What we Believe About the Sacraments
Man needs power – spiritual power to get off the ground. We have many jokes on the failure of our missiles to get off the ground as planned. But when a human life does not get off the ground with spiritual power it is no joke.
It is an exhilarating experience to stand at the brink of Niagara Falls watching that tremendous water-power thundering over the cliff, knowing that millions of kilowatt – hours of electric power are right in front of us. Exhilarating yet sad if none of it lights our way in darkness; none of its heats our homes in the cold; none of it supplies energy for our work. But when the power of the Falls is channeled to where we need it: to light up our darkness, to dispel the damp cold from our homes and supply energy for our work, what a difference it makes! In Christ, God does just this. He brings God's grace and power to each one of us. The means He uses to do this are the Sacraments which are like seven power lines from God's Niagara to each Christian.
WHAT IS A SACRAMENT?
If it is true that Christ has been invisible ever since the Ascension, it is also true that He has remained visible in the Church which is His Body, through which He is made present in the world today. From the Church, Christ reaches out to us with the Sacraments to bring to us His grace and love.
Every sacrament puts us in touch with Christ and applies to us the power of the Cross and the Resurrection.
St. Leo the Great said, "He who was visible as our Redeemer has now passed into the Sacraments."
It has been said that the blood and water on the Cross, flowing from the Body that was pierced by the lance, represent the Sacraments. These flow from Christ's love for us, which led Him to give His life in our behalf.
The Sacraments are the kiss of God where He pours out the riches of His love. They communicate to us the very life of God.
Every Sacrament is a theophany, the appearance of God to us for a specific purpose and need.
The Sacraments are the way to theosis (becoming like God) since they make us partakers of divine nature.
The Sacraments are the means by which "the same graces are present nowadays which were formerly imparted in the Upper Room, or at the waters where the disciples of Jesus baptized."
The Sacraments art the ways by which we come into intimate personal contact with Jesus today.
The Sacraments are like the hands of Jesus reaching out over the expanse of time to touch us with His love and power and to let us know that He is still with us.
Through the Sacraments we go to Christ to appropriate the fullness of life that is in Him.
A Sacrament is a divine rite instituted by Christ and/or the Apostles which through visible signs conveys to us the hidden grace of God. The basic requirements are: divine institution, visible sign, and the hidden power of God.
NUMBER OF SACRAMENTS
The Orthodox Church numbers among the Sacraments the following:
2. Chrismation or Confirmation;
3. The Eucharist;
4. Confession or Repentance;
5. Holy Orders;
6. Holy Matrimony;
7. Holy Unction or The Anointing of the Sick;
We must realize, however, that traditionally the Orthodox never limited the Sacraments to seven. The number seven is rather symbolic and is used to indicate the perfection of grace. For example, the gifts of the Spirit are seven (Isaiah 11:2-4). The number seven was adopted only in the seventeenth century under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. It was at that time that the Council of Trent officially affirmed the Sacraments as seven. This was done in opposition to the Protestant Reformers who recognized but two Sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist.
To place a limitation on the number of sacraments is to view them from a very narrow perspective. If a sacrament happens whenever God's grace is mediated to man through matter, then there is no limit to the number of Sacraments. Indeed the whole of creation becomes a sacrament, a theophany, through which we see God. Fr. Thomas Hopko states: "Traditionally the Orthodox understand everything in the church to be sacramental. All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God".
Orthodox writers vary as to the number of Sacraments. Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus declares, "I believe that the number of sacraments are not seven, but more." He proceeds to list ten. Others give exclusive and prominent importance to the two Sacraments that initiate us into the new life of Christ: Baptism and Chrismation. For example, Gregory Palamas proclaims that "in these two (sacraments), our whole salvation is rooted, since the entire economy of the God-man is recapitulated in them." Another great Orthodox writer, Nicolas Cabasilas, wrote an entire book "The Life of Christ" as a commentary on the three sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist. Thus it is evident that not all sacraments are of equal importance. There is a hierarchy among them with the Eucharist occupying the position of greatest importance.
Some of the other sacraments or sacramentals listed by Orthodox writers are:
1. Monastic Profession;
2. The Great Blessing of Waters at Epiphany;
3. The Funeral Service;
4. The Consecration of a Church;
5. The Anointing or Crowning of an Emperor or King;
6. Preaching through which we commune with Christ as the Word of Gods
7. The Icon, which is not only an image of the divine world but also its real presence on earth;
8. The Relics of Saints;
9. The minor Sanctifications of wine, bread, oil, fruits, homes, fields etc.
10. Prayer through which we commune with God;
11. Charity. St. John Chrysostum states, "Charity is a sacrament . , . For our sacraments are above all God's charity and love of mankind."
It may be said that Jesus Christ is the original sacrament of God's presence in the world. The Church itself is a sacrament making real the presence of the Trinity in the world today. The entire universe is a sacrament, a sort of "cosmic Burning Bush, filled with the divine Fire yet not consumed," to use the words of Fr. Kallistos Ware. All nature becomes transparent and we look through it to see the Creator. Events can also be sacramental. It is not blind chance but God Who works through the events of our lives. Illness, a setback, a great success or whatever, can be a message from God or a bearer of His grace. God knows how to use* everything for the benefit of those He loves. In like manner, we can turn every experience of life into a sacrament, so that everything we do is done for His glory. Somebody coming to see you when you're sick can be a sacrament. A meal with people you love can be a sacrament. Looking into a stranger's eyes and finding, out he's not a stranger can be a sacrament. Christ looks at us through the eyes of all His living images, even "the least of my brethren," He says. Once we recognize His Universal Presence, all our acts of love and service hecome sjcraments. In fact, when Jesus calls us "light" and "salt" and "yeast", is He not calling us to be sacraments of His presence in the world? We would have to be blind not to see that all of life is sacramental. As Fr. Kallistos Ware writes, "The whole Christian life must be seen as . . . one great Sacrament, whose different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed but once in a person's life, others perhaps daily."
THE VISIBLE SIGN
Most of the sacraments use material things as vehicles of the Spirit. Water, oil, bread, wine etc. are used regularly in the worship services of the Orthodox Church to remind us that matter was created by God to be good. In fact, in so doing, the Church was inspired by the Incarnation whereby God Himself did not hesitate to become flesh for our salvation.
Knowing that we have a body as well as a soul, God chose not to communicate His life to us invisibly. He willed to give us His grace under the symbol of some material sign so that by seeing water we would know that something was being washed away; by seeing bread we would know that we were being nourished. The day will come when it will no longer be necessary to use material signs, for then we shall see Him face to face and partake of Him in the nightless day of His kingdom. But that day is not yet.
Through the use of material things in the sacraments nature participates in the salvation of man. Bread, water, wine etc., become bearers of spiritual meaning and God's saving power. Nature and the Spirit become united in Salvation.
St. John Chrysostom invites us to look beyond the material signs to the reality of what is occuring. For example, he writes about baptism: "When you come to the sacred initiation, the eyes of the flesh see water; the eyes of faith behold the Spirit. Those eyes see the body being baptized; these see the old man being buried. The eyes of the flesh see the flesh being washed; the eyes of the spirit see the soul being cleansed. The eyes of the body sec the body emerging from the water; the eyes of faith see the new man come forth brightly shining from that new purification. Our bodily eyes see the priest as, from above, he lays his right hand on the head and touches (him who is being baptized); our spiritual eyes see the great High Priest (Jesus) as He stretches forth His invisible hand to touch his head. For, at that moment the one who baptizes is not a man but the only-begotten Son of God."
G. P. Fedotov writes concerning the material elements used in the sacraments of the Orthodox Church: "In this sacramental religion the Deity ceases to be transcendent. It takes up its abode in the temple. The Church becomes 'heaven on earth', according to a classical Orthodox saying. The Divinity is accessible through water, that of the sacraments and sacred objects; it can be not only seen, but even smelled, tasted, kissed."4
Thus it is that Orthodox liturgical worship makes its appeal to the total person through all five senses. The eyes behold the beauty of the icons. The incense surrounds us with the fragrance of God's presence. The ears hear on earth the songs of the angelic choirs that constantly praise Him in heaven. The palate tastes of the fruits of the earth now sanctified. The entire person is lifted into the kingdom of God. Indeed, we taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).
