The Holy Mysteries or Sacraments of the Orthodox Church are the means and channels of Grace, i.e. the sacred services and ceremonies through which divine Grace and power are communicated to sinful man and cleanse him and sanctify him, making him righteous before God.
The Grace of the Holy Mysteries and all of Christian worship comes from the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, as St. Athanasios declares, and indeed, from the side of the crucified Lord which was pierced by the lance of the soldier, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom state. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Water and blood came forth (from the side of the Crucified Lord). These two sources did not spring forth simply by chance, but precisely because the Church is composed of both these elements, and as those who prepare for baptism well know, they are reborn through water and nurtured with the Body and Blood (of our Lord). Hence do the Mysteries have their source and beginning.”
The Mysteries are the divine and God-given powers with which the Church both cleanses man from sin and lifts from him the burden of the curse and of guilt, and bestows upon him remission of sins, feeds him spiritually and trains him in the holy life of the Spirit.
There are seven Mysteries or Sacraments of the Holy Orthodox Church: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion. Then according to need and disposition, Confession, the Priesthood (Holy Orders), Marriage and Holy Oil. Of the seven, the first four are obligatory. The remaining three are optional. Without the obligatory four Mysteries a man cannot become a Christian. If he is not baptized and chrismated, if he does not commune frequently and confess his sins, he does not receive grace and does not become a Christian.
Chrismation is a God-instituted Mystery of Sacrament which, as can be seen in the Acts of the Apostles, was preformed by the laying on of their hands upon the heads of the faithful who thereby received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17): “Then they laid their hands on them (those that believed) and they received the Holy Spirit.” And in 19:6: “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”
The Mystery of Chrismation is preformed immediately following Baptism. The Sacrament itself is no longer performed by the laying on of hands, but with the Holy Myrrh. This Holy Myrrh is made up of forty fragrant essences which symbolize the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit which the Christian receives after his Baptism. The priest then anoints all the parts of the Christian’s body: his head, chest sides, hands, ears, feet and mouth saying “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen”. That is to say that this consecrated Myrrh is the confirmation and seal that he who was baptized has received the gifts and of the Holy Spirit. (See 2 Cor. 1:21-22)
After his Baptism, the Christian enters into a new life, the life of virtue and sanctity, the life which is in accordance with God. And while after Baptism, although original sin is wiped away, and the old man of sin in us is greatly weakened, a certain tendency and inclination towards evil remains: weaknesses of the soul which open the door to sin.
The Sacrament of Holy Chrismation confers upon us the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Christian armed with these gifts struggles all-powerfully and fights determinedly against evil, so that he may emerge victor to achieve the virtuous God-pleasing life. Therefore through Holy Chrismation he is strengthened and confirmed for a life of virtue, a new life, which he entered through Holy Baptism.
Confession is also a God-instituted Sacrament, established by our Lord out of extreme goodness and love for man, so that man’s sins committed after Baptism might be remitted. For this reason the Sacraments is sometimes called a “Second Baptism.” Our Lord established and founded this Sacrament when He said to Peter: “whatsoever you bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven” (Matt 16:19). Furthermore, after His Resurrection, when granting the Holy Spirit to all of His Disciples, He said “Receive the Holy Spirit: whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted, and whosoever sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). These words constitute the founding act of the divine Mystery.
It is called Repentance because it refers to the inner change of thought, mind and disposition of the individual. It is a complete recognition of responsibility and blame for all the evil that the sinner has committed such that he feels a sense of his own sinfulness and a deep sorrow and contrition of heart, even to pain and tears, for his sins and iniquities.
It is called Confession because the individual reveals his sins before his Spiritual Father, the Priest and celebrant of the Sacrament. This revelation is of his soul’s inner repentance, compunction and contrition, and his tearful and humble acknowledgment and confession of his guilt, and the seeking of divine mercy and of the remission of sins. This is a necessary part of the Sacrament in order to show true repentance for his transgressions. The enumeration of one’s deviations or moral transgressions and failings is necessary if the Spiritual Father is to assist him in turning away from behaviors, attitudes and ideas which have contributed to these transgressions. Without the Spiritual Father’s assistance, it is likely that the individual will fall again into the same sins and transgressions.
