The Holy Sacraments (Mysteries) Part II

Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria

Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


[Please note: "The word "mysteries" (Greek mysteria or μυστήρια) is the term used in the Orthodox Church; "sacraments" (Latin sacramenta), the term used in the Latin West. Since the latter term was used in the West before the schism of the Latin West, there is nothing wrong with its usage by Orthodox Christians of the West, especially since few people around them are familiar with the word "mysteries"; but Orthodox Christians prefer to use the Greek Orthodox term "mysteries." The adjectival form "mystical," used in Orthodoxy, has of course a rather different and more inward connotation than the Western adjective "sacramental," which refers more specifically to the outward rites of the Mysteries."]

The inward life of the Church is mystical (or sacramental). It does not at all coincide with the history, which shows us only the outward facts of the Church's existence, and especially its coming into conflict with the life of the world and the passions of the world. The inward life of Church is the mystical cooperation of Christ as the Head, with the Church as His Body, in the Holy Spirit, by means of all mutually strengthening ties: "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church," instructs the holy Apostle (Ephesians 5:32).

Therefore when the Holy Apostles called themselves "stewards of the mysteries of God," saying, "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the Mysteries of God" (I Cor. 4:1), in Greek oikonomous mysteriou Theou ("οικονόμους μυστηρίου Θεού"), they have in mind various preaching, a) the baptism of those who have come to believe, b) the bringing down of the Holy Spirit through ordination, c) the strengthening of the unity of the faithful with Christ through the Mystery (Sacraments) of the Divine Eucharist, and d) the further deepening of the hearts of the faithful in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, the deepening of the more perfect among them in "the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom" (I Cor. 2:6-7).

Thus the activity of the holy Apostles was a full of mystical elements (Mysterion). Among them the central or culminating place was occupied by sacred rites. Therefore it is entirely natural that in the Church's life the series of special and most important moments of grace-giving ministry, the series of sacred rites, gradually acquired preeminently the name of "mynistries." Saint Ignatius the God-bearer, an immediate disciple of the Holy Apostles, writes concerning deacons that they likewise are "servants of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ" (Epistle to the Trallians, par. 2). These words of Saint Ignatius overturn the assertion of Protestant historians that in the ancient Church the concept of "mysteries" or "sacraments" was supposedly never applied to the Church's sacred rites.

The sacred rites called "mysteries" are, as it were, peaks in a long mountain range composed of the remaining rites and prayers of the Divine services.

In the Mysteries, prayers are joined with blessings in one form or another, and with special acts. The words of blessing accompanied by outward sacred acts are, as it were, spiritual vessels by which the grace of the Holy Spirit is scooped up and given to the members of the Church who are sincere believers.

Thus, "a mystery (sacrament) is a sacred act which under a visible aspect communicates to the soul of a believer the invisible grace of God.

The name of "mystery" has become established in the Church as referring to seven rites ("In the Orthodox Church, one may say, seven is not regarded as the "absolute" number of the Mysteries, as it tends to be regarded in the Latin West (Roman Catholicism). Most commonly, it is true, only seven Mysteries are spoken of; but certain other sacred rites, such as the Monastic tonsure, might also be considered, informally, as "Mysteries."]: Baptism, Chrismation, Communion (the Eucharist), Repentance/Confession, Priesthood, Matrimony, and Unction. The Longer Christian Catechism thus defines the essence of each Mystery:

"In Baptism man is mystically born into spiritual life. In Chrismation he receives grace which gives growth and strengthens. In Communion he is spiritually nourished. In Repentance/Confession he is healed of spiritual diseases (sins). In Priesthood he receives the grace spiritually to regenerate and nurture others, by means of teaching, prayer, and the Mysteries. In Matrimony he receives grace which sanctifies marriage and the natural birth-giving and upbringing of children. In Unction (Efhelaion) he is healed of diseases of the body by means of a healing of spiritual diseases."

For the life of the Church itself as a whole, both as Body of Christ and as the "courtyard of the flock of Christ," the following are especially important and stand in the chief place: a) the Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ, or the Eucharist; b) the Mystery of the sanctification of chosen persons to the service of the Church in the degrees of the hierarchy, or ordination, which gives the indispensable structure of the Church; and together with these, c) the Mystery of Baptism, which sees to the increase of the numbers of the Church. But the other Mysteries also, which are appointed for the giving of grace to individual believers, are indispensable for the fullness of the life and sanctity of the Church itself.

One must distinguish the "efficacy" of the Mystery (that is, that in itself it is an authentic grace-giving power) from the "effectiveness" of the Mystery (that is, the extent to which one who receives the Mystery (Sacrament) is vouchsafed its grace-giving power). The Mysteries are "means which unfailingly act by grace upon those who come to them," as is said in the Epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs. However, the fruitfulness of their reception by believers--their renewing and saving power--depends upon whether a man approaches the Mystery worthily. An unworthy reception of it can draw upon oneself not justification, but condemnation. Grace does not interfere with the freedom of man; it does not act upon him irresistibly. Often people, making use of the Mysteries (Sacraments) of faith, do not receive from them that which they could give; for their hearts are not open to receive grace, or else they have not preserved the gifts of God which they have received. This is why it happens that baptized people not only do not fulfill the vows given by them or by their sponsors at baptism, and not only are deprived of the grace of God already given to them, but often, to their spiritual perdition, they become the enemies of God, deniers, unbelievers, "apostates."

By these facts of life the dignity of the Mysteries (Sacraments) is by no means decreased. The great attainments of sanctity, righteousness, the ranks of martyrs for the faith, confessors, ascetics and wonderworkers, who even on earth became "earthly Angels and heavenly men"--attainments unheard of outside the True Christianity--are the action of the invisible grace of God, received in Baptism and Chrismation, kept warm through Repentance and Communion of the Holy Mysteries, and preserved in the humble and trembling awareness that in awareness that in every Christian "Christ is the One Who fights and conquers, and He is the One Who calls on God and prays and gives thanks and is reverent, and seeks with entreaty and humility. All this Christ does, rejoicing and being glad when He sees that in each Christian there is and remains the conviction that Christ is He Who does all of this" (Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Homily 4).

(Next: The Mystery (Sacrament) of Baptism)



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George