THE SACRAMENTS OF THE CHURCH
The Holy Spirit works through all of the Sacraments of the Church to lead us to Christ the Lord who unites us with the Father. By participating in the Sacraments and the life of the Church, we grow closer to God.
The life of the Church takes place not in isolation from others, but within the context of a believing community, which is central to Christian Orthodoxy. The Sacraments are so called using the terminology of the Western Church.
Traditionally, the Sacraments have been known as the “Mysteries” in the Christian East, which denotes that, in these special services of the Orthodox Church, God discloses Himself anew to His People.
The celebration of the Eucharist is central to the worship and liturgical life of Orthodox Christians, as it has been from the earliest days of the Church. This Holy Mystery is celebrated within the context of the Divine Liturgy (which is usually that of St. John Chrysostom – although the Church has other liturgies that are celebrated occasionally, such as the Liturgy of St. Basil and the Liturgy of St. James). During the Divine Liturgy, the bread and wine that are presented on the Holy Table become the Body and Blood of the Lord Himself through the descent of the Holy Spirit.
After the Lord’s passion and resurrection, He met His Disciples, who were troubled by all of these events, on the road to a town called Emmaus (Luke 24:25-35). The Disciples did not immediately recognize the Lord in his resurrected and glorified form. Instead, as the Gospel tells us, it was through the blessing and breaking of the bread that they recognized the presence of the Lord. The Eucharist constantly brings us into contact with the Lord, so that, like the Disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts will “burn within us” with desire and longing to experience the Risen and Glorified Lord again.
It is not possible to participate in this Christian life of community and fellowship unless someone has been baptized. Water is the symbol of cleansing and newness of life – of our new life in Christ. Candidates for baptism are immersed in water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From the day of our baptism, we are meant to be new people with new lives in the Lord Jesus.
The eloquent and beautiful prayers during this service including these petitions: “That the grace of redemption and the blessing of the Jordan may be sent down upon this water, let us pray to the Lord / That the purifying energy of the consubstantial Trinity may come down upon this water, let us pray to the Lord / That we may receive the illumination of knowledge and piety through the visitation of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord.” As these prayers indicate, another ancient name for this mystery is “Holy Illumination.” In other words, this Holy Mystery is not only centered on the forgiveness of sins but also on “the illumination of knowledge and piety through the visitation of the Holy Spirit,” as the texts of the service make clear.
Baptism is the beginning of our lives in the Church and our journeys to salvation and Theosis. We, however, are not meant to do this alone, but rather in community and fellowship. It is for these reasons that each candidate for Holy Baptism is given a godparent (or Koumbaros or Koumbara in Greek). These figures are present in the lives of the newly baptized person to represent the community of faith, and they have a special responsibility to help continue to teach the tenets of the Faith to the newly baptized and illuminated person.
The Mystery of Chrismation (which is often called the sacrament of Confirmation in the Western Church) immediately follows Baptism for both infants and adults seeking a new life in Christ. This is also the Mystery of the Church by which many converts who already have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity in other Christian traditions are united with the Holy Orthodox Faith.
Holy Oil, which is called the “oil of gladness” in the texts of this service, is used to impress “the Seal of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit” on the person presented to the Church. This Mystery is intended to fill the person presented with the Holy Spirit, so that they too can participate in renewal of not only themselves but the whole world in the name of the Holy Trinity. Chrismation thus is often referred to as one's personal Pentecost.
In this way, the Holy Spirit embraces the faithful people presented and envelopes them like a shield and an armor of faith enabling them to live the Faith into which they have been baptized. It is for these reasons that Chrismation is also called the “Sacrament of the Holy Spirit.”
As members of the Church, we have responsibilities to one another and, of course, to God. When we sin, our relationship to God and to others is damaged. 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 this Holy Mystery, Christ our Lord continues to heal those broken in spirit and to restore the Father's love. According to the Orthodox teaching, the penitent confesses to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is merely the witness who represents Christ and His people. As such, the priest should never be viewed as some kind of “judge,” but instead should be seen as a spiritual 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, including for Holy Confession.
Through this Holy Mystery, a man and a woman are joined together as husband and wife on a special journey towards working for the salvation of each other and their family.
After the couple has exchanged rings, they are crowned with symbolic crowns of “glory and honor," as the texts of the service indicate and which signify the establishment of a new family in God. There are no vows in the Orthodox marriage service, which can be surprising to many familiar with the traditions of the Western Church. Instead, the couple is led by the priest around a table three times to symbolize and bless the new road they are taking. Near the conclusion of the Service, the husband and wife drink from a common cup which is a reminder of the Lord’s presence at the wedding in Cana and which symbolizes the sharing of both the burdens and joys of their new life together in the Lord.
According to Orthodox teachings, the Holy Mystery of Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is a chosen road to salvation for the couple and for their family. A husband and a wife are called 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 this way, the couple enters into a new relationship with each other, with the Church, and with God.
Through ordination, those who have been chosen from within the Church are set apart by the Church for special service to the People of God. Each candidate for ordination is called to be a pastor, a teacher, and a spiritual guide.
The service of this Holy Mystery includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of the hands of a bishop on the person being ordained. In this way, the Holy Spirit preserves the continuity of the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There are three major orders, each of which requires ordination to ministry: the deaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopacy. Each order is distinguished by its pastoral responsibilities. The Orthodox Church permits men to marry before they are ordained, while, since the sixth century, bishops have been chosen from the monastic or celibate clergy.
As with Chrismation, Holy Oil is also used in this Holy Mystery as a sign of God's presence, strength, healing, and forgiveness. In this service, seven Epistle lessons are read, followed by the reading of seven Gospel lessons; among those read is James 5:14, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” After these readings, seven prayers are offered, all of which are devoted to healing.
The priest then proceeds to anoint the bodies of the People of God with the Holy Oil – on their foreheads, on their face, and on their hands, in the sign of the Cross.
This Holy Mystery is offered often in the life of the Church for the healing of soul and body (and it is not reserved for grave illness only). The Church also offers this Holy Mystery each year on Holy Wednesday of Holy and Great Week.
OTHER SACRAMNTS AND BLESSINGS
The Orthodox Church has never formally determined a particular number of Sacraments, which the Western Church has done primarily in reaction to the Protestant Reformation.
In addition to the Holy Eucharist, which is the “Sacrament of Sacraments,” the Orthodox Church counts the above six Holy Mysteries as major Sacraments. Still, there are many other important and beautiful Blessings and Special Services which complement and complete the major Sacraments of the Church.