The forgiveness of sin is in God’s power alone, as he demonstrated with the curing of the Paralytic of Capernaum when he reproved the Scribes by saying, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on Earth to forgive sins,” and then performed the miracle “he said to the paralytic, I say to you, Arise, and take up your bed, and go your way to your own house” (Mark 2:10-11). This is the Lord’s power – a divine and benevolent power which of course springs from His divinity, but also from His atoning sacrifice on the Cross which he offered for the forgiveness of sins of sinful humanity.
Because the Lord transmitted this authority to His Apostles and to their successors, the Shepherds of the Church: Bishops and Priests. And only they, as canonical and lawful successors of the Apostles have the power to grant forgiveness and remission. This is elaborated beautifully by St. John Chrysostom who said, “For he did not say unto the Angels whatsoever you bind, etc. For those who rule over the earth have the power to bind, but only men’s bodies, but the authority to bind that we speak of touches the souls and transcends the heavens. And those things which the Priest works below, these does God certify and the decision of his servants does the Master confirm…for they have the authority not to verify the cure from leprosy of the body (as in the Old Testament), but the authority to completely release from the uncleanliness of the soul.” And St. Cyril of Alexandria states, “And in another manner do (the Spirit-bearing Fathers) remit and bind sins, by placing penance on the Church’s children who sin, and by forgiving those who repent.”
The one who repents and confesses must display full and complete repentance, and in so doing receives pardon from the Priest. If he does not display the repentance he should, then the Priest may give penances, according to his discretion, such as fasting, the study of spiritual books and especially the reading of the Holy Scriptures, prayer and almsgiving. These have and educational and edifying character, and are not meant as a punishment, but are intended to assist the penitent to come to a complete realization of his sins and to display full repentance so that he may receive the full remission of his sins.
The Sacrament or Mystery of the Priesthood was divinely instituted by the Lord Himself. He established it when He set apart His twelve Apostles during His earthly ministry, and preparing them, following His death and Resurrection, to become His successors and continuators of His work. Chiefly, however, He established it when, after His Resurrection, on the day of Holy Pentecost He gave them his Holy Spirit and transmitted to them the authority to forgive sins (see FAQ on Holy Confession), which was this very authority of the Priesthood.
After the Ascension of Christ, the Apostles continued the work of Christ by ordaining their own successors: “And when they had ordained them presbyters in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). This is what the Apostle Paul and Barnabas did to the Christians of Derbe, Iconium and Antioch. It is done through the laying on of hands (xeirotonia in Greek) of the Apostles or Bishops upon the head of him who is about to be ordained.
The Mystery of the Priesthood is administered in the Church during the Divine Liturgy, at varying points depending upon the degree of the Priesthood to which the candidate is to be ordained. At that moment, through the laying on of hands by the Bishop and through the invocation of Divine Grace the individual is elevated to one of the three ranks of the Priesthood: Deacon, Priest or Bishop. The source of this Divine Grace is the God-man, our Redeemer and Savior Himself, who alone in reality is the eternal High Priest of the Church.
Christ as High Priest first offered the one and eternal sacrifice on the Cross for our sins, and in continuation, the successors of the Great High Priest, our Savior Jesus Christ, the Bishops and the Priests. These successors do not have a Priesthood of their own, but receive the one and only eternal priesthood of Christ, when they are ordained. They bear this Priesthood of Christ throughout their entire life.
Baptism is divinely instituted, as are all the Mysteries, i.e. it was established by the Incarnate Son of God, the God-man Jesus Christ Himself. He instituted it by “word and deed”; by deed when He Himself, though sinless was baptized in the Jordan, and thus showed us the form and need for us sinners to be baptized. By word also, chiefly when he commanded His holy disciples and Apostles after the Resurrection to “go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19) and again when he commanded them: “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he who does not believe shall be damned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
After the candidate for baptism has been instructed and has confessed the true faith, and after being anointed with oil which has been blessed, he is then baptized by being immersed three time in the sanctified water “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, just as our Lord instructed.