THE SACRAMENTS AS MYSTERIES
The normal word for sacrament in the Orthodox Church is the Greek word mysterion, from which the English word mystery is derived. Hence the Sacraments are called mysteries in Greek. Through the use of this word the Orthodox church emphasized the mystery of God's love and grace. Fr. Alexander Schmemann sees a spiritual message behind the word Mystery. He writes:
"…they (the Greek Christians) called 'mystery' the entire ministry of Christ, through Whose life, death, resurrection and glorification God saves man and the world. Christ thus both reveals and accomplishes the Divine plan of salvation, kept secret ('mystery') until His coming. And since the Church is to proclaim that mystery and communicate it to men, the essential acts by which she is accomplishing this are also called mysteries. . . Through all these acts (mysteries or sacraments) we are made participants and beneficiaries of the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ."
IMPORTANCE AND PURPOSE OF SACRAMENTS
The sacraments constitute our life in Christ according to Nicolas Cabasilas. We cannot be truly Christian if we treat them merely as mechanical rituals of the Christian faith that are necessary for some but not for others.
The chief purpose of the sacraments is to impart to the believer the life of Christ. Through the Sacraments God shares His life with us, redeems us from sin and death and bestows on us the glory of immortality. The kingdom of God becomes accessible now in the sacraments through which "being in Christ" and sharing in the life of God are realized.
A PERSONAL ENCOUNTER WITH CHRIST
The sacraments are not the "machines of salvation," or magical contacts that work automatically; they are rather personal encounters with Christ in faith. Fr. George Florovsky writes:
"The climax of the Sacrament (Eucharist) is in the Presence of Christ . . . and in the personal encounter of the faithful with their Living Lord, as participants at His 'Mystical Supper'. The utter reality of this encounter is vigorously stressed in the office of preparation for Communion, as also in the prayers of Thanksgiving after Communion. The preparation is precisely for one's meeting with Christ in the Sacrament, personal and intimate . . . personal emphasis in all these prayers is dominant and prevailing. This personal encounter of believers with Christ is the very core of Orthodox devotional life."
The personal aspect of the sacraments as an encounter between the believer and Christ is expressed in the manner by which the Eucharist is administered in the Orthodox Church. It is always personal. The name of each communicant is mentioned by the priest as one receives the Eucharist, i.e., "The servant of God . . . (name) receives the holy and precious Body and Blood of our Lord for the forgiveness of sins and unto life everlasting." In administering the oil of Holy Unction the priest again addresses the believer by name.
As personal encounters with Christ, the sacraments are Jesus' way of continuing His presence with us on earth. They are like the hand of Jesus reaching out personally to each one of us today, now forgiving, now healing, now blessing, now consecrating, now empowering, and now uniting. Here we encounter Jesus and the power of His resurrection, as we do in prayer, in His word, through His Spirit within us and in the least of His brethren (Matt. 25:40). The sacraments are an important and vital part of our encounter with Christ today.
THE NEED FOR FAITH AND OBEDIENCE
The need for faith as we approach Christ in the personal encounter of the sacraments is obvious. In answer to the question whether those who approach the sacraments without sufficient contrition and faith are absolved from their sins, Bishop Innocent of Cherson says, "Without them (faith and contrition), you will not receive absolution from God, no matter how often the priest repeats, forgiven, absolved."
There were many people in the crowd that day who jostled about Jesus and touched Him. Yet it was only the sick woman who managed to get close enough to touch the hem of His robe who was healed. Of all the people in that crowd she was the only one who touched Jesus with faith. The touch of Jesus in the sacraments is not magical or mechanical. It is just as personal as the touch established by that sick woman in the crowd. Jesus knew that someone had touched Him with faith, and so did the sick woman. She felt a surge of healing power go through her body.
When shopping in certain countries, one must bring one's own bag with which to carry away the items purchased. So it is with the sacraments. We must bring our own receptacle of faith. In fact, the greater the receptacle, the greater the grace we receive.
In addition to faith, there is need for obedience and surrender as we approach the sacraments. If a straw is placed in line with the current of the Gulf Stream, all the essential quality of the stream will flow through it. So it is with human life. If we place our life in the direction of God's will through obedience and surrender, it is not unreasonable to expect that the very life of God with its great healing power will flow through our life, as does the Gulf Stream through the straw.
Thus, we must approach Jesus in the Sacraments with faith, love, obedience, and deep penitence for our sins. Through the grace of the Sacraments we come to share in the very life of God, yet, we come not just to be takers but also givers. We give ourselves to God and to our fellow humans with a deliberate act of love without which the sacraments themselves would be worthless. In the words of the Apostle John, "... love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love . . . No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us" (I John 4:7,8,12).
The greatest fruit of the grace that we receive through the Sacraments is love. Bishop Maximos Aghiorgoussis expresses this well when he writes:
"The abundance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are bestowed upon us Christians, who prove ourselves to be 'charis-matics' when we become aware of the presence of these gifts in us. The highest gift is love (Cor. 13.13). Love, poured into our hearts through the Spirit of God (Rom. 5.5), is the characteristic of Christians (Jn. 13.35), the proper attitude of members of the Kingdom of God. It is only through the practice of this unselfish love, and energy of God which comes to us from God, that we are in communion with God Himself and in communion with our brothers and sisters. It is through the practice of love that we achieve the purpose of our creation: salvation and theosis."
THE SACRAMENTS OF INITIATION
The sacraments of initiation in the Orthodox Church are three: Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion. The newly baptized is immediately anointed with the holy oil of Chrism through which he receives the Holy Spirit. He is thus baptized "of water and the spirit" (John 3:5). The new life in Christ is immediately nourished with "the Bread of Life", the Holy Eucharist. Receiving all three sacraments, the newly baptized infant becomes a full member of the Church.
Some time ago LIFE Magazine carried a photograph illustrating "A Baby's Momentous First Five Minutes." It was a photograph of a mother's hand reaching out to her newborn child. The photograph illustrated beautifully a mother's love reaching to embrace her baby. So it is that every time an infant is baptized, the hand of God's love reaches out to embrace that baby and bestow upon it the kiss of His love. It is divine love that stands behind the Sacrament of Baptism.
Baptizing infants before they know what is going on is an expression of God's great love for us. It shows that God loves us and accepts us before we can ever know Him or love Him. It shows that we are wanted and loved by God from the very moment of our birth. To say that a person must reach the age of reason and believe in Christ before he may be baptized is to make God's grace in some way dependent on man's intelligence. But God's grace is not dependent on any act of ours, intellectual or otherwise; it is a pure gift of His love.
We bring infants to baptism not because they believe but in order that they might believe. Baptism is like the planting of the seed of faith in the human soul. Nourished and fed by Christian training, or catechesis, in the family and in the church school, the seed of faith will grow to produce a mature Christian.
Baptism introduces the child to the love of God and opens him to the grace of the Holy Spirit. These are great riches even if the child is unaware of them at the beginning. To deny a child baptism is to deprive him of this inner grace that is so necessary to Christian growth.
Through baptism Christ cleanses us of sin. He calls us His own sons and daughters. He makes us heirs of His riches. He makes us members of His family. As members of God's family we are all related to each other and responsible for each other. Yet baptism is more than this. Through baptism we are attached to Christ. We become members of His body. Each baptized Christian becomes an extension of Christ. We become other Christs in the world. We become His eyes, His hands, His tongue, His feet. Christ has chosen to work in the world through us – the members of His body. It is our special responsibility as baptized Christians to let Christ be present wherever we ourselves are stationed in the world as baptized Christians.
St. Chrysostom writes, "For this reason we baptize children, although they have no sins ... in order to confer upon them sanctification, adoption, inheritance . . . that they may be members of Christ and become the abode of the Holy Spirit."
The baptismal font in the language of the Church Fathers is the Divine Womb whence we receive the second birth as children of God. Baptism is truly a birth. "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12,13). The baptismal font is not only a womb where we become "alive to God," but also a tomb where we become "dead to sin."
We believe that Christ died for our sins. To show that we, and not Christ, are worthy of death because of our sins, we are immersed in the baptismal font. The immersion in water symbolizes death, since a person cannot live long under water. Through baptism we share mysteriously in Christ's death. As St. Paul says, "We were buried therefore with him (Christ) by baptism unto death so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." The baptized person rises out of the baptismal font a new person, cleansed of every sin and promising, like St. Paul, to surrender his life to Christ, his Savior: "He died for all that they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:15). The triple immersion symbolizes the three days our Lord spent in the tomb as well as the Holy Trinity since the baptismal formula used in the Orthodox Church is: "The servant of God ... is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Baptism is our own personal Easter. When we are plunged under the waters of baptism, we are not only washed, we die to sin. The old sinful nature is drowned. When we rise from the waters, we rise to new life in Christ. We share in Christ's death and resurrection.
In early times Baptism and Confirmation were not administered in the church but in a separate edifice called the baptisterion (baptistery). Following anointment with holy chrism the newly baptized, wearing their white robes and carrying candles, were led by the clergy to the church for the celebration of the Eucharist. Here they would receive their first Communion.
