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The Sacraments

The sacra­ments in the Ortho­dox Church are offi­cial­ly called the “holy mys­ter­ies.” Usu­al­ly sev­en sacra­ments are count­ed: bap­tism, chris­ma­tion (or con­fir­ma­tion), holy eucharist, penance, mat­ri­mo­ny, holy orders and the unc­tion of the sick.

The prac­tice of count­ing the sacra­ments was adopt­ed in the Ortho­dox Church from the Roman Catholics. It is not an ancient prac­tice of the Church and, in many ways, it tends to be mis­lead­ing since it appears that there are just sev­en spe­cif­ic rites which are “sacra­ments” and that all oth­er aspects of the life of the Church are essen­tial­ly dif­fer­ent from these par­tic­u­lar actions. The more ancient and tra­di­tion­al prac­tice of the Ortho­dox Church is to con­sid­er every­thing which is in and of the Church as sacra­men­tal or mys­ti­cal.

The Church may be defined as the new life in Christ. It is man’s life lived by the Holy Spir­it in union with God. All aspects of the new life of the Church par­tic­i­pate in the mys­tery of sal­va­tion. In Christ and the Holy Spir­it every­thing which is sin­ful and dead becomes holy and alive by the pow­er of God the Father. And so in Christ and the Holy Spir­it every­thing in the Church becomes a sacra­ment, an ele­ment of the mys­tery of the King­dom of God as it is already being expe­ri­enced in the life of this world.

View­ing the Church as the new and eter­nal life of the King­dom of God giv­en to man by God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spir­it, we under­stand first of all that for life to exist there must be birth. The birth into the eter­nal life of God is the mys­tery of bap­tism. But birth is not enough for liv­ing; there must be the ongo­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty of life: its pow­er, ener­gy and force. Thus, the mys­tery of chris­ma­tion is the gift of the pow­er to live the life of Christ which is born in man by bap­tism. It is the gift of the “all-holy and good and life-cre­at­ing Spir­it” to man.

Life also must be sus­tained. This is nor­mal­ly done by eat­ing and drink­ing. Food is the nour­ish­ment which keeps us alive. It is man’s com­mu­nion with cre­ation which keeps him exist­ing. But, nat­u­ral­ly speak­ing, our nor­mal eat­ing and drink­ing does not keep us alive for­ev­er. Our nat­ur­al com­mu­nion with the world is a com­mu­nion to death. W e need eat­ing and drink­ing of a spe­cial food which nour­ish­es us for eter­nal life. This food is the “mys­ti­cal sup­per of the Son of God,” the body and blood of Christ, the mys­tery of the holy eucharist—the com­mu­nion to Life Itself.

For life to be tru­ly per­fect, holy and good, there must also be a par­tic­u­lar mys­tery about mar­riage and the bear­ing of chil­dren. In this world all who are born are born to die, and even the most per­fect of human love stands under the con­dem­na­tion: “… until death do you part.” The mys­tery of Chris­t­ian mar­riage trans­forms human love, child­bear­ing, and fam­i­ly com­mu­ni­ties into real­i­ties of eter­nal pro­por­tion and sig­nif­i­cance. In mar­riage we are blessed by God for unend­ing friend­ship and love. We are blessed so that the fruit of our love, the beget­ting of our chil­dren and the life of our fam­i­lies will be not “unto death” but unto life everlasting.

Until the final estab­lish­ment of the King­dom of God, our life remains under the attack of its demon­ic ene­mies: sin, sick­ness, suf­fer­ing, sor­row and death. The mys­tery of penance is the rem­e­dy for spir­i­tu­al sick­ness. It allows us to turn again to God, to be tak­en back, to be for­giv­en and to be received once more into the life of God from which our sins have sep­a­rat­ed us. And the mys­tery of holy unc­tion is the rem­e­dy for our phys­i­cal sick­ness which is the pow­er of sin over our bod­ies, our inevitable union with suf­fer­ing and death. Holy unc­tion allows us to be healed; to suf­fer, not “unto death” but, once more, unto life ever­last­ing. It is the incor­po­ra­tion of our wounds into the life-cre­at­ing cross of Christ.

The mys­tery, final­ly, which allows the per­fec­tion of divine life to be ours in all of its full­ness and pow­er in this world is the mys­tery of the Church itself. And most specif­i­cal­ly with­in the Church, we have the mys­tery of holy orders: the sacra­ment of priest­hood, min­istry, teach­ing and pas­toral care. The cler­gy of the church—bishops, priests, and deacons—exist for no oth­er pur­pose than to make man­i­fest, present and pow­er­ful in the Church the divine life of the King­dom of God to all men while still liv­ing in this world. Thus, from birth to death, in good times and bad, in every aspect of world­ly exis­tence, real life—life as God has cre­at­ed and saved and sanc­ti­fied it to be—is giv­en to us in the Church. This is Christ’s express pur­pose and wish, the very object of his com­ing to the world: “I came that they may have life, and have it abun­dant­ly” (Jn 10:10).

The Church as the gift of life eter­nal is by its very nature, in its full­ness and entire­ty, a mys­ti­cal and sacra­men­tal real­i­ty. It is the life of the King­dom of God giv­en already to those who believe. And thus, with­in the Church, every­thing we do—our prayers, bless­ings, good works, thoughts, actions—everything par­tic­i­pates in the life which has no end. In this sense every­thing which is in the Church and of the Church is a sacra­ment of the King­dom of God.