Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments)
The following seven principal Mysteries or sacraments are at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Baptism and Chrismation
The first two are Baptism and Chrismation. Baptism of adults and infants is by immersion in water three times in the name of the Trinity and is both the initiation into the Church and a sign of forgiveness of sins.
Chrismation follows immediately after baptism and is by anointing with holy oil called Chrism. Chrismation is followed by Holy Communion. This means that in the Orthodox Church babies and children are fully communicant members of the Church.
Chrism can only be consecrated by the Patriarch, or chief Bishop, of the local Church. Some of the old Chrism is mixed with the new, thus linking the newly baptised to their forbears in the faith.
The Chrism is used to anoint different parts of the body with a sign of the cross. The forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears, the chest, the hands and the feet are all anointed. The priest says the words, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” as he makes the sign of the cross at each point.
The newly baptised Christian is now a layperson, a full member of the people of God (the ‘Royal Priesthood’). All Christians are called to be witnesses to the Truth.
Chrismation is linked to Pentecost Pentecost in that the same Holy Spirit which descended on the apostles descends on the newly baptised.
The Eucharist, usually called the Divine Liturgy, fulfils the command of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me”.
As in many Western churches the Eucharist is a service consisting, in the first part, of hymns, prayers, and readings from the New Testament, and in the second the solemn offering and consecration of leavened bread and wine mixed with water, followed by the reception of Holy Communion.
The Orthodox believe that by the consecration the bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion is given in a spoon containing both the bread and the wine and is received standing. A sermon is usually preached either after the reading of the Gospel or at the end of the service. At the end of the Liturgy blessed, but not consecrated, bread is distributed to the congregation, and non-Orthodox are often invited to share in this as a gesture of fellowship.
Both parts of the Liturgy contain a procession. At the Little Entrance, the Book of the Gospels is solemnly carried into the sanctuary and at the Great Entrance the bread and wine are carried to the altar for the Prayer of Consecration and Holy Communion.
The prayer of consecration is always preceded by the proclamation of the Nicene Creed, frequently by the whole congregation.
The Orthodox Church lays particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the Prayer of Consecration calls on the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to effect the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
There are four different liturgies used throughout the year:
- The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (used on Sundays and weekdays)
- The Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used 10 times a year)
- The Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (sometimes used on St James’ Day)
- The Liturgy of the Presanctified (used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week)
Although the Church is a self-governing community the Church recognises the diaconate, the presbyterate or priesthood and the episcopate (bishops).
The Bishops in the Orthodox Church are considered to be the direct successors of the original Apostles and they are very much a unifying focus in the Church. Priests in the Orthodox Church are permitted to be married but may not marry after ordination. Bishops must always be celibate. Orthodox priests normally do not shave their beards, in accordance with the Bible.
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.
All Orthodox Churches use the Mystery of Penance, or Confession, but in Greek speaking Churches only priests who have been blessed by the Bishop as ‘Spiritual Fathers’ are allowed to hear confession. Children may be admitted to the sacrament of Confession as soon as they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong.
Through this sacrament sinners may receive forgiveness. They enter into confession with a priest often in an open area in the church (not in a confessional as in the Roman Catholic tradition nor separated by a grille).
Both priest and penitent stand and a cross and book of the Gospels or an icon is placed in front of the penitent with the priest standing slightly apart. This stresses that the priest is simply a witness and that forgiveness comes from God not the priest.
The priest will then hear the confession and perhaps give advice. After confession the penitent kneels before the priest, who places his stole on the penitent’s head saying a prayer of absolution.
Anointing of the sick
In Orthodox Churches this is performed annually for the whole congregation during Holy Week on the eve of Holy Wednesday. Everyone is encouraged to come forward for anointing with the special oil whether they are physically ill or not. This is because it is generally held that all are in need of spiritual healing even if they are physically well.
Anointing of the sick can also be performed on individuals. People sometimes keep the blessed oil of the sick in their homes.
The Church anoints the sick with oil, following the teaching of St James in his Epistle (5:14-15), “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins he will be forgiven.”
This sacrament,’, remarks Sergius Bulgakov, ‘has two faces: one turns towards healing, the other towards the liberation from illness by death.
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church
Marriage is celebrated through the rite of crowning, showing the importance of eternal union of the couple. Although marriage is seen as a permanent commitment in life and in death, remarriage and divorce are permitted in certain circumstances.