About the Holy Mysteries

The whole of Orthodox liturgical life – and even life itself – is considered sacramental, in that it can bring one closer to God. Orthodox Christians celebrate at least seven sacraments, although even to say so seems to limit the activity of the Holy Spirit in a way that is not fully consonant with Orthodox Tradition. The term “sacrament” is often used to translate what Orthodox prefer to call the Holy Mysteries, which emphasizes the apophatic (unknowable) aspect as well as the experiential aspect of the faith.

Baptism & Chrismation

– the sacraments of initiation, normally performed together in one service and consisting of a three-fold immersion in a font of water by which we participate in Christ’s three-day Pascha – death and Resurrection – and an anointing with Holy Chrism by which we share in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost. To the image of washing, central to baptism, the Church sees the immersion as a ritual drowning from which we emerge to new life, which is symbolized by the white baptismal garment.

Holy Confession

– a spiritual discipline that the Church follows to help the Christian remain faithful to the course of repentance and appropriate the ascetical life under the guidance of a spiritual father. Confession is celebrated in the front of the Church before the icon of Christ or the Mother of God to remind us that sin not only harms us individually, but also cuts us off from communion with the body of Christians who make up the Church.

The Eucharist

– the simple meal of bread and wine by which we participate in divine life as far as we are able and, by so doing, manifest or reveal the Body of Christ. That is, the Church itself is this Body and by sharing in this meal we find ourselves as members of this one Body, of which Christ is the head. By eating this food, we discover the true meaning of eating and drinking, not for perpetuation of our biological life but for communion with God. This food is called Holy Communion because in this meal we overcome our isolation as individuals and we “eat” as we would in God’s Kingdom, as Adam and Eve ate in Paradise before the Fall. The eating of this meal is also the means by which we participate most completely in Christ’s Resurrection from the dead.

Crowning (Marriage)

– this mystery celebrates the entrance of a man and woman into a unique and eternal relation whereby each accepts responsibility for their spouse’s spiritual and material welfare and places their own wellbeing into the hands of their spouse. Following ancient tradition, the couple presents themselves to the community and receives the blessing of the priest before commencing their life together. The crowns represent the ascetical dimension of this relationship, by which a share in Christ’s glory is attained only by a steadfast and grace-filled life of self-denial.

Monastic Tonsure

– this mystery celebrates the entrance of a man or women into a unique and eternal relation in which they share in a measure of the angelic life through prayer, fasting, self-denial and manifestation of the charism of prophecy in the life of the Church. Not all can be monks or nuns but when carefully and prayerfully chosen, this life promises a fullness and intensity of spiritual witness. The cutting of hair (tonsure) represents the renunciation of the world and a life lived for sake of God’s Kingdom.

Holy Unction

– an anointing of the faithful with oil that has been blessed in the context of a service having seven (7) Gospel readings and traditionally concelebrated by seven (7) priests. The prayers by which this oil is blessed ask that the Holy Spirit come down upon the oil so that those anointed may receive the healing of soul and body, the remission of sins, and the inheritance of God’s heavenly Kingdom.

Holy Ordination

– the service whereby those who have been called by God and prepared in accordance with the customs of the Church are set apart and dedicated for specific ministries in the Church. The minor orders consist of Reader and Subdeacon; the major orders consist of Deacon, Priest and Bishop.

Funeral

– the funeral rites of an Orthodox Christian typically involve the celebration of the Panikhida (a service based on Matins, see below) on the evening before burial, and the Funeral Service proper on the day of burial. These services are similar, although the Funeral Service is distinguished by an Epistle, Prokimenon and Gospel reading, as well as the singing of certain hymns as the faithful bid farewell to the departed (the “Last Kiss”).

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