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The Sacraments
From the Orthodox Study Bible

1. Baptism
What is Baptism? Simply put, baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection in union with Jesus Christ. It is a rite of passage, given by Christ to the Church, as an entrance into the Kingdom of God and eternal life.

The Apostle Paul describes the promise of God in this “mystery,” as most Orthodox call it, most succinctly when he writes, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). To baptize (Gr. baptize) literally means to immerse, to put into. Historically, the Orthodox Church has baptized by triple immersion, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).

In the Old Testament, baptism was pictured by the passage of God’s people with Moses through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1,2). John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant, baptized in water unto repentance (Mark 1:4; Acts 19:4). John’s baptism was received by Jesus, who thereby transformed the water and baptism itself. In the New Covenant, baptism is the means by which we enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5), are joined to Christ (Rom. 6:3), and are granted the remission of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

What Results from Baptism? From the start, the Church has understood baptism as:

(1) A first and second dying. Our first dying with Christ in baptism was our death with Him on the Cross. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem instructed his new converts: “You were led by the hand to the holy pool of divine baptism. . .and each of you was asked if he believed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. And you made that saving confession, you descended into the water and came up again three times. In the very same moment you died and were born.”

The second death of baptism is continual-dying to sin daily as we walk in newness of life. St. Paul writes to the Colossians concerning baptism (Col. 2:12) and concludes by saying, “Therefore put to death your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).

(2) The resurrection of righteousness. This is our life in Christ, our new birth and entrance into God’s Kingdom (John 3:3), our “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). It is our being joined to Christ in His glorified humanity and indwelt by God Himself (John 14:23). Our relationship with God is not something static, a legal fiction given to us by a Divine Judge. Rather, this is a dynamic and real life in Christ, holding the promise of everlasting life. Our resurrection to new life now forms a prelude to the resurrection of our body at Christ’s Second Coming.

(3) An intimate and continual communion with God. We are raised to new life for a purpose: union and communion with God. In this sense baptism is the beginning of eternal life. For this reason, Peter writes that baptism now saves us (1 Pet. 3:21)-it is not the mere removal of dirt from our bodies, but it provides us with “a good conscience toward God.”

Because of these promises, the priest prays for the newly baptized, thanking God “who has given us, unworthy though we be, blessed purification through holy water, and divine sanctification through life-giving chrismation, and who now also has been pleased to bring new life to Your servant newly illuminated by water and the Spirit, and granted remission of sins-voluntary and involuntary.

2. Chrismation
From earliest times the church has practised chrismation immediately following baptism. In the sacrament of chrismation (Gr. chrismatis, "anointing") the newly baptised person receives the Holy Spirit through the anointing with oil by the bishop or priest. The roots of this sacrament are clear in both the Old and New Testaments, and are especially brought to light on the Day of Pentecost.

Promises of the Holy Spirit from the Old Testament
In his sermon on Pentecost, St. Peter quotes the well-known prophecy of Joel, "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh" (Acts 2:17; see Joel 2:28). This promise was significant because under the Old Covenant, the gift of the Spirit had been given only to a few - the patriarchs, the prophets, and some of the judges. Certain leaders of Israel were indwelt with the Holy Spirit to accomplish their tasks. Joel, however, prophesied that the Holy Spirit would be given to all God's people, "all flesh." This was fulfilled at Pentecost, for Peter exclaims, "this [outpouring of the Spirit] is what was spoken by the prophet Joel" (Acts 2:16).

Other Old Testament prophets who speak of this same promise of the Spirit include Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:25-27). In fact, the Ezekiel passage ties together the water and the Spirit in a prophetic vision of baptism and chrismation.

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit

Our Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to His disciples. Early in His public ministry He said, "'If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.' He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit ..." (John 7:37-39). Jesus also said, "I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever" (John 14:16).

Christ promised the Holy Spirit would reveal truth to the Church. "When He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you" (John 16:13, 14). Jesus says the Holy Spirit will bring glory to Christ. This gives us an excellent means of testing whether or not acts attributed to the Holy Spirit are indeed valid.

The last words of Christ before His Ascension include a promise: "John truly baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (Acts 1:5). This word was fulfilled ten days later on the Day of Pentecost.

How is the Holy Spirit given to us?

The people who heard Peter speak at Pentecost asked him how they might receive salvation. He answered, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). We repent (turn from our sins and toward Christ); we are baptised; we are given "the gift of the Holy Spirit," chrismation. That practice has never changed.

