The Divine Mysteries (Sacraments) and Sanctification According to Orthodox Christianity

Venerable Hilarion the New the Abbot of Pelecete

Venerable Hilarion the New the Abbot of Pelecete

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


The word "mysteries" (Greek: mysteria) is the term used in the Orthodox East; "sacraments" (Latin: sacramenta, the term used in the Latin West [Roman Catholicism]). Since the latter term was used in the West before the schism of the Roman patriarchate, there is nothing wrong with its usage by Orthodox Christians of the West. However, Orthodox Christians often prefer to use the Orthodox term. The adjectival form "mystical," used in the Orthodox East, has of course a rather different and more inward connotation than the Latin Western adjective "sacramental," which refers specifically to the outward rites of the Mysteries.

The inward life of the Church is mystical. It does not at all coincide with the history of the Church, 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 the 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 Apostle (Ephesians 2:32).

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" (1 Corinthians 4:1), in Greek, "oikonomous mysterion Theou", they have in mind various forms of their ministry and stewardship, as for example: (a) preaching, (b) the Baptism of those who have come to believe (c) the bringing down of the Holy Spirit through ordination, (d) the strengthening of the unity of the faithful with Christ through the Mystery of the Eucharist, and (e) 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" (1 Corinthians 2:6-7)...

"...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 Mysteries are: Baptism, Chrismation, Communion (the Eucharist), Repentance/Confession, Priesthood, Matrimony, and Unction. The Longer Catechism thus defines the essence of each Mystery (Sacraments):

"In Baptism man is mystically born into spiritual life. In Chrismation he receives Grace which gives growth and strengthens. In Communion (Eucharist) 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 (Holy Oil) he is healed of diseases of the body by means of a healing of spiritual diseases." (Source: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology)

The Mystery (Sacrament) of the Divine Eucharist

"Let us attend. The Holy things are for the holy."

This exclamation tells us "Let us take heed! The Holy things are for the holy.

Saint Cyril stresses, "The present Gifts are Holy, for they received the descent of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, all of us are also Holy, for we were made worthy of the workings of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holies are meet for the holy".

Saint John Chrysostom says: "As the Celebrant Priest stands in the Holy Altar and before the Holy table with a booming voice, which causes fear, with his hands elevated for he is holding the Most Holy Body, in deep silence, he cries: "The Holy Things are for the holy". Thus, he invites some to receive Holy Communion (they are the ones who are worthy, the pure, the holy, the ones that are prepared) and to some other he prohibits it (they are the one who are unworthy, the unclean, the unprepared, the unrepentant), not with his hand but with his voice, which is stronger than his hand..."

And the golden-tongued (Gr. Chryso-stomos) Saint continues: "If someone is not holy, may he not draw near. And it is not enough to be merely clean from sins, but holy. For abstaining from sin does not make someone holy, since the presence of the Holy Spirit as well as the richness of his good works are also required. I do not wish, he says, you to be merely released from the mire, but also that you be white and beautiful and all-blameless. Not everyone is allowed to approach the immaculate Mysteries. Not everyone is allowed to drink from this Life-preserving Fountain.

This is why the priest does not invite just anybody. By holding the Lord's Most Holy Body in his hands, he invites those who are heading towards holiness: "The Holy Things are for the holy". It is as if he is saying here is the Bread of Life, Who you see. So, make haste in order to partake of It; but not all of you, only those who are holy. For only the holy are allowed the Holy Gifts.

By holy he does not only mean those who have reached perfection in virtue, but also those who force themselves (are hastening) and insist on reaching this kind of perfection, but still have not managed to reach it yet. In addition, those who fight are also holy. For nothing stands in their way for them to be sanctified by partaking of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments)". (And this is very comforting to all of us).

For Saint John Chrysostom calls "holy" all those Christians who insist in making the effort to prepare themselves as best as possible for Holy Communion.

"Let us attend. The Holy things are for the holy."

The Holy Gifts should be given to the holy. According to the Holy Bible, Christians were called "holy" (Gr. "agioi") in the past. Gradually, this term referred only to the chosen. That is, to those who were tortured even to death or to those who confessed Him through persecutions, imprisonment, and exile or to those who dedicated their whole life to worshipping our Holy God. Thus, the three orders of Christian Saints were the Martyrs, the Confessors, and the Saints.

In any case, holy is every faithful Christian who strives by separating himself from sin, whose soul does "not have spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing" caused by wickedness. However, let us not forget that all humans, with no exception, are sinful. The only One Who is without sin, offered Himself as Sacrifice on the Cross. Through this acceptable Sacrifice, the entire human race was forgiven. All peoples' sins, from Adam's and even to the last human being, who will be born prior to Christ's Second Coming, are forgiven and blotted out.

Nevertheless, when are they forgiven and blotted out? When humans acknowledge Him as Son of God, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who was incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, as God-man Lord, as the One Who "suffered under Pontius Pilate" on the Cross and as the One Who was Resurrected form the dead. In addition, when they accept and believe these things with all their heart are baptized and partake of the immaculate Mysteries (Sacraments). At the same time, when they accept the entire dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox faith, then the Blood that Christ shed on the Cross, that which is offered by the Holy Cup every time there is Holy Communion, and which purifies the Christian from every sin, for it is given for "the remission of sins and life ever-lasting".

This small "Pearl" and the drop of Blood, which we partake, purify us, illuminate us, make us Christ-like, make us spirit-bearers, make us "holy." One drop of Blood is enough to make an endless ocean in which billions of people can bathe and be cleansed if they want it..."

