesser Service of Supplication which is briefer and the one most frequently offered. Both forms of the Service are offered during first fourteen days of August which precedes the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos celebrated on August 15th.