This is the origin of the present procession of the priest accompanied by the sponsor holding the newly baptized infant, around the baptismal font just before the neophyte is given the Sacrament of Communion. The purpose of Baptism and Chrismation is expressed by this procession to the Eucharist. The door is now open to full and complete communion with God. During the procession the priest sings, ". . . as many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia" (Gal. 3:27).
In the words of Fr. Schmemann: "Thus baptism truly fulfills itself as procession to the Church and into the Eucharist: the participation in Christ's Pascha 'at the table, in His kingdom' " (Luke 22:15-16).
Baptism is God filling the emptiness in man with His life and presence.
In summary we may define Baptism as follows: It is God laying claim to you. St. Paul Says, "You are not your own, you are bought with a price, so glorify God in your body." God doesn't rent you. He buys you. He holds title to you. He owns you. Through baptism you become His child. And when God adopts you as His child, He does so for a purpose. He has a plan for you. You're saved/row sin. You're saved for service, for love, for good works, for enlarging the kingdom. You're saved into significance. Your life has real worth and meaning. "I know my sheep," said Jesus. "And nobody can pluck them out of my hand."
Baptism is an act of liberation, a paschal experience, an exodus, a passage through the Red Sea of sin and death to the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Baptism is the transition from the world that is under the power of the evil one to the world that has been redeemed by Christ.
Baptism is a regeneration, a new life. It makes us partakers of divine nature.
After baptism man is a living member of the Body of Christ. He is no longer mere man, but man transformed, divinized, newly begotten as God's own son or daughter. He carries within him the very life of God.
The effect of baptism according to St. John Chrysostom is "to be set free from sins, to reconcile God to man, to make man one with God, to open the eyes for souls to perceive the divine ray – to sum it up, to prepare for the life to come."
Baptism in the Orthodox Church is far more than for the remission of sins. The dominant theme of baptism is positive. As Nicholas Cabasilas, a 14th century Byzantine theologian, points out all the scriptural and traditional terms applied to baptism point to a positive meaning: "birth", "new birth", "clothing", "anointing", "gifts", "washing", "enlightening", "refashioning", "seal", etc.
The following words, addressed by the priest to the newly baptized, capture the essence of baptism:
"You have been justified and illuminated . . . You have been baptized; You have been
illuminated; You have been chrismated; You have been sanctified;
You have been washed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Because of Baptism, St. Gregory of Sinai could say to us who are baptized:
"Become what you already are, Find Him Who is already yours, Listen to Him Who never ceases speaking to you, Own Him Who already owns you".
THE SACRAMENT OF CHRISMATION OR CONFIRMATION
In the Orthodox Church the Sacrament of Confirmation is administered immediately following baptism as in the early Church. It is considered the fulfillment of baptism. Human nature purified by baptism is made ready to receive the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit. As Fr. Schmemann says, '"Confirmation is thus the personal Pentecost of man, his entrance into the life of the Holy Spirit ... his ordination as truly and fully man. . . His whole body is anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to the new life: 'the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,' says the priest as he anoints the newly baptized 'on the brow, and on the eyes, and the nostrils, and the lips, and on both ears, and the breast and on the hands, and the feet'. . . The whole man is now made the temple of God. . ."
The Greek word for Confirmation is "chrisma," which means anointing. The one anointed with "chrisma" becomes "christos," that is, the anointed one, which is the meaning of the name Christ. Thus, by this sacrament we are made Christians orfother Christs ^Chrismation is the "ordination of the laity." According to Orthodox belief every lay person is "ordained" into the priesthood of the laity by this sacrament; he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit to become "light", "salt", and "yeast" for Christ in this world.
Chrismation is a participation in the anointing of Christ by the Spirit after His Baptism (Cyril of Jerusalem).
As in baptism we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so in Chrismation we share in the anointing of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Chrismation is the fulfillment of baptism even as Pentecost is of Easter.
Chrismation is receiving the Holy Spirit Who will enable us to live the life of God into which we are born through baptism.
Just as the Eucharist is a personal Last Supper, so Chrismation is a personal Pentecost: the personal coming to man fof the third Personjof the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, as He came to the Apostles on Pentecost.
Chrismation is the newly baptized person's entrance into the new life in the Holy Spirit. It is the divine "wind." the ruah of God, invading our life, setting us ablaze with fire and love, filling us with hope and joy, making us instruments of His action in the world.
The Sacrament of Chrismation was administered in the apostolic era by two methods (1) thejaying on of hands and (2) by annointing (Acts 19:1-7 and I John 2:20). In the East the practice of administering this Sacrament by annointing prevailed. The oil of chrism is consecrated by bishops of autocephalous churches and administered locally by presbyters. Baptized Christians of other churches entering the Orthodox Church are usually received through Chrismation.
THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE OR CONFESSION
The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is a "new Baptism". It has also been called the Mystery of the Second Baptism since it involves the forgiveness of all sins committed after Baptism. Fr. Meyendorff writes: "Originally a public act, required from sinners who either had been officially excommunicated or had performed acts liable to excommunication, penance, gradually and especially after the fourth century, took the form of private confession, followed by a prayer of absolution pronounced by a priest. It then identified itself almost completely with the practice of private spiritual direction, especially widespread in monastic communities."
Not every sin requires the necessity of sacramental forgiveness since we are never completely without sin. The Church has regarded sacramental penance as necessary for grave sins, i.e., murder, apostasy, adultery and for those sins of disobedience which serve to separate us from God and the love of our fellow humans. Christians who live in communion with Christ are expected to avail themselves of sacramental penance periodically as a form of spiritual check-up, as a means of humbling themselves before God and in order to receive guidance in the spiritual life from their pastor.
Confession has never been viewed legalistically in the Eastern Church, i.e., as a way of sentencing and punishing guilt. On the contrary, the sinner is considered to be a prisoner of Satan and, as such, a morally sick person. Christ comes through the Sacrament of Penance to liberate and heal rather than to judge.
One can find in the Orthodox Church an important theology of tears. Just as in Baptism our sins are cleansed by water, so the sins committed after baptism are cleansed by water, i.e., tears of repentance. St. Symeon the New Theologian calls them the "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" and teaches that sins committed after baptism cannot be forgiven without tears. Thus St. John Climacus wrote: "Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away tears. Because baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, then few indeed would be saved."
There are two kinds of confession in the Orthodox Church: private confession by prayer and sacramental confession. Whereas our Roman Catholic brethren tend to hold to sacramental confession only, and our Protestant brethren to confession by private prayer only, the Orthodox Church, following the apostolic way, avoids both extremes. It holds that divine forgiveness may be received either by private prayer or by the Sacrament. In the case of a grave sin, confession by private prayer should be supplemented by sacramental confession. In case of uncertainty as to what constitutes a grave sin, one should consult one's priest. Sacramental confession before a priest even for lighter sins is a recommended practice in the Orthodox Church at least once a year. Whichever way of confession we choose, in any given situation, either private or sacramental, or both, must be followed by receiving Holy Communion since this is the sacrament by which our sins are forgiven and washed in the Precious Blood of Jesus.
The entire beauty and mystery of the Sacrament of Penance is expressed in the following exhortation which the priest addresses to the penitent in the Russian rite. It portrays the role of the priest in Confession as that of a witness rather than a judge. "Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives your confession; therefore, do not be ashamed or afraid, and hide nothing from me; but tell me without hesitation all the things that you have done, and so you will have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. See, his holy image is before us; and I am only a witness, bearing testimony before him of all the things you have to say to me. But if you hide anything from me, you will have greater sin. Take care, then, lest having come to a physician you depart unhealed."
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION
In the sixth chapter of John's Gospel Jesus said to His disciples:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world ... I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven, if anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:32-33; 48-51).
The disciples then turned to Jesus and said, "Lord, give us this bread always" (John 6:34).
Jesus complied with their request. He gave us the Bread of Life, Himself, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist:
"For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:55-56).
The Eucharist is a personal encounter with the living Christ. This is where we meet Him and invite Him into our soul.
The Eucharist has been called a nuptial encounter of the soul with her Lord, a marriage union between Christ and the soul. In the words of Cyril of Jerusalem: "Christ has given to the children of the bridal chamber the enjoyment of His body and His blood." Another ancient Christian writer, Theodoret, writes, "In eating the elements of the Bridegroom and drinking His blood, we accomplish a marriage union." The Eucharist, then, becomes the marriage relationship through which the Bridegroom, Christ, espouses the Church as His Bride, thus transforming a human community into the Church of God.
