Article By Fr. Jose Thomas Poovathumkal
The word Sacraments is a derivation of the Latin term “Sacramentum,” which literally means “seal” or “stamp.” In the ancient Roman world, the oath taken by soldiers and the stamp put on the animal for sacrifice were indicated by the same word Sacramentum. The Eastern Churches (Orthodox Churches) prefer to use the word “Mysteries” to denote the Sacraments of the Church. The word Mystery derives from the Greek term “Musterion.” St. Augustine of Hippo gives definitions to the Sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace and signs of sacred things. According to the Orthodox understanding, we enter into and participate in the divine salvific Mysteries (Eph. 3:4,9; 6:19; Col. 1:26ff). Sacraments are highest and unique activities of the Church. And Church is the supreme Mystery of Christ.
1. HOLY BAPTISM
The Sacrament of Baptism is the bedrock for the building up the Christian life. It is from the Greek word, “Baptizein” meaning “immersion” that the English term Baptism has originated. It is unique as the first Sacrament through which we are initiated into the Church. In Judaism and some other ancient religions, there were practices of ritual washing or bathing as acts of initiation. In the Christian Church, Holy Baptism was instituted by the command of Jesus Christ (Mt.28:19; Mk.16:16). The words of Jesus Christ to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, You must be born from above” (Jn.3:5-7) also are considered to be a reference to baptism and its effects and nature.
Though water is used as a physical medium in Baptism, emphasis goes to working of the Holy Spirit. St. John the Baptist says, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than me is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:6). The importance of the working of Holy Spirit in the Christian Baptism is clear in his words.
a. Baptism of Christ and Christian Baptism
Baptism of Christ in Jordan is the inauguration of the public ministry. St. Ephrem the Syrian presents the Baptism of Lord as the fountainhead of Christian Baptism. According to him, by His Baptism Christ opens up our Baptism. He writes: “Christ, though immortal by nature, clothed Himself in a mortal body; He was baptized and raised up from the water the treasure of salvation for the race of Adam.” (Hymns on Virginity. 7:10).
According to St. Ephrem “…by His Baptism Jesus Christ purified the baptismal water and made it the womb, which gives birth to the Children of the Church”. Jacob of Serugh writes about the Baptism of Christ: “Christ came to Baptism, He went down and placed in the baptismal water the robe of glory, to be there for Adam, who had lost it” (Sebastian Brock, Luminous [Rome, 1985] 72). Sanctification of Jordan water by the Baptism of Christ provides the chance to regain the lost robe of glory. Through baptism we are receiving it again and it will be totally effective in the Eschatological glory. Robe of glory is a prominent theme in Syriac theology. According to Ephrem, when Adam and Eve sinned they lost their robe of glory that’s why they felt nakedness.
b. Water and the Holy Spirit
The use of water as the physical medium for Baptism is highly suggestive. We read in Gen.1:2 about the brooding of the Spirit of God over the face of the primeval water to prepare the earth to contain life in it. That in the same manner Holy Spirit acts in the Baptism of Jesus Christ and Christian Baptism. By the working of the Holy Spirit we became a new creation. St. Paul says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2Cor.5:17). St. Ephrem comments on the working of Holy Spirit in Baptism: “He came to John to receive from him baptism, that He might mingle with the visible waters the invisible Spirit; that they whose bodies should feel the moistening of the water, their souls, should feel the gift of the Spirit; that even as the bodies outwardly feel the pouring of water upon them, so the souls inwardly may feel the pouring of the Spirit upon them” (Ephrem, ‘Homily on our Lord’; NPNF, Vol.13, 329). Here water is clearly depicted as the physical media through which Holy Spirit works in Baptism. Again in Hymns on Epiphany 5: 1-2 Ephrem speaks about the same theme, “Descend, my brethren, put on from the waters of baptism the Holy Spirit; be joined with the spirit that minister to the Godhead. He explains the power of Baptism to forgive sins as by the working of Holy Spirit, Then it (fire) is a symbol of the Spirit, A type of the Holy Spirit, Who is mingled in the Baptismal water so that it may bring forgiveness….” (Hymns on Faith.40:10) Here Ephrem considers Holy Spirit as the activator of the forgiving effect of baptism. The sacrament of baptism is the way to receive the Holy Spirit and total transfiguration.
c. Baptism and Participation in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
About Baptism St. Paul says: “…who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Rom.6:4-5). For St. Paul rebirth through Baptism is the total participation in the glorified life of Jesus Christ. Immersion in and raising from water symbolise participation of believer in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ respectively.
