Essay:Orthodox Mysteries

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Orthodox Mysteries (an essay)


In order to understand the Holy Mysteries of the Orthodox Church (as much as Mysteries can be understood) as the means of salvation we have to discuss three things: What salvation is, what the visible parts of the Holy Mysteries are, and how God uses the Holy Mysteries to save us.

The Orthodox Church understands salvation as movement toward God . Indeed, it is the journey toward God that is considered to be Salvation, for God being infinitely higher than His creation is not located as a thing or place at which we His creatures can arrive. Salvation is the eternal growth toward God, moving from “glory to glory” forever. It is always experiencing more of God, always desiring him more, and being transformed more and more into a being of greater and greater purity of agape. That is, forever becoming more and more like God, Who is Agape .

This distinctive Orthodox teaching regarding salvation is critical to all that follows. For only if salvation is movement toward God, as opposed to a state of having been saved (from sin, or hell, or any other thing) will we begin to see how the Holy Mysteries are salvific.

Recently, the Mysteries have been counted as seven: Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Confession/Repentance, Marriage, Ordination, and Holy Unction/Healing. This counting is borrowed from the Roman Catholic Church and is not really Orthodox . As Fr. Thomas Hopko teaches, “The more ancient and traditional practice of the Orthodox Church is to consider every thing in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical.” Nevertheless, for the sake of convenience, I will only attempt to explain the Seven (Sometimes, such as when I explain baptism, I will be explaining the Mysteries contained within the Mysteries ), knowing that funerals, monasticism, child-birth, memorial services, hospitality and many other things besides could also be included in this essay.

Faith is presupposed. No one is saved apart from faith.

Baptism & Chrismation

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Amen amen unless a man be born of water and the Spirit, he can not enter the Kingdom of God.” In short, it is through Baptism and Chrismation that a person is born again and made able to enter the Kingdom of God. Though it is true that in a crisis situation any Christian can baptize someone else, the soteriological meaning of the rite is best revealed in a liturgical setting where all the prayers, blessing and anointings can done according to the rubrics of the Church. We might even say that our salvation begins with the Prayer at the Reception of the Catechumen, or even earlier, when one's sponsors take him by the hand to lead him to the bishop to be enrolled as a catechumen . But I will limit myself to discussing three discreet acts in the rite of Baptism: the blessing of the water, the anointing with oil before the Baptism, and the trine immersion in the water. Unlike most of the services in the Orthodox Church, the blessing of water of Baptism begins with the triumphant cry: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto ages of ages” . Why is this important? Because this water is being blessed precisely so that the catechumen may enter that Kingdom. The Holy Spirit descends on the water. He re-creates it in its pre-fallen state and makes it so “…that he who is baptized may be made worthy of the Kingdom…that he may be a member and partaker of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.” After the blessing of the water the oil is exorcised and blessed so that it becomes effectual for combat . It is called the Oil of Gladness. St. Ambrose of Milan (born 339) wrote of the oiling of the catechumen immediately prior to baptism: “You are anointed as an athlete of Christ, as if to contend in the contest of this world. You have professed the struggles of your contest. He who contends has what he hopes for; where there is a struggle, there is a crown. You contend in the world, but you are crowned by Christ.”

It is by this oil that the catechumen is prepared for his fight against Satan; a fight he can only lose if he stops struggling. For assurance of this we have the word of St. James the Brother of the Lord who wrote to us saying, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you”. All preparation has been accomplished and we have arrived at the climax of the Baptismal liturgy. The crescendo has built from the time of the enrollment of the catechumen to this point: the Baptism. A catechumen enters the water guilty of sin, dead in Adam, separated from God. But in Baptism he is joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He dies and his life is hidden with Jesus in God. That is, he really dies and is really resurrected . The catechumen is no more. Instead, a “new creature” comes out of the water, clothed in Christ . He is now a participant in the life of God. Immediately following Baptism the newly born-again Christian is Chrismated (English: Oiled). This Mystery is accomplished by the application of a Holy Chrism that has been consecrated by the Holy Spirit. Of this Holy Oil and the Mystery of Chrismation, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386) wrote: “But beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also the ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after the invocation, but the gift of Christ; and by the presence of His Godhead, it causes in us the Holy Ghost.”