In Acts 8, Philip, the deacon and evangelist, preached in Samaria (Acts 8:5-8). Many believed and were baptised (Acts 8:12). The apostles came and later confirmed these new believers with the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying of hands (Acts 8:14-17). Here is the sacrament of chrismation following Holy Baptism. Later, the Apostle Paul met some disciples of John the Baptist who had not been present when Peter spoke at Pentecost (Acts 19:1-7). They believed in Christ, "were baptised" (Acts 19:5) and "the Holy Spirit came upon them" (Acts 19:6), again through the hands of the apostle.

The promise of God includes both our union with Christ in Holy Baptism and gift of the Holy Spirit at chrismation.

3. Eucharist (Holy Communion)
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks [Gr. eucharistesas], He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

With these words-quoting the same words of Christ in Luke 22:19, 20-St. Paul instructs the Corinthians concerning the Eucharist, the giving of thanks. Some two thousand years after Jesus gave Himself “for the life of the world” (John 6:51), there are in Christendom at least three different interpretations of His words.

How Do We View the Eucharist? For the first thousand years of Christian history, when the Church was visibly one and undivided, the holy gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ were received as just that: His Body and Blood. The Church confessed this was a mystery: The bread is truly His Body, and that which is in the cup is truly His Blood, but one cannot say how they became so.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries brought on the scholastic era, the Age of Reason in the West. The Roman Church, which had become separated from the Orthodox Church in A.D. 1054, was pressed by the rationalists to define how the transformation took place. They answered with the word transubstantiation, meaning a change of substance. The elements are no longer bread and wine; they are physically changed into flesh and blood. The sacrament, which only faith can comprehend, was subjected to a philosophical definition. This second view of the Eucharist was unknown in the ancient Church.

Not surprisingly, one of the points of disagreement between Rome and the sixteen-century reformers was the issue of transubstantiation. Unable to accept this explanation of the sacrament, the radical reformers, who were rationalists themselves, took up the opposite point of view: the gifts are nothing but bread and wine, period. They only represent Christ’s Body and Blood; they have no spiritual reality. This third, symbol-only view helps explain the infrequency with which some Protestants partake of the Eucharist.

The Scriptures and the Eucharist. What do the Scriptures teach concerning the Eucharist?

(1) Jesus said, “This is My body. . . this is My blood.” (Luke 22:19, 20). There is never a statement that these gifts merely symbolize His Body and Blood. Critics have charged that Jesus also said of Himself, “I am the door” (John 10:7), and He certainly is not a seven-foot plank. The flaw in that argument is obvious: at no time has the Church ever believed He was a literal door. But she has always believed the consecrated gifts of bread and wine are truly His Body and Blood.

(2) In the New Testament, those who receive Christ’s Body and Blood unworthily are said to bring condemnation upon themselves. “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (literally, “are dead”; 1 Cor. 11:30). A mere symbol, a quarterly reminder, could hardly have the power to cause sickness and death.

(3) Historically, from the New Testament days on, the central act of worship, the very apex of spiritual sacrifice, took place “on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). The Eucharist has always been that supreme act of thanksgiving and praise to God in His Church.

 

4. Confession
Perhaps the most misunderstood sacrament of the Christian Church is confession. How did it originate? What role does a priest play? Is there a special procedure for confession? The Scriptures hold answers to these questions.

Concerning our sins, God’s Word gives a marvelous promise. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The faithful are to bring their sins to God in repentance and receive cleaning and forgiveness.

The early Christian community had a specific practice in this regard. People would stand and confess their sins to God in the presence of the whole congregation! Had not Jesus encouraged His followers to walk in the light together, to confront problems corporately, to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17)? Thus James writes, “Confess your trespasses to one another” (James 5:16). But as time went on and the Church grew in numbers, strangers came to visit and public confession became more difficult. Out of mercy, priests began to witness confessions of sin privately on behalf of the Church.

Jesus gave His disciples the authority to forgive sin. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23; see also Matt. 16:19). From the beginning, Christians understood that the grace of ordination endowed the shepherd of the flock with the discernment and compassion to speak the words of remission, on behalf of Christ, regarding the sins of those who confess and turn from sin. For God has promised the removing of sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12).

“You did not choose Me,” Jesus told the Twelve, “but I chose you and appointed [ordained] you.” (John 15:16). To these same disciples Jesus promised, “It is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11). Whom God calls, He equips. Paul writes to Timothy, “Stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6). It is the grace of the Holy Spirit which enables the priest to serve God and the people.

Thus the Church has encouraged her faithful: If you know you have committed a specific sin, do not hide it but confess it before coming to the Holy Eucharist. St. Paul wrote, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28), and “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31).

