Rituals and Sacraments

It is difficult not to open a book of systematic theology and find reference to “the seven sacraments”, often capitalized for greater effect: The Seven Sacraments. The Fathers, however, never bothered to define a sacrament, much less to offer a comprehensive list of them. So, the first thing one must say about the sacraments from an Orthodox perspective is that one cannot properly speak about The Seven Sacraments as the West has traditionally spoken about them. We can talk about baptism, the Eucharist, ordination, anointing, marriage, confession, burial, tonsuring, blessing Holy Water, and many, many other things. But we cannot reduce it all to a tidy system, so that what applies to one ritual applies to them all.

Perhaps less misleading than talk about the Seven Sacraments is talk about the Church’s rituals and corporate actions. The Greek term for these is “the mysteries”, from the Greek word mysterion. A “mystery” of the Church is not so-called because it is mysterious in the sense of being incomprehensible. A “mystery”, as the Church uses the word, is not something which Christians cannot understand, but something that Christians understand experientially. The element of mystification is for the world, not for the Christians. In that sense, the Gospel itself is a mystery (Rom 16:25–26), for its wisdom is opaque to the unbelieving world but revealed and accepted by the Christians. A mystery is therefore a truth revealed only to the initiated—or, in Christians terms, to the baptized. The outsiders don’t “get it.” We insiders do.

These mysteries are rituals, but they are not just any rituals. One could, I suppose, use the term to describe a private ritual or practice, such as crossing oneself or saying the Lord’s Prayer, and St. Augustine, for example, does use the Latin term sacramentum in just this way. But the term “sacrament” refers to rituals of the Church that are done corporately and congregationally. Thus, in this definition, baptism is a mysterion and a sacramentum; saying the Lord’s Prayer in one’s private devotions is not.

The reason why sacraments/mysteries are essentially congregational in their performance is that they are acts of the risen Christ. He is the one who bestows rebirth in baptism and pours out his Holy Spirit through the blessed oil in chrismation. He is the one who feeds us with his Body and Blood and offers forgiveness in the Eucharist. He is the one who by his Spirit gives men the ability to function as bishops, presbyters, and deacons when prayerful episcopal hands are laid on the candidate. All sacramental life comes solely from him. And He has pledged His Presence to the Church when they gather in His Name, even if the gathering is as small as two or three (Matt 18:20). This is not to deny that He remains with his faithful people even when they are alone, but He promises a special kind of Presence when they gather in obedience to his command. It is when Christ is present in this way that He acts to save and to transform. Thus, all the Church’s sacraments are corporate in nature. After all, “assembly” is what the word “church” really means (in Greek ekklesia).