And it is this name “Gift of Christ” that is the key to the Mystery. Christ, as we all know, means anointed. But in this case it is not just any anointing. It is the anointing of kingship . Having been freed from the kingdom of death, the new Christian is anointed to be a king like Jesus, who accomplishes what Adam failed to accomplish. But our kingship must emulate Jesus’ kingship, that is, in self-denial for the benefit of creation . Which is exactly the opposite of what our first parent, Adam did when he chose to satisfy his own desire. In Chrismation, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit into us and gives us the power to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus.


For this Mystery I am tempted to say “Man is what he eats” and leave it at that. But, I suppose, I ought to say a bit more. When the Orthodox gather as the Church it is not like any other gathering of human beings. The gathering is for one purpose: To make present the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order to bless God, to thank Him, to be one with Him, and to be one with each other . This is, of course, what eternal life is all about. Indeed, this is a foretaste of eternal life. But then we have to leave our temples and cathedrals, come down from Mount Tabor, as it were, and live in the mundane world. What does Eucharist do for us once we have left the church building and gone back out into the world? The answer to his is found in the prayer of the epiklesis. When we ask the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to change the bread and the wine it is so “That they may be to those who partake for the purification of soul, for the remission of sins, for the communion of Thy Holy Spirit, for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.” Thus when we leave the church building after having partaken of the Body and Blood of Jesus, we do so with pure souls, with no sins polluting us, in communion with the Holy Spirit, and living in the Kingdom of God. We do not leave the Kingdom of God in the building for the Kingdom of God is in us. Christ is in us. “Man is what he eats” .


St. Paul wrote that once a person has been baptized, chrismated and communed he can not return to Christ if he falls away . These are terrifying words. And St. Paul knows they are terrifying words. He knows that we will sin. He tells us so in his letter to the Romans: “what I hate I do” So what do we, mere men of flesh, living in the world, attacked by demons do? How do we get back to where we need to be? To who we need to be? The Apostles James and John give us the answer: Confession. And though it seems like an easy road back it is not. False confession, confession that is pro forma, incomplete, or insincere is as useless as it is easy. But the sincere confession of one who is truly sorrowful God will hear. And God will forgive. We need only to look at the parable of the prodigal son to see how eager God is to have back his straying sons. Even when we are “a great way off” the Father sees us and runs to us and kisses us.


As with Baptism and the Eucharist, this service begins with the solemn invocation of “…the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The rite allows for no doubt concerning under Who's authority matrimony is accomplished. Indeed, “marriage is a sign of God’s Kingdom”. Therefore, in the Orthodox Church there are no marriage vows, nor contract, nor legalism of any kind, for human beings are not the Author of “the free and sovereign grace” that is found in the Holy Mysteries. It is God's Kingdom, and He bestows marriage. So, how exactly does this Mystery bring salvation to people? There are several ways, but St. John Chrysostom offers one answer to this question in Homily 12 on Colossians 4:18. By becoming one, the couple symbolizes the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. It is important to understand, however that “symbol” in Greek is a much stronger word than it is in English. In English it almost always means something that points to something else. However, in the Greek language it means “forming one thing from two things.” Thus, when St. John Chrysostom says that Christian Marriage is a symbol of the Divine love among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, he is saying that the Christian couple is participating in the life of the Holy Trinity, that participation being salvation. A beautiful example of Marriage equaling salvation, of God saving by extending grace through Marriage is found in the Old Testament. God, in promising to restore Jerusalem says, “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the LORD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.”


