In the Orthodox Church, there are moments when the perception of God’s presence and actions feels more pronounced. Orthodox Christians call these events Holy Sacraments or Holy Mysteries. Not only do the Sacraments reveal God to us, but they also make us receptive to Him. They affect our personal relationships with God and with one another.
In this post, I will explore seven Holy Sacraments and explain them to those of you interested in, or unfamiliar with, the Orthodox Faith.
Sacrament of Baptism
The Sacrament of Baptism incorporates us into the Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ. It is our introduction to the life of the Holy Trinity. As the priest submerges one into the waters of Baptism three times (in the name of the 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’s Death and victorious Resurrection.
Following the custom of the early Church, Orthodoxy encourages the baptism of infants. She believes the Sacrament bears witness to God’s action of choosing a child to become part of His people. From the day of baptism, children are expected to mature in the life of the Spirit, through their family and the Church. Adults wishing to become Orthodox may experience Baptism if there was no previous baptism in the name of the Trinity.
Holy Communion, often referred to as the Eucharist, is the “Sacrament of Sacraments” in the Orthodox Church. We celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. In Holy Communion we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eternal Passover Lamb, Who makes us alive and holy with Himself.
The Eucharist brings us into communion with Christ, assures us eternal life in the Kingdom of God, provides us with a source of strength for life and raising the quality of our lives, and gives us forgiveness of our minor sins. When received with proper preparation, repentance, and fasting, Holy Communion draws us together into the fellowship of God’s people, His church, separating us from the forces of evil in this world.
Is Holy Communion literally body and blood?
In its physical appearance, the Eucharist is bread and wine. But it is both the faith and the experience of the Church that in communion we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. Jesus references the bread as His Body and the wine as His Blood (Mark 14:22-24). Thus, the Orthodox Church maintains that receiving the Eucharist means receiving the real Body and Blood of Christ.
The Orthodox Church does not offer an explanation as to how this “change” from bread and wine to Body and Blood occurs, but we believe the “change” takes place anywhere between the Proskomedia (the Liturgy of Preparation) and the Epiklesis (“calling down”), or invocation of the Holy Spirit “upon us and upon these gifts here set forth”. We don’t know the exact time during which the change takes place. This is left to mystery. The key point is not whether a change takes place (even if we can’t understand or describe it precisely), but that it does emphatically take place.
Sacrament of Chrismation
The Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) immediately follows baptism. Chrismation, often referred to as one’s personal Pentecost, is the Sacrament which imparts the Holy Spirit in a special way upon the individual.
In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the priest anoints 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 is a sign of consecration and strength. The Sacrament emphasizes the truths that each person is 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 Baptism and Chrismation always end with the distribution of Holy Communion to the newly-baptized. 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.
Sacrament of Holy Orders
The Holy Spirit preserves the continuity of the Orthodox Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Through ordination, men chosen from within the Church are called to serve as pastor, teacher, and representative of the parish. Each is also a living icon of Christ among His people.
Following the custom of the Apostolic Church, there are three major orders, with their own special ordinations:
The Bishop is a successor of the Apostles, while the Priest and Deacon act in the name of the Bishop. Each order has its own set of pastoral responsibilities. For instance, only a Bishop may ordain others to the Deaconate or the Priesthood.
The Orthodox Church permits men to marry before they enter the Holy Orders. This practice goes back to the earliest period in the history of the Church. We know some of the Apostles (the first “priests” of the Church) were married. Saint Paul also teaches that the clergy are to be “husband of one wife”. In the Church tradition, the Apostolic canons permit only “lower clergy” (readers and cantors) to marry after their appointment. Further, the 5th and 6th Ecunmenical Councils state “if anyone wants to contract a legal marriage with a woman before being admitted to the clergy as subdeacon, or a deacon, or a presbyter previous to ordination, let him do so” (6th Canon). The same canon also says, “no…deacon or presbyter at all, [after ordination] has permission to contract a matrimonial relation for himself; if he should dare to do this, let him be deposed from office.”
Since the sixth century, Bishops have been chosen from the celibate clergy. Note that the Orthodox Church does not have women priests, because the priest is an image of Christ, who was male.
Sacrament of Marriage
The Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church bears witness to God’s joining man and woman together in mutual love. Through this Sacrament, a man and a woman publicly join as husband and wife. They enter into a new relationship with God, the Church, and each other.
Since the Orthodox Church does not view Marriage as a legal contract, the couple does not exchange vows. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution. It is an eternal vocation of the Kingdom of God. Husband and wife are called by the Holy Spirit to share their Christian life together in all respects. Each, with the aid of the other, will grow closer to God.
In the Orthodox Marriage Service, the couple exchanges rings. Then, the priest crowns them with “crowns of glory and honor,” signifying the establishment of a new family under God. Shortly after this, the husband and wife drink from a common cup. This is a reference to the wedding of Cana; it symbolizes the sharing of the burdens and joys of their new life together.
Sacrament of Penance
As members of the Church, we have responsibilities to one another and, of course, to God. When we sin, we distort our relationship with God and with others. Sin ultimately alienates us from God, from our fellow human beings, and from our own true selves. Penance (or Confession) is the Sacrament through which our sins are forgiven. When we confess our sins, our relationship with God and with others restored and strengthened. Through this Sacrament, Christ continues to heal those broken in spirit and restore the Father’s love to the lost.
According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confesses to God, and God forgives him. It is an ancient Orthodox practice for every Christian to have a spiritual father to whom one turns for spiritual advice and counsel. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents both Christ and His people. The priest functions not as a judge, but as a physician and guide.
Confession can take place on any number of occasions. The frequency is left to the discretion of the individual. In the event of serious sin, however, confession is a necessary preparation for Holy Communion.
Sacrament of Unction
When one is ill and in pain, one often feels alone and isolated. The Orthodox Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (Holy Unction) reminds us that when we are in pain – whether 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 all devoted to healing, the priest anoints the body with the oil. Unction is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit, not just those near death. The Church celebrates the Sacrament for all its members during Holy Week on Holy Wednesday.
The Orthodox Church has never formally determined a particular number of Sacraments. The practice of defining seven key Sacraments arose first in the Roman Catholic church. The ancient, more traditional practice held by many Orthodox is to consider everything that takes place in the Church a sacrament, since everything within the Church is of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
To summarize, the Orthodox Church places immense importance on the Sacraments. They function as pathways that bring the faithful closer to God. If one is Roman Catholic or Protestant, one may notice some similarities and/or differences between the Orthodox sacraments and one’s own.