During Holy Baptism a death and resurrection take place, a rebirth. First a death takes place, which is why he who is to be baptized must be totally immersed in the water of the font, because this immersion symbolizes death – the death to the “old sinful man.” In this manner, original sin comes out of him and is done away with, and man is freed from the dominion of sin. From the Holy Font the individual arises dead unto sin, reborn unto a new life, resurrected into a new life in Christ, a child of God, a faithful Christian, a citizen and member of God’s kingdom, that is the Christian Church.
Holy Baptism is called illumination because man is illumined and passes over from the darkness of sin to the light of Christ, and becomes entirely light and life, and radiates the light of the divine spiritual life. Thus, in ancient times, the catechumens who advanced in instruction of faith and were ready for receiving Holy Baptism were called those approaching “illumination.”
No. Holy Baptism is the first essential step towards salvation in Christ, but is not a guarantee or promise of salvation. When man arises from the Font of Baptism, he still retains a certain inclination and tendency towards evil. In light of this inclination, the Christian must struggle to work towards holiness and perfection. Only through this struggle and his continued participation in the Mysteries of the Church and the mercy of God, is man saved.
The institution of the Holy Eucharist is the most sublime Mystery of the Holy Orthodox Church, the Mystery of Mysteries, the Sacrament of Sacraments. It is the eternal Mystery whose value is incomprehensible and incalculable, and whose position in the worship of the Holy Orthodox Church is unique and sublime.
From this Sacrament and that of Holy Baptism, all the other Sacraments draw grace and power, and contribute also to the eternal redemption of the soul and to man’s salvation.
This most divine Sacrament was instituted by Christ Himself at the Last Supper “on the night” of Holy Thursday “in which He was betrayed” unto to death upon the Cross, in order that the expiatory sacrifice of the Cross be continued within and by the Church throughout the centuries until the consummation of the ages, as a source of forgiveness of the sins of the world and as communion with His all-Holy Body and His Precious Blood.
See John 6:27-69, Matt. 26:20-29, Mark 14:17-25, Luke 22:14-38 and 1 Cor. 11:23-26. According to these sacred passages, our Lord on the night He gave Himself over unto death for the salvation of the world, “taking bread and blessing, broke it and gave it to His disciples and said, ‘Take eat, this is my body which is broken on your behalf for the remission of sins.’ ” And after “taking the cup and having given thanks,” to the Heavenly Father He gave it to His disciples saying, “Drink of it all of you, this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” And He added the exhortation, “Do this in remembrance of me.” That is, preserve this mystery as a continuous and eternal institution for your sanctification and salvation.
The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is a representation of our Lord’s atoning sacrifice. Furthermore, it is a continuation and perpetuation of our Lord’s saving death, that is His Sacrifice on the Cross. After His death and resurrection, that sacrifice is bloodlessly executed on the Holy Table (the altar) and not with blood as it was on the Cross, and thus it is proclaimed to the entire world, to both believers and unbelievers, that this death, by being a willing death, the death of the sinless, incarnate and Holy Son of God, the God-man Jesus Christ, is the most sublime and holiest of sacrifices which He offered to the Father for the atonement of sinners and for the forgiveness of their sins. And this Mystery which is the sacrifice on the Cross is also the Passover of Christians, as St. Paul states, “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5: 7). Our Christian Passover is the sacrifice on the Cross and Christ’s resurrection for our behalf. As St. John Chrysostom states, “When you commune (worthily) then you celebrate Passover.” This, therefore, is the great Mystery of the Holy Orthodox Church, which is called “Eucharist,” “the Lord’ Supper,” the “Holy Cup” and “Holy Communion,” “Sacrifice” and “offering,” and from the point of view of its salvific results, “the medicine of immortality,” and the “provision of eternal life.”
Bread and wine are used for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, just as our Lord did during the Last Supper when he transmitted this great Mystery of our salvation to the Church.