Much as Marriage is a sacrament of love, so is Ordination a sacrament of love. Marriage provides stability in the church, a locus of hospitality, and the creation of life. Ordination likewise provides these good things. Thus, one could say, that the Mystery of Ordination and the Mystery of Marriage are identical Mysteries . Natural families oftentimes become extinct (Is there a remaining scion of Caesar Augustus?) but the Sacrament of Ordination, or Holy Orders guarantees that the Church will not become extinct on the earth. The Bishops do not rule in the place of Christ (Christ is the Church's only Ruler) so much as they make manifest the presence and love of Christ, and perpetuate the Church into the future by teaching and administering the Holy Mysteries, but primarily, they make manifest the love and presence of Jesus through consecration. The Bishops, possessing “the fullness of the consecrating power” consecrate altars for the offering of the Eucharist, they consecrate oil for the Mystery of Chrismation, they ordain priests and deacons, and they consecrate new bishops so that the Church will last forever and mankind can be saved.

Holy Unction/Healing

God does not only want to save our immaterial spirits. God who created our bodies, and who took on human flesh also wants to save our bodies. Thus He has given us the Mystery of Healing, which is also called Holy Unction. This Mystery is given for the continuance of Jesus’ ministry to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” , “heal the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” and for the “healing of all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease” . The form of the rite is hinted at in the New Testament where we find this command from St. James, the Brother of God and the first Bishop of Jerusalem:

“Are any among you sick? Let them call for the priests of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

This is the first of the seven Apostol readings in this rite. There are also seven Gospel readings. All of the readings have to do with healing. After each of the seven readings the priest anoints the suffering servant of God with oil and prays for healing, invoking the prayers of one of the various healing saints, such as St. Panteleimon. Each of the seven prayers ends with: “Holy Father, Physician of souls and bodies, Who sent Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ Who healed every illness and delivered from death, heal Thy servant from the weakness that holds his/her body, of either body or soul, and enliven him/her by the grace of Thy Christ, by the prayers of the All-holy Lady Theotokos and all the Saints.”

At the end of the rite the priest (or senior priest if more than one is administering the Mystery) lays the Gospel on the head of the afflicted and prays the Prayer of Absolution. I should note that the Ven. Alexander Schmemann might have had a different understanding of what the purpose of this mystery is. I have read what he has written about this Mystery several times and do not understand what he is saying. I understand the texts of the prayers and Bible readings as having to do with healing (spiritual and physical) but it seems that Ven. Alexander sees the Mystery of Healing as the way to experience joy and peace through participation with Christ's sufferings, even when our bodies are decaying and dying. However, my difficulty with Fr. Alexander might just be matter of emphasis. Fr. Thomas Hopko seems to have a more balanced understanding: “The express purpose of the sacrament of holy unction is healing and forgiveness. Since it is not always the will of God that there should be physical healing, the prayer of Christ that God's will be done always remains as the proper context of the sacrament. In addition, it is the clear intention of the sacrament that through the anointing of the sick body the sufferings of the person should be sanctified and united to the sufferings of Christ. In this way, the wounds of the flesh are consecrated, and strength is given that the suffering of the diseased person may not be unto the death of his soul, but for eternal salvation in the resurrection and life of the Kingdom of God.”


Catechism of the Orthodox Church (St. Tikhon's Religious Center: South Canaan, Pennsylvania)

McGrath, Alister E., Iustia Dei : A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd. Ed. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K., 1998)

St. Ambrose (Deferrari, Roy: Translator/Editorial Director), Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Vol. 44., St. Ambrose: Theological and Dogmatic Works (Catholic University of America Press: Washington, D.C., 1963)

Hopko, Thomas, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship: The Sacraments Accessed 14 June 2006

St. Dionysius (Campbell, Thomas L.: Translator/Annotator), Dionysius The Pseudo-Areopagite (University Press of America:Lanham, New York, London, 1981)

Schmemann, Ven. Alexander, The Eucharist (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1988)

Schmemann, Ven. Alexander, Of Water and the Spirit (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1974)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Lectures on the Christian Sacraments (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1977)

Schmemann, Ven. Alexander, Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Herder and Herder: New York, 1965)

St. John Chrysostom (Introduction by Roth, Catherine; Translation by Roth, Catherine and Anderson, David), On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 2000)