The Eucharist is a divine blood transfusion. God transfuses His own precious, sacred, royal and life-giving blood into our blood stream to give us new life, new strength and royal dignity. The Old Testament speaks of blood as life (Gen. 2:7; Lev. 17:11,14). In the New Testament the Eucharist becomes the way by which we receive the very life of God through the Precious Blood of His Son.
Someone said once, "I had been taught in Sunday School that 'God is everywhere.' But that was one of the things that made me angry. Everywhere was too vague. I wanted to find Him somewhere."
The God who is present everywhere is to be found somewhere in specific. "This is my body . . . This is my blood." When Jesus spoke these words He meant exactly what He said. The bread and the wine that are received at Communion are literally His Body and Blood. They are not merely symbols. For Jesus Himself said, "For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" (John 6:55). St. John Chrysostom writes, "What is in the chalice is the same as that which flowed from Christ's side. What is the bread? Christ's body." "... the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh,'' said Jesus (John 6:51).
Meditating on the Last Supper, some might say to themselves: Would that I were there with those eleven apostles in the presence of the Master that evening in the Upper Room! How I wish I could have heard from His lips the words, "This is my body . . . This is my blood . . . Take, eat . . . drink ..." Yet through the Eucharist we are there The same Master is present. The same bread. The same cup. The same sacrifice. The same Upper Room. The same Last Supper. In the words of Nicolai Gogol, the Eucharist is "the eternal repetition of the great act of love performed on Calvary."
The Eucharist is a making present again of the sacrifice of Christ in a mysterious manner. The Sacrifice of Christ is presented in the New Testament as something that happened once for all, that can never be repeated and to which nothing can be added. The Sacrifice of Jesus may be made present again to us in Holy Communion today so that we may partake of its benefits, but still as that which happened once for all. It is not a new sacrifice. For this reason it is called an "unbloody sacrifice." It is equally clear that the Eucharist in Orthodox worship is the remembering not only of the death of our Lord but also of His burial, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming as well.
St. Isaac the Syrian writes: "Blessed is he that has eaten of the Bread of love which is Jesus. While still in this world, he breathes the air of the resurrection, in which the righteous will delight after they rise from the dead."
Writing on the importance of the Eucharist, Nicholas Cabasilas says, "It is the completion of all the sacraments and not simply one of them. . . All human striving reaches here its ultimate goal. For in this sacrament we attain God Himself, and God Himself is made one with us in the most perfect of all unions. . . This is the final mystery: beyond this it is not possible to go, nor can anything be added to it."
St. Nilus writes, "It is impossible for the believer to be saved, to receive remission of sins and be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, unless in fear, faith and love he receives communion of the pure Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Jesus."
The Eastern Church has been willing to accept the mystery of the change that occurs in the elements of the bread and wine without trying to explain it with words such as "transubstantiation" as was done in the Western Church. As Paul Evdokimov said, "The East has too strong a sense of mystery to attempt to explain the Eucharist."
One of the most important points of the Orthodox liturgy comes with the priest's invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the bread and the wine.
Just as the Holy Spirit descended to the womb of Mary and made the body of Jesus from the flesh of the Virgin, so the same Spirit descends upon the bread and wine on the altar, transforming them into the Body and Blood of Jesus.
St. John of Damascus writes, "And now you ask, 'How does the bread become Christ's Body, and the wine and the water become Blood?' I tell you, the Holy Ghost comes and makes these Divine Mysteries ... to be Christ's Body and Blood."
The early Church Fathers never suggested that we not partake of Communion often because of personal unworthiness. To the contrary, one of the most ancient Christian documents, the Didache, says, "If anyone is holy, let him come; if he is not, let him repent (and come)."
We need to realize that no one is ever worthy to receive God within one's soul. It is not a matter of our worthiness but of God's grace. Communion is never a reward for holy living but always the gift of God's grace no matter how much we may have prepared. May we keep our sense of unworthiness so that it may keep leading us to the only One Who can make us worthy. The sense of unworthiness is just the right attitude with which to approach Communion, for it helps us accept the Eucharist as a completely free gift of God's supreme grace. An exaggerated sense of unworthiness needs to give way to humble gratitude for God's grace which accepts especially the unworthy to make them worthy. Is not the Eucharist Matthew's banquet all over again? To the horror of the "good" people, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners!
St. Nicodemus promoted frequent communion on Mr. Athos and in the Orthodox Church in general. In 1783 he published a booklet "On Frequent Communion". Although he was attacked by some, an official decree of the Synod of Constantinople (August, 1819) accepted his principle that the faithful should receive communion at every liturgy. This is now an official canon of the Church. So, let us "with the fear of God, with faith and love draw near" to receive the King of Kings in every liturgy. Every liturgy is Communion time. In the early Church not to receive communion at the liturgy was a sign that the individual was a lapsed member who was seeking readmission to the Church.
Ideally, preparation for Holy Communion is not something that is done hastily in a few days, or even weeks. The whole life of the Christian should be preparation for the Eucharist. We shall share some of the specific ways by which we may prepare:
1. St. Paul speaks of this when he writes, "... let a man examine himself and so eat of that bread and drink of that cup" (I Cor. 11:28). In a sense, self-examination is something that is practiced regularly in the life of the Christian as he prays daily, reads God's word devoutly and participates faithfully in the liturgy. He is constantly judging himself as Jesus speaks to him, pruning from his life the dead branches that bear no fruit. The purpose of self-examination is not to make a person consider himself '"worthy", but to bring him to an awareness of his unworthiness and lead him to repentance.
2. On the morning before going to the liturgy to receive Communion we do not eat or drink anything if our health allows. Just as one would not spoil his appetite by eating before a special meal, so we sharpen our spiritual appetite for Christ through such fasting. The general rule for fasting is that the more often one receives Holy Communion, the less one may fast. There can be some abstinence from meat the week before, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays. It is good to consult with one's priest as to the extent of one's fasting since it depends on the frequency of receiving the Sacrament. One thing we must remember is that there is no necessary connection between fasting and Communion. We must never allow an overemphasis on fasting to become a wall separating us from Christ Who wishes to come to us in every liturgy. Christianity is a relationship with a Person. We must never allow a self-righteous emphasis on so-called "rules of fasting" to destroy this all-important relationship. The Church Fathers keep emphasizing that true fasting is to abstain from sin and evil. They also suggest the more positive "fasting of love", i.e., to deny oneself of food in order to share that food with the hungry.
3. The Orthodox Prayer Book contains some very moving prayers written by the Church Fathers that are designed to be read before and after Communion. We may incorporate the reading of these prayers into our daily prayer life, reading one or two each day, morning and evening. All of these beautiful prayers contain the cry of humility, unworthiness, and penitence, as expressed by this sample:
". . . I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should enter under the roof of my soul. Yet inasmuch as You desire to live in me as the lover of men, I approach with boldness. You have commanded: let the doors be opened which You alone have made and You shall enter with Your love . . . You shall enter and enlighten my darkened reasoning. I believe that You will do this . . ."
4. One must always approach Jesus with a plea for mercy and forgiveness. It is sincere faith and repentance – not perfection – that make us worthy for frequent Communion. Although it is not necessary to go to Confession before each Communion, if we receive Communion regularly it is still necessary to seek forgiveness through prayer. The pre-Communion prayers of the Church are replete with pleas for forgiveness. If grave sins have been committed, one should avail oneself also of the Sacrament of Confession.
5. Forgiveness from those we have hurt should be sought before Communion. We must approach the Holy Table "with the fear of God (filial reverence), with faith and with LOVE." We are bound to share with others the forgiving love we receive from Jesus. Love is the one thing we must pray for before coming to the Holy Table. No hostilities or grudges or dissension must be brought there. There must be penitence for lack of love. Thus, we prepare for Communion with self-examination, fasting, prayer, repentance and forgiveness.
The most wonderful thing about man is that he was created to contain God. This is the miracle of miracles! Each one of us was made to be a temple of God, a golden chalice, a tabernacle of God's presence. The infinitely great God Who revealed Himself in Jesus as the great God of love waits to take up residence in us. He stands at the door of our soul and knocks until we hear His voice and His knock to open and let Him come in to sup with us in the heavenly banquet. He will not rest until He has invaded our heart and made it His throne. If we allow Him to enter regularly through the Eucharist, He will transubstantiate and change our lives into the beautiful life of Jesus. "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY MATRIMONY
For the Orthodox Christian, marriage is a sacrament. It is God blessing our love. "Without Me you can do nothing," said Jesus. By itself, without God, true love is impossible. It cannot be what it was created to be. With God, love is perfected, completed, transfigured, sanctified, blessed, resurrected, and ultimately saved. This does not mean that having a Church wedding will automatically guarantee a successful marriage. But it does mean that the opportunity is now given in Christ for the completion and the perfection of our love. It means that we have invited the Lord Jesus to enter this all-important relationship to redeem it, to give us the grace and the power to be patient when it is so easy to be impatient; to be loving when it is so easy to be unloving; to be forgiving when it is so easy to be unforgiving; to be kind when it is so easy to be insulting; to be understanding when it is so easy to be critical. For all this we need His grace, His presence, His love and His power.