The Mystery of the Eucharist is celebrated upon the Holy Table (Altar). Prior to the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, the elements to be used for the bloodless sacrifice are prepared by the Celebrant (Priest) and remain on the Table of Preparation (Holy Prothesis) until the Great Entrance. At that time the gifts are transferred in procession from the Table of Preparation to the Holy Table. During the Anaphora (Offering) the Priest prays at length and beseeches God to send down His Holy Spirit to change the bread into the Body and the wine into the Blood of our Savior Christ. After the fearful transformation, present upon the Holy Table, are the very Body and Blood of Christ, which, when received in faith unites us to Him and to one another, all receiving the one and same Christ.
While our eyes see bread and wine and our tongue senses the taste of bread and wine, these sacred gifts are not what they appear. From the moment when the Holy Spirit descended and the Sacrament was perfected, we no longer have that which we see without eyes or taste with our tongue. We have that which we believe, worship and adore. We have the Body and Blood of our Christ who communicates to us life and incorruptibility.
If every holy Mystery or Sacrament brings Divine Grace to man and makes him like a tree that bears much fruit, this occurs to a much greater extent with the most divine and all-Holy mystery of the Eucharist. When we receive Christ, we are receiving the Mighty Ruler of All, Lord of Glory, the Eternal God who lives and abides unto the ages – thus, the Sacrament’s spiritual fruits are very rich. They are the salvation of the soul, the nurturing and sustaining of the spiritual life, the advancement and increase of virtue, rebirth, sanctification – all gifts for salvation and theosis. Without these Holy Gifts, it is impossible to live as a Christian, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem says.
1. Forgiveness is the first benefit of Holy Communion, to be preceded by Holy Confession. Holy Communion seals and confirms our forgiveness. As the Lord Himself said, “drink of it all of you…for the remission of sins.”
2. Sanctification is the second benefit of Holy Communion, and is only natural, since we receive within our bodies the Holy One. Through receiving the Holy God, the entire man is sanctified and become the abode of the Holy Spirit. Holy Communion is communicated to all our whole body and gives us strength to shun evil and not commit sin, doing only what is good and in accordance with the Holy will of the One whom we participate in.
3. Theosis in the third benefit of Holy Communion. If, according to the Apostle St. Peter, with faith, with the word of God, with prayer, man is divinized and becomes a “partaker of the divine nature,” this occurs to us all the more and to an incomparable degree when we communicate “the divinized flesh” of the Lord. Through our communication of the Holy Gifts, we further ourselves towards our true perfected life in Christ, becoming like the Holy St.s, and by participation and grace, partakers of the divine life.
4. Unity is the fourth benefit of Holy Communion. Since all orthodox Christians communicate the same Christ, they become one body, one spiritual family, a divine communion of sanctified and loving men. This is explicitly stated by the Apostle Paul, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17) Furthermore, during the Divine Liturgy, the Celebrant says “And unite all of us who partake of the one bread and the one cup, one to another in the communion of the one Holy Spirit.”
The Christian should approach the Sacrament after careful and precise preparation, i.e. after fasting, fervent prayer, sincere confession, reconciliation with one’s enemies, with almsgiving and good works of charity and love, so that he may approach as our Church summons us: “With the fear of God, with faith and love.” This is also the directive of St. Paul, who said, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you and many are dead.” (1 Cor. 11:28-30) If one approaches without true repentance and sincere confession, that person manifests impiety and disbelief, and is a desecration of the Holy Mysteries, and commits a grave sin. Therefore, while we should approach Holy Communion regularly and frequently, we must do so with “the fear of God, with faith and love,” and then we shall receive the remission of sins, sanctity and redemption, peace and theosis, holy, blessed and eternal life.
No. Participation in the Holy Eucharist is reserved for those who have confessed the true Christian faith (Orthodox) at their baptism, received the sacrament of holy Christmation, and thus who are members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Since Christ’s Church is one, all those who lie outside the True Christian Church (Orthodox) are necessarily not members of His True Church, and they may not approach the Holy Cup.