Kind David learned a lesson regarding his sin which is recorded for our benefit. For about a year, he had hidden his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband (2 Sam. 11:1-12:13). Then, confronted by Nathan the prophet, David repented from his heart and confessed his sin in a psalm which is used for general confession to this day (Ps. 51). The joy of salvation was restored to him.

People ask, “Can’t I confess to God privately?” Certainly, though there is no clear biblical basis for it. Even general confession occurs in the Church. In His mercy, God provides the sacrament of confession (more properly called the sacrament of repentance) to give us deliverance from sin and from what psychologists call denial. It is easy to pray in isolation, yet never come clean. It is far more effective to confess aloud to God before a priest, and benefit from his guidance and help.

Thus we come before the holy icon of Christ, to whom we confess, and are guided by the priest, our spiritual father, in a cleansing inventory of our lives. When we tell God all, naming our sins and failures, we hear those glorious words of freedom which announce Christ’s promise of forgiveness of all our sins. We resolve to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

 

5. Unction
"Is anyone 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, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:14, 15).

One of the great prophetic themes of the Old Testament concerning the promised Messiah is that the Father would send His Son "to heal the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind." (Luke 4:18; see Is. 61:1).  The ministry of Christ was one of numerous occurrences of healings of "all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease" (Matt. 4:23).  In addition, Jesus healed darkened hearts and minds as He released people from demonic oppression.

Like their Master before them, the early apostles participated in God's work of healing as well, attributing their miracles to the risen and ascended Christ. "Jesus the Christ heals you," Peter told a newly restored man, who had been bedridden for eight years (Acts 9:34).  St. Paul identified healing as a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:9). Thus the New Testament foundation was established for the healing ministry to be a part of the sacramental life of the Church (James 5:14, 15).

Healings throughout history.  The Orthodox Church has never believed or behaved as though the gifts of the Spirit or the healing miracles of Christ have somehow passed away.  Did not Jesus promise, "He who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father" (John 14:12)?

St. Ireneaus, writing at the close of the second century, speaks of miracles in his day: "Some drive out devils. . . some have foreknowledge of the future. . . others heal the sick through the laying on of hands. . . and even the dead have been raised up before now and have remained with us for many years."  The writings of other Church Fathers speak often of miracles within the Church.

Quite widely known are the supernatural healings which Christ performed through St. Seraphim of Sarov, a nineteenth century Russian monk.  He was blessed with the gift of healing during his lifetime, and even after his death people would be restored to wholeness at his graveside.The practice of the Church today.  To this day, the Orthodox practice of prayer for the sick follows the New Testament instruction of St. James.  The Orthodox Church has a special service of healing, which may be performed at any time.  The presbyter prays for the ill person, anointing him with oil and saying:“O Lord Almighty, Healer of our souls and bodies, who puts down and raises up, who chastises and heals also, visit now in Your mercy our brother or sister, N_, who is ill.  Stretch forth Your arm that is full of healing and health, and raise (him, her) up from this bed and cure this illness.  Put away the spirit of disease and every malady and pain and fever.  And if (he, she) has committed sins and transgressions, grant remission and forgiveness, because You love mankind.”

As Orthodox Christians we pray, neither commanding God to heal, nor doubting His ability to heal, but pleading for His promised mercy upon all who are ill.

6. Marriage
The Bible and human history begin and end with weddings.  Adam and Eve come together in marital union in Paradise, before the Fall, revealing marriage as a part of God's eternal purpose for humanity in the midst of creation (Gen. 2:22-25).  History closes with the marriage of the Bride to the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9), earthly mar­riage being fulfilled in the heavenly, showing the eternal nature of the sacrament.

Between these bookend events of history are the accounts of numerous other unions of man and wife.  In the centuries-old Christian wedding ceremony used to this day in the Orthodox Church, several of these historic marriages are remembered: Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 11:29-23:20); Isaac and Rebecca (Gen. 24); [Joseph and Aseneth (Gen. 41)]; Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin Mary; and Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-58).

The marriage most prominently featured in the wedding ceremony, however, is the one at Cana of Galilee, described in the Gospel passage read at every Orthodox wedding (John 2:1-11).  In attending this wedding and performing His first miracle there, Jesus Christ, the Son of God  forever sanctifies marriage.  As with all the Chris­tian sacraments, marriage is sacramental because it is blessed by God.

Parenthetically, it is at this wedding at Cana that Mary first intercedes with Christ on behalf of others: "They have no wine" (John 2:3).  Then she calls all humanity to obey Him: "Whatever Hesays to you, do it" (John 2:5).