True love entails a life-long commitment to the person loved. Real love never says, "I'll love you for a day or a month or a year or ten years." True love is forever. One of the purposes of the marriage ceremony is to acknowledge publicly this life-long commitment. The couple stands before God and the world, as represented by the friends invited to the ceremony, to pledge their commitment to each other not "until some other prettier face comes along" but "until death do us part." "What God has brought together let no man tear asunder," said Jesus. Two things are done during the Orthodox wedding ceremony to express the lifelong commitment of love. The couple is asked to clasp their right hands and then to drink wine from the same cup, symbolizing the intimate cementing of their lives through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Andre Maurois expressed beautifully the commitment of true love when he wrote, "I bind myself for life; I have chosen; from now on my aim will be not to search for someone who will please me, but to please the one I have chosen."
It is our faith that all of the sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ. But marriage is as old as the human race. It goes all the way back to creation. It was founded by the Creator Himself when He said, "It is not good for man to be alone." (Gen. 2:18). Then He created woman, and blessing them, said, "Increase and multiply and fill the earth." Jesus confirmed these words of the Creator in Genesis when he said, "Have you not read that He Who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matt. 19:4-6. quoting Genesis 1:27, 2:24).
Marriage is not merely a social and civil arrangement for the convenience of two people. It is undertaken in the presence of God before His holy altar. It is not simply matrimony but "holy" matrimony. It is the oldest of God's institutions. As a sacrament, it is not an estate instituted of man but of God. It is not regulated by man's commandments but by God's.
After God created the first couple, we read that He "blessed them, and said unto them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth' " (Gen. 1:28). Just as God blessed that first marriage, so He blesses ours today when we stand before His holy altar. This is why marriage is a sacrament in the Orthodox Church. It is a way by which Christ comes to us to bless us. The candles we hold during the wedding ceremony are like the oil lamps of the five wise maidens in the New Testament. They kept the lamps burning to greet the bridegroom as he came in the middle of the night. Another Bridegroom – Christ – comes to bless us during (he Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The burning candles we hold signify our spiritual eagerness to receive Him.
St. Paul calls marriage a mysterion or mystery. This is the same word that is used for sacrament in Greek: mystery. "This is a great mystery: but I speak of Christ and the Church" (Eph. 5:32). Marriage was considered a mysterion or sacrament in the early Church. Tertullian, writing in the second century, tells us that a Christian couple who desired to be married applied for a civil license and then went to Church on Sunday to receive Communion during the liturgy and the blessing of the bishop or priest. Thus the civil agreement became also a sacrament. After the blessing, their names, Tertullian tells us, were "inscribed in heaven" and not just in a government "registry." Their marriage was sealed in Christ and became an eternal union with Him. St. Ignatius (c. 100 A.D.) corroborates what Tertullian writes when he says, "Those who get married must unite with the knowledge of the bishop, so that marriage may be according to the Lord, and not by human desire."
When Scripture says that "the two shall become one", the oneness is not only physical. It implies a total unity: one spirit, one heart, one mind. Such total oneness is made possible by God through the Eucharist. He comes to dwell in both husband and wife making them truly "one flesh". This is why originally marriages were blessed during the Divine Liturgy where both bride and groom received Communion and became truly one in Christ. Homer wrote somewhere in "Odyssey", "There is nothing mightier or nobler than when a man and wife an of one heart and mind in the home." This kind of oneness can come only from God.
Is birth control allowed according to Orthodox doctrine? Two eminent Orthodox theologians share their views with us on this subject. The well-know Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Meyendorff, writes, "Straight condemnation of birth control . . . has never been endorsed by the Orthodox Church as a whole, even if, at times, local Church authorities may have issued statements on the matter identical to that of the Pope. In any case, it has never been the Church's practice to give moral guidance by issuing standard formulas claiming universal validity on questions which actually require a personal act of conscience. . . The question of birth control . . . can only be solved by individual Christian couples. They can make the right decision only if they accept their Christian commitment with ultimate seriousness ... if they realize that children are a great joy and a gift of God, if their love is not a selfish and egotistic one, if they remember that love reduced to sexual pleasure is not true love. . . In any case, the advice of a good father confessor could help much in taking the right 'first step' in married life."
Fr. Stanley Harakas, Professor of Orthodox Ethics at Holy Cross Seminary, writes, "In the Orthodox Church, the purposes of marriage are numerous. High on the list is the procreation of children. The couple is understood to be co-workers with God not only in the perpetuation of human life through the conception, birth and physical care of children, but also in the more profound sense of the spiritual nurture of new members of God's kingdom. That is why birth control methods which could frustrate this purpose of marriage deliberately are not approved by the Orthodox Church. But there are other purposes to marriage besides this. The emphasis on mutual support, and aid assistance and mutual fulfillment is strongly made by the Orthodox. . . That is why many Orthodox theologians believe that Birth Control methods may be used by Orthodox Christian couples when the other purposes of marriage are also respected."
CHURCH BLESSING NECESSARY
An Orthodox Christian must seek the blessing and grace of Christ for his/her marriage through the Church. For example, the Guidelines on Holy Matrimony of the Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America state: "An Orthodox Christian who excludes his marriage from this gracious union with Christ in the Church certainly excludes himself from the communion of the Church." Fr. Stanley Harakas writes, "Orthodox Christians who have not been married in the Church and have been married civilly, or by a clergyman of another Church or Faith, should have their union sanctified in Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the Orthodox Church. Otherwise they are not in good standing with their Church and may not receive Holy Communion and other sacraments of the Church". "A devout Orthodox Christian will not exclude Christ from such a vital and important area of life as marriage. For, in the words of the Psalmist, "Unless the Lord build the house, they who labor, labor in vain".
The view of the Orthodox Church on divorce is stated succinctly by Fr. Kallistos Ware:
"The Orthodox Chruch permits divorce and remarriage, quoting as its authority the text of Matthew XIX, 9, where our Lord says, ‘If a man divorces his wife, for any cause other than unchastity, and marries another, he commits adultery’. Since Christ also allowed an exception to His general ruling about the indissolubility of marriage, the Orthodox Church also is willing to allow an exception. Certainly, Orthodoxy regards the marriage bonds as in principle lifelong and indissoluble, and it condemns the breakdown of marriage as a sin and an evil. But while condemning the sin, the Church still desires to help the sinners and to allow them a second chance. When, therefore, a marriage has entirely ceased to be a reality, the Orthodox Church does not insist on the preservation of a legal fiction. Divorce is seen as an exceptional but necessary concession to human sin; it is an act of oikonomia (economy or dispensation) and philanthropia (loving kindness). . . In theory the Canons only permit divorce in cases of adultery, but in practice it is sometimes granted for other reasons as well. . . One point must be clearly understood: from the point of view of Orthodox theology a divorce granted by the State in the civil courts is not sufficient. Remarriage in Church is only possible if the Church authorities have themselves granted a divorce."
There survives a medallion from a Byzantine golden marriage belt dating back to the sixth century. On this medallion Christ stands between the bride and the groom as they fondly gaze at each other. He joins their right hands in marriage while above their heads are two small crosses with the inscription: "From God, concord, grace (and health)." This beautiful medallion expresses the meaning of marriage according to Orthodox theology. It is a marriage that is sealed in the Lord with a love that comes ultimately from the splendor of God. St. Paul, drawing deeply from the wells of Christ, described it: "Love is patient and kind. . . It hopes, believes, endures all things. . . Love never ends. . ." It holds "till death us do part." And continues forever!
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY UNCTION
Jesus gave His apostles the same power He had to heal diseases. We read in Luke 9:1-2, ". . . He gave them power and authority over all demons, with the power to heal diseases. And he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. . ." We read in Mark 6:13 that the apostles "anointed many sick persons with oil, and healed them."
From the beginning the apostles used the power Jesus had given them over sickness. They anointed the sick with oil to heal the body and forgive sins. We read in James 5:12-15:
"Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."
Holy Unction is one of the sacraments of the Church through which the healing power of Jesus is mediated to us today. The visible sign of Unction is oil.