However, what takes place inside the Holy Altar? After the exclamation, "Let us attend. The Holy things are for the holy", as the Lamb of God is being elevated, It is being cut into pieces and divided into four parts: IC XC-NIKA (Jesus Christ Triumphs). Each portion is also sealed with two letters. Next, the pieces of the Lamb are arranged on the rim of the Holy Diskos (Paten) in the form of a cross:



NI             KA



During the cutting and dividing, the priest with great reverence and care says: "Divided and distributed is the Lamb of God, Who is divided, yet not disunited: Who is ever eaten, yet never consumed, but sanctifieth those who partake thereof".

This cutting into pieces is also done for practical reasons -- in this way, the Celebrant Priests and Christians can receive Holy Communion more easily. This is also what Jesus Christ did during the Mystical (Last) Supper: Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake (cut) it, and gave to them" to His Disciples that is.  Everyone receives Holy Communion from the same Lamb. It is the Life-Bearing Nourishment.

From Great and Holy Thursday's Mystical Supper where Christ granted His Disciples the Great Mystery of Holy Eucharist, until the end of the world, the broken Bread-Lamb is imparted as nourishment for deification (theosis) and immortality to all those baptized faithful Christians "for the remission of sins and life ever-lasting". It is necessary to cut It first into four parts and then into many very small portions so that everyone may be communed. This was also the reason why during the Apostolic years the Holy Eucharist was called "the breaking of the bread".

The Precious Bread, the Lamb of God is cut into very many small pieces. However, it is not cut into many pieces of bread, nor is the Lord's Body amputated and divided, so that we may be under the impression that one person eats one piece of His Body and the other eats another piece and the third person another piece. No! We cut It small pieces so that all Christians may partake of one portion. Everyone partakes, no matter how small the portion may be the Same Precious Bread, the Lamb of God, and the Body of the Lord. The entire Body and not part of It. This is why we say, "divided", cut and "distributed", cut into small portions.

"A person's soul was wondering whether that which each one communes, the small or the big Pearl, more or less, is Christ as a whole or not. One Sunday morning when he was getting ready to receive Holy Communion, in his noetic faculty with the eyes of his soul he could see the Divine Pearl in the holy Spoon being all of a sudden changed into Christ as a Whole. Between the priest and the person who was being communed, Christ was being united with man." (Source: Experiences During the Divine Liturgy by Protopresbyter Stephanos K. Anagnostopoulos)



On Holy Wednesday the Holy Church offers to the Orthodox Christians the Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction or Holy Oil (Efchelaion) for spiritual cleansing and spiritual restoration. Holy Unction is one of the Mysteries that is to be received on a frequent basis, like Holy Communion and Repentance/Confession. Because there was not a set time for Holy Unction to be offered during the Church year (some churches had it once a month, others once a week, still others once in a while). The Holy Church decided that Holy Unction should be placed on the liturgical calendar on Great and Holy Wednesday, to make certain that every Orthodox Christian received Holy Unction at least once a year. Holy Unction is connected closely with the institution of the Holy Eucharist on Greta and Holy Thursday morning, since our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ washed the feet of the Holy Disciples shortly before instituting the Holy Eucharist with them.

Holy Unction is offered for the healing of soul and body. Holy Unction helps to heal a wounded soul that is beaten down by sin, evil acts and thoughts. The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Unction aids to the cleansing of a soul that has been damaged by sin.

"Thy Mystery(Sacrament) of Holy Unction is a sacred action in which, while the body is anointed with oil, the Grace of God which heals infirmities of soul and body is called down upon a sick person."

Even in Old Testament times, oil signified Grace, joy, a softening, a bringing to life. Anointment of the sick with oil was done by the Apostle, as we red in the Evangelist Mark (6:13): They "anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them."

The clearest testimony of the Mystery of Holy Unction is to be found in the Holy Apostle James (Iakovos) 5:14-15): "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders (presbyters or priests) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." The Holy Apostle speaks here not of a special "gift" of healing; rather he prescribes the sacred action in a definite form, which was to enter into the custom of the Church: the performance of it by the presbyters (Bishops or Priests) of the Church, prayers, anointment; and he joins to this, as it consequence, the easing of bodily illness and the forgiveness of sins.

"...In the 5th century, Pope Innocent 1st answered a series of questions concerning the Mystery of Holy Unction, indicating in his answers that:

a)     it should be performed "upon believers who are sick";

b)     it may be performed also by a bishop, since one should not see in the words of the Apostle, "let him call for the presbyters," any prohibition for a bishop to participate in the Sacred Unction;

c)     this anointment may not be performed "on those undergoing ecclesiastical penance," because it is a "Mystery" (a "Sacrament"), and "to those who are forbidden the other Mysteries (Sacraments), how can one allow only one?"

There is allowed and sometimes practiced a special rite of Holy Unction, which is performed in church on many persons at the same time, on a special day assigned for this, for the general healing of infirmities of soul and body; but this rite is not precisely identical to the Mystery of Unction.

In this rite, usually performed in the evening of Passion Wednesday, as if in preparation for our Lord's death and burial, all present come forward to be anointed by each of the seven (or fewer) priests. The rite is identical to that of the Mystery of Holy Unction, except that if there are many people (and seven priests), the anointing may be performed all together at the end of the service, instead of after each reading of the Gospel, to the accompaniment of a repeated refrain to a special Lenten melody: 'Hearken to us, O Lord; hearken tous, O Master; hearken to us, O Holy One." (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology)

The Mystery of Holy Unction does not replace the Mystery of Repentance/Confession. It is important to note that the local parish church keeps the Holy Unction throughout the year and is available to all Orthodox Christian believers as often as possible. 

The Mysteries of the Church are not magical acts. All the Mysteries and all divine services and blessings require faith, personal faith in Christ our Lord. "...But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe..." (Hebrews 11:6). Also, "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" (St. James 5:15).


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