In  modern society, as well as in Christendom, a recurring debate is going on.  Itdeals with the tension between equality of the partners in marriage and office or order in marriage.  Often, this tension has turned into a polarity between men and women, and sometimes even breeds hostility.  There are two elements in the Orthodox service of marriage which serve to heal such tension, while making clear the teaching of the Church on the twin themes of equality and order concerning husband and wife.

As to equality, during the ceremony crowns are placed on the heads of the bride and groom.  This act is symbolic of their citizenship in the Kingdom of God, where "there is neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28) and of their dying to each other (the crown, is often a symbol of martyrdom; see Rev. 2:10).  The words of St. Paul are clear on marital equality: "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Cor. 7:4).  Husband and wife belong to each other as martyrs, they belong to God as royalty, and they are called to treat each other accordingly.

But within marital equality there is also order.  The epistle passage read at the Sacrament of Marriage is Ephesians 5:20-33, the exhortation to husbands and wives which begins with a call to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21).  The husband is to serve God as head of his wife, as Christ is head of the Church (Eph. 5:23).  The wife is to be subject to her husband as the Church is, subject to Christ (Eph. 5:24). There is nothing here to suggest that the wife is oppressed in marriage, anymore than one would call the Church oppressed in relationship to Christ.  He who calls us "brethren" (Heb. 2:11) and "friends" (John 15:15) exorts the husband to love his wife, to nourish and cherish her as He Himself does the Church (Eph. 5:28, 29).

Thus, marriage is a sacrament -holy, blessed, and everlasting in the sight of God and His Church.  Within the bonds of marriage, husband and wife experience a union with one another in love, and hopefully the fruit of children and one day the joy of grandchildren.  And within the bonds of marriage there is both a fullness of equality between husband and wife, and a clarity of order with the husband as the Icon of Christ, the wife as the Icon of the Church.

7. Ordination
Sacraments (or mysteries) are holy actions of the Church by which spiritual life is imparted to those receiving them. Ordination which means "to set in place" or "to select by the outstretched hand," is one of several Orthodox sacraments.  It is extended specifically to bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons, and generally to all through Holy Baptism.

         (1) Bishops.  In His ministry Christ ordained or "set in place" the Twelve, assuring them, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain" (Jopn 15:16).”

Both the New Testament and the Church Fathers recognize the Twelve as the first bishops or overseers in the Church.  When Judas had fallen away and the disciples were considering his successor Peter said, “Let another take his office” (Gr. episkopen,    lit. "bishopric"; Acts 1:20).  This bishopric was given to Matthias (Acts 1:26).  The apostles -these first bishops- in turn ordained presbyters find deacons.

         (2) Deacons.  The account of the first ordination of deacons (Acts 6:1-6) is quite

detailed.  "Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom," the apostles said, "whom we may appoint [Gr. kathisteini, "to set down" or "ordain"] over this business" (Acts 6:3).  The manner of this appointment is clear: "They laid hands on them" (Acts 6:6).  The ordination of deacons in the Orthodox Church takes place in this same manner today, through the laying on of hands by the bishop.

         (3) Presbyters.  The first account of the ordination of elders or presbyters is in

Acts 14:23.  The apostles Paul and Barnabas "appointed [literally, "elected by stretching forth the hand"] elders in every church, and prayed with fasting," then "commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."  Similarly, Paul reminds his apostolic apprentice, Titus, "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set.in order the things that are lacking, and appoint [set in place, ordain] elders in every city as I commanded you" (Titus 1:5).

The Titus passage brings to mind the first prayer the bishop prays over the one being ordained to the Orthodox priesthood: "The grace divine, which always heals that  which is weak, and completes that which is lacking, elevates through the laying on of my hands this most devout deacon to be priest."

The bishop continues to ask God to "fill with the gift of the Holy Spint this man . . . . that he may be worthy to stand in innocence before Your holy altar, to proclaim the gospel of Your Kingdom, to minister the word of Your truth, to offer You spiritual gifts and sacrifices, to renew Your people through the laver of regenera­tion."

A dramatic moment in the service of ordination comes when the candidate is led around the altar three times, kissing or venerating the four comers of the altar.  This symbolizes his marriage to Christ, his death with Christ, and his willingness to serve the Church sacrificially after the exampl of his Master.

Ordination is seen as an eternal appointment, "for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:29).  It is in this spirit that during each Divine Liturgy the priest prays for his bishop that "the Lord God remember him in His Kingdom always now and ever, and unto ages of ages."

Through the sacrament of ordination in His Church, Christ entrusts to the shep­erd the very salvation of His people's souls.