Always used for healing in the ancient world, the oil is blessed by the Holy Spirit to bring us God's healing grace. As we come to be anointed with this consecrated oil, we bring with us our "prayer of faith", i.e., a living, personal faith that when we are anointed with this oil, the hand of Christ will touch us with His healing power. God speaks to us through the fourteen Scripture readings that are part of this Sacrament (seven Epistle and seven Gospel readings). He speaks to increase our faith in His power to heal. The fact that the presence of seven priests is recommended (but not required) for the celebration of this sacrament gives expression to our faith that the whole Church is present and praying for the sick person together with relatives and friends.
Through the Sacrament of Holy Unction, every Church becomes a healing shrine pervaded by the prayers of the clergy and the faithful, and hallowed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Here we find our faith fortified and sustained as we grow in grace and understanding. Here we find the power and the presence of the Healing Christ.
During Holy Week when we are reminded how much God suffered on the cross to save our souls, we are reminded that God cares for our bodies also. This is why on Holy Wednesday evening every year the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates this Sacrament of healing. She invites us to come forth with faith to be touched by God's love through this sacrament of healing.
"The prayer of faith will save the sick," writes St. James. God's saving of the sick may include healing but not in every case. God does not always promise healing, but, if faith is exercised, God does always promise salvation. Sickness is often used by God to create faith and to strengthen it. Sickness may lead to panic and despair, but it can also lead to faith. And if, through sickness, one is led to faith, then that faith leads to the saving of the person.
Speaking on this aspect of Unction, Fr. John Meyendorff writes: "Healing is requested only in a framework of repentance and spiritual salvation, and not as an end in itself. Whatever the outcome of the disease, the anointing symbolized divine pardon and liberation from the vicious cycle of sin, suffering and death, in which fallen humanity is held captive. Compassionate to human suffering, assembled together to pray for its suffering member, the Church through its presbyters asks for relief, forgiveness, and eternal freedom. This is the meaning of holy unction."
The Sacrament of Anointing is a sacrament for the body. Many pagans looked upon the body as something evil. They considered it a prison in which the soul was kept a prisoner. Their whole philosophy of salvation centered in helping the soul free itself from the chains of the body through extreme fasting and self-mortification.
Christianity, on the other hand, looked upon the body not as a PRISON but as a TEMPLE OF GOD. "Know ye not that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit," writes St. Paul.
The body is destined not for the earth: "dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return;" it is destined for heaven. When we see Christ ascending into heaven with His physical body, we see humanity – ourselves – ascending there with Him. The body that dies is buried in a grave, but only temporarily. One day God will resurrect the body and re-unite it with the soul so that both soul and body may spend eternity together.
C. S. Lewis once said. "Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body – which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given us in Heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness, our beauty, and our energy."
The Sacrament of Anointing is thus an expression of God's love for the body which He created and has destined for eternity.
Unction should remind us that as members of Christ's Church we are members of a healing fellowship. We are healed in order to bring healing to others. We lire forgiven in order to bring forgiveness to others. We are loved in order to love others. We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. We are to be channels of God's healing in the world.
Like the Good Samaritan, we should never hesitate to stop on the road of life to pour the healing oil of God's love and forgiveness on our neighbor lying neglected and abandoned by the roadside. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then that kind of healing should be happening all the time. Whoever touches the Church, even in a tenuous way, should discover that he has touched the source of healing. For, the healing that is given us through Unction and prayer is given to us for the sake of all our neighbors in the world.
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY ORDERS
Just as there were apostles at the time of Jesus, so we have their successors today. We use different names for them. Instead of apostles, we call them deacons, priests (or presbyters) and bishops. But they continue the work of the apostles.
You may recall how Jesus chose the apostles to be His co-workers:
"In these days He went out into the hills to pray; and all night He continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, He called His disciples, and chose from the twelve, whom He called apostles. . ." (Luke 6:12-13).
Jesus ordained the apostles to be His co-workers when He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them:
"Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you'. And when He had said this. He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained' " (John 20:21-23).
We see from the above verses that the Sacrament of Ordination was instituted by Jesus Himself after His resurrection.
In the book of Acts we note that the first seven deacons were ordained by the twelve Apostles. The seven candidates were "set before the apostles, and when they had prayed, the apostles laid their hands upon them" (Acts 6:6). When presbyters or priests were ordained we read, "Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them (Barnabas and Saul) and sent them off" (Acts 13:3). Speaking of his ordination to the office of bishop, the Apostle Paul said to Timothy: "I beseech you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim. 1:6-7).
Jesus chose special persons to continue the work of the Church through the ages: to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to govern the Church. As this ministry was to endure permanently, it needed to be transferable from one person to another. This was provided for by Jesus in the Sacrament of Ordination through which, by the laying on of hands and prayer, the special grace of God is bestowed on those Selected to serve as Christ's Apostles. We recall that just before Pentecost, Judas was replaced by Matthias so that the number of Apostles was restored to twelve (Acts 1:23-26). That the Apostles kept ordaining others to carry on their work is amply testified by the Church Fathers in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose and others.
Ordination may be defined as the sacrament by which through the laying on of hands of a bishop, with prayer, the grace of the Holy Spirit comes upon the candidate for Orders sanctifying him and making him a worthy minister (leitour-gos) of the Church, elevating him to one of three orders of ministry, (bishop, priest or deacon) empowering him to be a shepherd and minister of Christ, to teach His Word, to administer the sacraments, to guide God's people to salvation, and to govern His Church. Since the office of bishop is collegial, his ordination is performed by a college of three, or at least two, bishops.
Women are not eligible for Holy Orders in the Orthodox Church in keeping with Sacred Tradition and the example established by Jesus and His apostles. This practice conforms with the traditional Orthodox belief that men and women were designed by God to serve Him in different capacities.
Christ ordained the first apostles. They in turn ordained others to succeed them as bishops, priests and deacons. Each generation of bishops was succeeded by another down to the present. The succession can be traced directly back to the Apostles and Christ. This continuity of descent is called Apostolic Succession. It is important because it maintains a direct and unbroken historical link with the original Church established by Christ and the Apostles. It guarantees the unbroken continuity of the Church in origin as well as in doctrine with the early Apostles. It proves historically that the Church is authentically the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ.
THE LAYMAN IN ORTHODOX THEOLOGY
To help you understand your role as laypeople in the Orthodox Church, let me summarize a few main points.
1. There is not just one priesthood. There is the "royal priesthood" of all the baptized. This is the general priesthood of all the baptized and chrismated believers. Then there is the special priesthood of the ordained clergy. It is unfortunate that a lay person has come to mean non-professional in whatever field. It is assumed that the important work in any field is done not by the layman but by the professional.
This is a far cry from the meaning of the word layman in the early Church. Coming from the word laos which means people, it refers to the people of God. the Israelites, chosen and sanctified by God Himself as His people to serve Him in a special way. Later on, in the New Testament, the Church becomes the new Israel, the new people of God – again, called by God to serve Him in a special way.
In the practice of the Orthodox Church each Christian is ordained into the laity through Baptism and Chrismation. Whereas Baptism restores in us the image of God, obscured by sin, Chrismation gives us the power to be Christians, responsible participants in the work of the Church. It ordains us to serve and work for the Lord as His people in the world today.
Thus, the word lay or laikos is given a highly positive meaning. Moses said In the people of the covenant: "You are a holy people to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people of his own possession, out of all the people that are on the face of the earth." St. Paul calls all baptized Christians "fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Eph. 2:1). Addressing himself to the early Christians, St. Peter said, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people; once you had not received mercy, but now, you have received mercy" (I Peter 2:9-10). Lay people have a high calling in the Orthodox Church. If they are members of St. Nicholas Church or St. George Church, St. Peter says, they are "members of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." This is the Orthodox layman's identity; this is who he is. Having defined identity. St. Peter proceeds to give the layman his job description: to "delclare the wonderful deeds of him who called yuu out of the darkness into his marvellous light."
The place of the layman in the Orthodox Church is brought out in the liturgy. The very word leitourgia means a common, corporate action in which all those who are present are active participants. The prayers of the liturgy are all in the plural "we". The priest calls upon the people to pray: "let us beseech the Lord", "let us commit ourselves unto the Lord". Thus, it is not just the priest or just the people but the entire Church, the one Body of Christ, that performs the liturgy.
Fr. Schmemann finds a wonderful illustration of the co-celebration of the lilurpy by priest and laity in the word Amen: ". . . it is a crucial word. No prayer, uu sacrifice, no blessing is ever given in the Church without being sanctioned by Amen which menus an approval, agreement, participation. To say Amen to anything means that 1 make it mine, that I give my consent to it. . . And Amen is indeed the word of the laity in the Church, expressing the function of the laity as the People of God, which freely and joyfully accepts the Divine offer, sanctions it with its consent. There is really no service, no liturgy without the Amen of those who have been ordained to serve God as community, as Church."