2. HOLY CHRISMATION
In the Eastern tradition (Orthodox Churches) Sacrament of Chrismation is given immediately after Baptism. It can be called post-Baptismal anointing. Corresponding rite in the Western tradition (Catholic and Protestant Churches) is known Confirmation. Chrismation is the perfection and culmination of conferring of the Holy Spirit, the source of all divine gifts upon the baptised. In the sermon after the descent on the day of Pentecost, Apostle St. Peter answers the question of the hearers, “Brethren, what shall we do?: Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts. 2:37-38). Alexander Schmemann, a famous Russian Orthodox theologian, calls Chrismation a personal Pentecost, which opens to man the door of theosis. Through Chrismation, the baptised establishes perfect communion with the Holy Spirit and through Him with the Father and the Son.
3. THE HOLY EUCHARIST
The word Eucharist derives from the Greek root “Eucharistia” which means “thanks giving”. The Holy Eucharist is the pivotal point in the life of the Christian Church. It is the utmost activity of the Church. The Holy Eucharist can be called the nucleus of the Church. With the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, there have been congregations of believers coming together to celebrate Holy Eucharist right up to the present day (Acts. 2:42). It will continue till eschaton.
a. Holy Eucharist: A Memorial Celebration
After the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ commanded to the Apostles: “…do this in remembrance of me” (Lk.22:19). Remembrance (anamnesis) is one of the basic aspects of the Holy Eucharist. It is not the simple remembrance of a past event or events, but a celebration of the whole Economy of Salvation. In Holy Eucharist after the Words of Institution we pray: “O Lord we proclaim your death, and your holy resurrection, we believe in your ascension and hoping for your second coming.” We participate in all those events of redemption through our participation in the Eucharist. We experience events of past present and future at the same time in this Sacrament. It is not an individual remembrance, but the expression of the firm faith and hope of the Church.
b. Holy Eucharist: A Living Sacrifice
The Epistle to the Hebrews clearly testifies that the crucifixion of our Lord was a sacrifice of redemption and for the remission of sins. The self-sacrifice of the Lord is perfect, unique and once for all. More than a historical event it has got an eternal realm. (Heb.9.11-12; 26-28). Through our Eucharistic Liturgy, we are participating in the eternal sacrifice, which is beyond the limits of time and space. At the end of His earthly ministry Our Lord established the Holy Eucharist and entrusted His disciples to continue it till the second coming [Mt.26-29; Mk.14:22-25; Lk.22:19-20]. At the very next day Jesus was crucified. Both of the events are inter-connected. Through Eucharist we are participating in the eternal sacrifice of our Lord, the incarnated God the son. We are repeatedly participating in the same sacrifice. The sacrifice is one, the victim is one and the High priest also is one. We are sharing the priesthood of Christ in different levels. Christian priesthood is the continuation of the real priesthood of Christ, which is given to the Church. The Holy Church executes its priesthood through her sons in different levels.
c. Holy Eucharist: Complete Worship and Foretaste of the Eternal Feast
Eucharist is a feast of love par excellence. We are invited to partake in the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic service. This is a foretaste of the eternal feast in the kingdom of God yet to be realized. We should take part in the Eucharist with love and purity of heart. The experience of the early Church is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles as follows. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people” (Acts. 2:46-47). The early Christians experienced the joy of sharing and praising God in their Eucharistic services. That experience of happiness is the hope of the Church to be realised in parousia.
The Church believes that all the faithful departed including St. Virgin Mary and all the saints participate in the Eucharist. The celebration of Eucharist is not only the worship of a group of believers, but also of the whole Church, which includes living and departed. It expresses the active communion between God and Church and among her believers.
d. Significance of Bread and Wine
We could see some references in the Old Testament for sacrifices with bread and wine. The first reference is of Melchizadek (Gen.14: 18). In Lev.23: 13 offering of the flour and wine are mentioned. The meal to which wisdom invited is another reference to it (Prov.9: 1-5). Wheat and grapes, used for making bread and wine, are the products of earth. So they represent the whole creation. We are offering the toil to God. Through that act we express our commitment and submission towards Him. The bread and wine offered in the Eucharist become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. That is a Mystery, which effects our transformation also. The change happens in both cases by the working of the Holy Spirit. As working in the Eucharistic offering, He dwells and acts in us for our divinisation (theosis).
4. THE SACRAMENT OF ORDINATION (HOLY PRIESTHOOD)
Orthodox Churches believe that Church, the body of Christ shares the priesthood of Jesus, the eternal High Priest. So, all of her members are partaking in its primary level. But to continue the Apostolic ministry entrusted to the Church, God select some of the members of the His body. They are not practicing the ministry in their own capacity, but in the Church and for the Church. The ordained ministers of the Church possess the Priesthood in different levels. The Christian fundamentalists like Pentecostals deny the importance of priesthood completely.
The Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus Christ as the real High Priest (2:17; 3:1; 4:14-15). He is the ultimate and eternal High Priest who executed the absolute sacrifice (Heb.9:11-12). All the baptized are sharing the priesthood of the real High Priest Jesus Christ. St. Peter writes, “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let you be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pet.2: 4-5). Orthodox Churches believe that Church, the body of Christ shares the priesthood of Jesus, the eternal High Priest. So, all her members are partakers of it in primary level. But to continue the Apostolic ministry entrusted to the Church, God select some of the members of the His body. They are not practicing the ministry in their own capacity, but in the Church and for the Church. The ordained ministers of the Church share the Priesthood in different levels. Both the general priesthood and priesthood of the ordained are mutually complementary.
Our Lord entrusted the Priestly authority to the Apostles. During the time of the Institution of Eucharist (Last Supper) Lord delegated the authority of Eucharistic celebration to the Apostles [Mt.26:26-29; Mk.14:22-25; Lk.22:19-20]. After resurrection He gave them the power to remit the sins (Jn.20:22-23). It indicates the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). By the pouring of Holy Spirit as a gift whole authority for fruitful and effective continuation of the salvific ministry was given to the Church. St. Paul says to the elders of the Church of Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood” (Acts. 20:28). He specifies that the Holy Spirit appoints the leaders of the Church. In 2Cor.5: 20 he says: So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Here the role of priesthood is mentioned as mediation.
5. THE SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE (HOLY MATRIMONY)
Marriage is the sacred rites by which a man and a woman are brought together in order that they may be build up a family. It is in families that children are born. God vests the responsibility for bringing up children as worthy persons, respectable citizens, and above all as devoted members of the family of God in man and woman. Marriage is the means where by the Church sanctions people to work out this divine ordering in practice. According to the book of Genesis, God created Eve from one of the ribs of Adam, so that she would be a companion to him. Because she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh (Gen. 2; 23, 24). Genesis proclaims that these two individuals possessing complete equality and resemblance to God are basically not two individuals but one. When Pharisees asked Jesus, his views on divorce in order to test him, Jesus answered quoting the two verses from the book of Genesis (Matt. 19:5 cf Gen. 1:27; 2:23). Christ’s answer shows that the Apostolic Church had definite views on marriage and divorce, what God has joined together, let no one separate (Matt. 19:6). This was the view of Christ as well as that of the early Church. The Church has striven hard to adhere to this throughout in the Christian tradition. The teaching of the Church is that Christ has instituted marriage and marital relationship is the supreme relationship of love and humanity.
a. Christ and the Church
In the Orthodox liturgy for marriage there is one constant theme running throughout – the relationship between the bridegroom Jesus and the bride, the Church. St. Paul interprets the relationship between Christ and the Church as a great mystery. The liturgy qualifies Christ as the true bridegroom who chose the Gentile daughter as his Church, cleansed her of all blemish and impurity with his own blood, and submitted himself to be her bridegroom. It is in close association with this mystery that the apostle understands marital relationship also. The Church exhorts couples to build up a perfect relationship based on the unique and inseparable relationship between Christ and the Church. It is also pointed out here that marital relationships with merely superficial love or just worldly goals do not reach perfection. The unity and love of the Holy Trinity are to be reflected through the selfless love of the couple. In this sense, couples entering marital relationship also become partakers of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the relationship between Christ and the Church. And it is here that marriage becomes a sacrament.
b. The crown of glory and the crown of thorns
In the marriage service, crowns are placed over the heads of bridegroom and the bride. Crowns generally signify royalty. However, it contains another meaning and alludes to a different kind of crown. It is compared to the crown of thorns of Jesus. In the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, this crown is compared to the crown of martyrs. All this makes it clear, that the crown does not denote worldly royalty, material happiness or mere physical bond of love; instead, it is a crown of thorns, symbolizing self-emptying, suffering, denial of selfish goals and mutual self-giving. The crowns of the bridegroom and the bride known as the crowns of justice and happiness lead them to a genuine, honest life filled with the happiness of the Holy Spirit.
Couples are called upon to participate in God’s act of creation with discretion and in freedom. They should have the great desire that the children born out of their love should be the children of the Kingdom of God. The world needs men and women who lead exemplary family life facing challenges. Each such family is the cornerstone of the Church and Kingdom of God. It is from the family that one first gets love, sense of security, hope and compassion. The Christian marriage is a pointer to these lofty goals of family life.
6. THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY CONFESSION
The Orthodox tradition views sin as a disease. The sins committed by the members of the Church damage the healthy life of the Church. Because each person is grafted to the common body of the Church through Baptism and the holy Eucharist, his evil thoughts and deeds affect the whole body of the Church. So the Church as a whole rejoices in his repentance. Jesus Christ has said “…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Lk. 15:7). God treats the human race that has fallen into sinful ways, with compassion and mercy in the same way as we deal with a sick person.
A sinful life is a state of dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction (1 Jn 3:21) results from two counts—sins of commission and sins of omission. The sins of commission are those that we do which we are prohibited from doing (Gal. 5:19-20). Sins of omission are failure to do obligatory duties (Ex. 20:2-17). The desire to confess comes from one’s own mind by the work of Holy Spirit. The sacrament of Holy Confession renews the covenant of baptism, which we had entered through godparents. The covenant is a promise to live according to God’s will.
a. The Authority of the Church
Holy Confession is the Sacrament instituted by our Lord and handed over to the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; Jn. 20:21-23). The Apostolic authority delegated to the Church in the words, “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18); and, “…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23), was first and foremost given to the Church. The priests have received this authority through the Church. The priest, like anyone else, is also a sinner; however, he is empowered by ordination to absolve sins. Besides, he is the appointed representative of God.
b. Preparation for Confession
Holy confession without proper preparation is a grave sin. St. Paul exhorts: “if anyone eats the Lord’s bread or drinks from his cup in a way dishonors Him, is guilty of sin against Lord’s body and blood. So then, everyone should examine himself first, and then eat the bread and drink from the cup. For if he does not recognize the meaning of Lord’s body when he eats the bread and drinks from the cup, he brings judgment on himself as he eats and drinks” (1 Cor. 11:27-29; also see, 1 Jn 1:8-9; Prov. 28:30). Our desire to confess and to be one with God is always challenged by Satan, which results in two things (1) we refuse to acknowledge that we have sinned and (2) we try to justify or find excuses for the sins that we committed. We should be prudent to recognize that these reasons are of Satan and should listen to the feeble voice within our inner selves, which suggests that something wrong is taking place.
7. THE SACRAMENT OF HEALING (HOLY UNCTION OR ANOINTING THE SICK)
There is a close relationship between the Good news of the Kingdom of God and the healing of the sick. For Jesus Christ, healing ministry was a sign of the beginning of the Kingdom of God. A good part of His work was the healing of the sick and the suffering (Matt.4: 23). When Jesus Christ sent out the twelve Apostles to different parts of the world, to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, He also gave them authority to heal the sick (Mk.6: 12-13).
a. Confession and Healing
Confession is to be understood as a sacrament of healing of the body and the soul. Modern science has slowly begun to realize that no disease can be isolated from the psychosomatic reality of the close connection between body and mind. The medical sciences have also recognized that the disease of individuals is not confined to the individual per se, its causes and consequences being intimately related to his environment and society. The individual sin causes sickness. The diseased state shows our approaching death, which is the wages of sin. Hence the Church has viewed individual sins and remission of sins, in this light. Though this fundamental relationship between sin and disease exists in the case of humanity as a whole, it does not mean that the diseases an individual suffers from are necessarily the result of his own sins. Jesus makes this clear to his disciples when they asked him about the man who was born blind (Jn. 9: 3). Since diseases continue as one of the consequences of the fall of humanity, even infants who have not committed any sin also suffer from diseases.
b. Anointing the Sick with Oil and Healing
The Apostles anointed with oil those that were sick, and healed them (Mk.6:12- 13). This is seen more clearly in the Letter of St. James (Jas 5:14-16). Oil is the symbol of love and compassion. In the Greek language, the word for oil (elaion) and the one for compassion (eleon) are related. Hence it is the oil symbolizing divine mercy and compassion with which the sick are anointed. In the parable of the Good Samaritan also we see the Samaritan anointing the wounded person with oil (Lk. 10:34).
c. Anointing the sick is not Extreme Unction
The Holy Unction is a sacrament that can be received at any stage of illness. Many refer to it and wrongly understand it as the last rites, as in the Roman Catholic Church. This is a wrong Western notion. The Holy Unction is administered with the hope and prayer that the person may be cured of his sickness and restored to normal health. It is not intended as preparation for his final departure. The Sacrament of the absolution of sins, as in the Holy Confession, is a part of Holy Unction also. A good number of prayers are directed to the confession and absolution of sins, because the disease and sin are related.