Before we conclude this section on the theology of the layman in the Orthodox Church, let us mention just briefly a few other ways by which lay people share in the priesthood. When the priest blesses the congregation saying, "Peace be with you," the congregation participates by returning the blessing saying, "And with your spirit." The lay person is allowed to baptize and carry Communion to the sick in cases of emergency. In Russia today where the priest cannot take the Sacrament to the dying without governmental approval, the laity are smuggling the Sacrament into hospitals inside sandwiches. When the bishops of the Church decide on a matter of doctrine in an ecumenical council, their decision is ratified and approved by the conscience of the Church, the lay people. Mario Rinvolucri writes in his book "Anatomy of A Church," "In Orthodoxy the people are considered to be the ultimate defensores fidei (defenders of the faith). If they are not prepared for reunion by a gradual process of . . . enlightenment it will be reunion only on paper, at least as far as the Greek countryside is concerned." This is how closely the Orthodox laity are called upon to share in the priesthood. In summary we may say that the priest is the coach and the lay people are the members of the team. To do the work of Christ, they must work together closely.
Clergymen are addressed as "Father" in the Orthodox Church since they are the ones through whom we receive our spiritual birth in Christ through baptism. Bishops are addressed as "Your Grace." They oversee the sacramental and educational life of Christians within a specific geographical area known as a diocese. The secular affairs of local parishes are governed by a parish council elected by the congregation. The title "Father" expresses the attitude of the faithful toward the role of the priest. He is a spiritual counselor who is there to serve, to lead, to guide, to counsel, to sanctify the Christian in his pilgrimage through this life to eternity.
1. Every sacrament puts us in touch with Christ and applies to us the power of the Cross and Resurrection. They are ways by which we come into intimate personal contact with Jesus today.
2. Theologically speaking, a sacrament is a divine rite instituted by Christ or His apostles which through visible signs conveys to us the hidden grace of God.
3. If a sacrament happens whenever God's grace is mediated to us through matter, then there is no limit to the number of sacraments; the entire universe becomes a sacrament through which we see the presence of the invisible God.
4. Through the sacraments God shares His life with us, redeems us from sin and death, bestows on us the glory of immortality and makes the Kingdom of God accessible to us here and now.
5. Participation in the sacraments must not be mechanical. We need to approach Jesus in the sacraments with a warm inner attitude of faith, love, obedience and deep penitence for our sins.
6. Through baptism Christ Leads us through the Red Sea of sin and death to the glorious freedom of the children of God; He calls us His own sons and daughters, makes us heirs of His eternal kingdom, takes us in as members of His royal family, and makes us "partakers of divine nature." Baptism is our personal Master through which we die with Christ to sin and rise with Him to the new life.
7. Confirmation or Chrismation, administered at baptism, is our personal Pentecost. Purified by baptism, we receive the manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit.
8. The Sacrament of Penance or Confession is a "new baptism" since it involves the forgiveness of all sins committed after baptism. It is the sacrament by which Christ comes to us today to liberate and heal rather than to judge. We need (o remember that there are two kinds of confession in the Orthodox Church: private confession by prayer (to be practiced daily) and sacramental confession before the priest (to be practiced at least yearly and as often as one commits a serious sin).
9. The Sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is the sacrament by which Christ unites Himself with us today. He comes to transubstantiate and change our lives into His beautiful life: "I live, not yet I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20).
10. Through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony Christ blesses the marriage of His children and cements it together with His special love and grace.
11. Through the Sacrament of Holy Unction Christ continues His ministry of healing through the prayers of the presbyters and the anointing of oil.
12. Christ continues to select apostles for His Church today; to authorize and empower them for this ministry through the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Ordination).
What We Believe About the Bible
When Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, was asked some time ago whether he was an atheist he replied, "No, because I do not deny the existence of God; I merely say that He is absent". Heidegger's remark describes how many people feel today. They do not deny that God exists. But they live with little sense of His presence. God is absent from their experience, from their lives.
The sense of God's absence is not new. Thousands of years ago the prophet Amos spoke of God hiding Himself. He warned:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it."
Job's famous struggle was basically a search for God who seemed reluctant to make a stage appearance for him. "O that I knew where I might find Him! That I might come even to His seat," he cried.
DOES GOD HIDE?
Does God hide? St. John Chrysostom answered this question once. How can He Who is the Light of the World possibly hide? Yet, he said, even though the sun shines and is everywhere present it is the easiest thing in the world for man to shut out the rays of the sun and create darkness. All he has to do is to close his eyelids and he is in complete darkness.
God is not absent. Rather it is man who does not want God around. It is man who is absent from God. There are several reasons for this. One is apathy. People have no time for God. They are too busy with other things. Henri Nouwen writes, "Our lives might be filled with many events – so many events that we often wonder how we can get it all done – but at the same time we might feel very unfulfilled, and wonder if anything is happening which is worth living for. Being filled yet unfulfilled, being busy yet bored, being involved yet lonely, these are the symptoms of the absurd life, the life in whish we are no longer hearing the voice of the One Who created us and who keeps calling us to a new life in Him." 1 God is absent because there is little desire on the part of people to have Him present. Time and time again the Bible insists that only those who seek God find God. He doesn't come where He is not wanted. He forces no one. He stands at the door and knocks waiting for us to open.
Another reason man does not want God around is sin. Sin is not comfortable in the presence of God. This is why Adam fled God's presence after he had sinned. St. John expressed this well when he wrote, "For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:20).
But God's absence does not mean that God is not interested. He may be absent because man does not want Him around, but He is forever waiting to be found. There is an old story about a boy who was playing hide-and-seek with his friends. He was thrilled when it came his turn to hide. But while he was hiding, the other boys lost interest and went off. The boy was heart-broken. His grandfather found him sobbing and said, "Don't weep because your friends didn't come to find you. Perhaps you can learn from this disappointment that God too is waiting to be found and men have gone off in search of other things."
If God is absent from many people today, it is because of our apathy, our pride, our sin, our moral indifference. But God is still waiting – in the quietness, in the shadow – waiting to be found. Not just waiting but actively seeking us in so many ways as the shepherd seeks the lost sheep. As the Hound of Heaven He never gives up His search for man.
Scribbled on the wall of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, during the violence and despair of World War II was this profound confession of faith:
"I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining;
I believe in love, even when I feel it not;
I believe in God, even when He is silent".
But God is not silent unless we want Him to be. When God seems siient, it is because He has already spoken and there is nothing else to add. Of old He spoke through the prophets. In these last days He has spoken supremely in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. He continues to speak to each of us today.
IF ONLY I COULD HEAR HIM
There are people who say, "If I had the opportunity to hear God speak in person, I would run on my bare feet to the ends of the earth to hear Him." But God is present here and now and He is speaking to each of us personally. We do not have to travel to the ends of the earth to hear Him. He speaks to us all the time in and through His Word, the Holy Bible. What is the Bible but the Word of God speaking to us every Sunday in the liturgy and every day at home. It is God's Word just as surely as if God Himself were speaking to us in person.
St. Chrysostom writes, "As when God became man in Bethlehem the eternal Word became flesh, so in the Bible the glory of God veils itself in the fleshly garment of human thought and human language," God 1m speaking!
Whenever I pick up the Bible to rend. I need lo say to myself, "God is now speaking to me." He speaks not in thunder and lightning as He spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. He speaks to us as Jesus spoke to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. He sat down with them on a lovely hilltop and spoke to them personally the words of life.
As Dr. Pius Parsch wrote. "The Bible is the living, actual word of God – to me and to you. When you are reading the Bible, you are not just rending something which God spoke (to others) in the dim and distant past, God is speaking to you now. Bible reading is a conversation with God; we are actually in contact with Him, and how greatly we ought to prize that fact! When you say your prayers you are speaking to God; when you read the Bible God is speaking to you – not as a stern judge but as a loving Father". 1 We must ever remember that more than a lawgiver God is lifegiver. That life comes to us through word and sacrament.
God speaks! Do we listen? Do we read? Every day every daily newspaper in the country has a horoscope. Millions look to astrology through the horoscope for daily guidance. Avidly, they study the position of the stars seeking to find in them the answers to their problems. All along, the Word of God is present in every home, in every hotel room. Yet, if it remains a closed book, is it a wonder that for many people today God is so absent that they turn to the stars for guidance.
God doesn't have to be absent. In fact, He doesn't want to be absent – not He who took the name EMMANUEL: God with us. Do you remember what it was that helped American P.O.W.'s survive those terrible years in North Vietnamese prisons? It was the Bible. They exchanged Scripture verses – secretly whispering them to one another, writing them on toilet paper, and tapping them out in Morse code. The Bible filled them with the assurance of God's presence, and they were able to survive a confinement that otherwise might have destroyed them mentally, physically, and spiritually.
When under brutal mental torture, they found that the only way that could prevent a breakdown was by feeding their minds on God's promises which they had hidden in then minds and hearts.
Jesus said in John 15:22, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin". God has come in Christ. He has spoken to us. He has given us His word. He holds us responsible for that word even if we have not read it, for He has placed it in our hands.
WHAT IS THE BIBLE
A person tells of being on a cruise. After being at sea for many days, he had still not met the captain. But one day as he was walking on the deck, he suddenly heard on the intercom, "This is your captain speaking."
His mind turned immediately to another ship that we are all riding on, the ship we call Planet Earth. We are spinning through space at an incredible rate of speed, orbiting through the universe. But we, too, have a Captain. And whenever we pick up His Book, the Holy Bible, and read, we are hearing the voice of the Master of this universe saying to us, "This is your Captain speaking." When we accept His words by faith and live by them, miracles begin to happen. Life changes. It is transformed. The Epistle to the Hebrews describes God's word as, ". . . living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit . . . and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:11-12). St. Basil compares the words of the gospel to "arrows sharpened by the power of the Holy Spirit falling in the hearts of those who were at some time enemies of the king, drawing them to a love of truth, drawing them to the Lord, so that they who were enemies to God are reconciled to Him. . .” . St. Augustine's life was completely transformed when he heard the Captain's voice saying through a child, "Take and read!" Opening to Romans 12:12-14, he read words that completely reversed the direction of his life.
A BLUEPRINT FOR UFE
The Bible is God saying, "This is your Captain speaking." It is also a blueprint for life. An architect said to his client one day, "These are the plans for a large public building. They are the finest plans ever drawn in this office." Then he opened a desk drawer and took out a copy of the New Testament. "We draw plans for buildings," he continued, "but this little book does something more important. It draws the plan of a good and happy life. You may have read it before, I know, but read it again. You will find God's blueprint for a beautiful life."
A LOVE LETTER
In addition to being the Captain's voice and a blueprint for your life, the Bible is a personal love letter from God to you. A great Christian scholar said once, "I just cannot read the Gospel story without knowing that I am being sought out in love . . . and being offered life's highest prize."
A young boy, eager to communicate with just anyone outside the walls of his orphanage, wrote the following words on a slip of paper: "To anyone who finds this, I love you." The wind blew the paper out beyond the walls to the world. In like manner, the Bible is God's love letter to you and me. Its message is: "To anyone who reads this, I love you". Signed: "J. C."
The Bible is more than a love letter, it is a love letter that contains a proposal for marriage from God to you. He wishes to enter into the most intimate possible relationship of love with you. He delivers the proposal to you through the Bible. He expects a response. It is the most important response you will ever make. Will you say "Yes" or "No" to your Creator, your Savior, your God? Your eternal destiny depends on that response.
When Elizabeth Barrett became the wife of Robert Browning, her parents disowned her because they disapproved of the marriage. The daughter, however, wrote almost every week, telling them that she loved them and longed for a reconciliation. After 10 years she received a huge box in the mail that contained all the letters she had sent. Not one had been opened! Although these "love letters" have become an invaluable part of classical English literature, it's really pathetic to think that they were never read by Elizabeth Barrett's parents. Had they looked at just one, the broken relationship with their daughter might have been healed.
The Bible is the box containing all of God's love letters to us. They express His earnest longing for reconciliation, fellowship and union with us. They were not written to remain unopened. So take, open, read and discover God!
There are many ways of saying "I love you." We can say it in poetry. We can say it in stone. We can say it in music. God said it on the Cross. He delivers the message – the Good News – to us in the Bible. As someone so aptly said, "God has written His heart out on paper."
The Bible has also been described as a Father's letter to His children who are living away from home in a distant land. Imagine how children living in a far distant land would treasure such a letter from their father; how much they would be comforted, consoled and strengthened by the father's words.
As often as we open and read the Holy Scriptures we are united with Christ. Dr. Pius Parsch writes:
"... like His holy Mother (we) bear the word of God within us. Think how carefully Mary wrapped her divine Child in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. Think how tenderly she nursed her Babe and looked after Him. We must do the same with every word of Scripture, as though it were the divine Child Himself. It is with a mother's care and love that we must read the sacred Scriptures."
The liturgy itself is nothing but a recapitulation, a true and living making present again of the events of the Bible. To participate fully in the liturgy is to immerse oneself in the Holy Scriptures. The hymns, the architecture, the icons, the prayers, the readings all serve to convey to us the living message of the Bible.
The Bible is the cradle in which we find Christ today. It is a mirror in which we see ourselves as we are, fallen in sin; and as we can become by the power of God's grace: children of God, heirs of His everlasting kingdom, partakers of divine nature.
"Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is my future beyond this life?" It is to these fundamental questions that the Bible addresses itself. It speaks as no other book can to the heart and needs of man. It speaks with authority. "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of God abides forever" (Isaiah).
The central actor of the Bible is not Eve, the first sinner; nor David, the adulterer; nor Solomon, the polygamist; nor Judas, the betrayer; nor Pilate, the crucifier; nor Peter, the denier; nor Paul, the persecutor turned preacher. The center of the Bible is Jesus. Just as in England almost every road from the smallest village is designed to lead to the heart of London, so in the Bible every verse leads directly or indirectly to Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. The Apostle John writes, "These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
A MINIATURE LIBRARY
The Bible is a miniature library containing all sorts of writing. It contains poetry, prayers, hymns, love songs, riddles, fables, allegories, historical narration, folklore, biographies, prophecies, letters, etc. Each biblical author used the type of literature, or literary form, that best suited his purpose. Each literary form must be interpreted properly if the author is to be understood.
For example, a visitor to earth from another planet might read a newspaper and consider everything in it equally true – news columns, ads, comics, letters to the editor, etc. – whereas we know that each style of writing must be interpreted differently. When, for example, the 114th Psalm says, "The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs," one has to be foolish to take that literally.
NOT A BOOK OF SCIENCE
The Bible is not a book of science. Its purpose is not to convey historical or scientific facts. God has other ways of letting us in on some of the secrets of the universe, i.e., geology, biology, astronomy, etc. Behind every science the faithful Christian sees God at work in the world. The biblical writers thought the world was flat, but that was before God used Copernicus and the space age to show us that the world is round.
The purpose of the Bible is to teach not science but theology, to reveal God and His will to us. The whirling planets don't tell us that God loves us. It is in the Bible that we find the promise and the record of His love. "God spoke to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1). The Bible is inerrant (without error) when it speaks to us of God, of His will for us, and the way of salvation. It is not inerrant when it speaks of geology or biology. Its purpose is to tell us who created the world (theology) not how the world was created (geology).
Archimandrite Sophrony tells the story of a professor of astronomy who asked a priest among his students:
"What do your Scriptures say about cosmic space and its myriad stars?"
Instead of giving a direct answer the priest in turn posed a question:
"Tell me, Professor," he said, "do you think science will invent still more powerful telescopes to see even farther into space?"
"Of course, progress is possible and science will always be perfecting apparatus for exploring outer space," replied the astronomer.
"There is hope, then, that one day you will have telescopes that can show all there is in the cosmos, down to the last detail?"
"That would be impossible – the cosmos is infinite," replied the scientist.
"So there is a limit to science?"
"Yes, in a sense there is."
"Well, Professor," said the priest, "where your science comes to a full stop, ours begins, and that is what Scriptures are all about."
CONTINUITY OF THOUGHT
Even though many human authors writing independently of each other over a period of many centuries were involved in the writing of the many books of the Bible, the divine Author, the Holy Spirit, is the same. Under His guidance the books of Holy Scripture do not contradict each other but supplement and explain each other.
For example, in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we see the creation of the earth. In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, we are offered a preview of the transfiguration of the earth.
In Genesis: Satan's first rebellion; in Revelation his last.
In Genesis: the entrance of sin; in Revelation the end of sin.
In Genesis: death enters; in Revelation death exits.
In Genesis: man loses dominion over creation; in Revelation man's dominion is regained.
One of the marvels of the Bible is that even though it was written by many human authors over a period of a thousand years, its divine author, the Holy Spirit, keeps developing and maintaining throughout the common themes just mentioned. Its continuity of thought makes it easier for us to understand.