The Orthodox Faith – The Sacraments (1A)

In the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and in some other churches, it is said that there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Ordination and Anointing. The last named sacrament is sometimes called Extreme Unction or the Last Rites, implying that it should only be given to a person on the point of death. This is quite wrong. It is a sacrament of healing. This will be treated in another article.
In the Orthodox Church the sacraments are officially called mysteries. However, the number seven is somewhat misleading.
The limiting of the sacraments to seven began only in the Western Middle Ages and was adopted by the Orthodox much later. Theologians have described the sacraments as “visible signs of invisible grace” In other words, the church takes ordinary material such as water or bread and wine and blesses it. In this way they become grace-bearing. From this point of view everything in the church is sacramental. It is important to realize that, in contrast to many religions and philosophies that say that this material world is something to be escaped from so the soul can go to heaven to live with God, or that material world is an illusion, we need to know that Christianity has always insisted that the material world is something real and good, created by a loving God. The Bible tells us that when God created the world “…God saw that it was good” (Gen 12). Now of course, there is much evil in the world. In addition to the evil things that human beings do with their own free will, there is much evil not caused by humans. There are diseases, earthquakes, illnesses of various sorts, and so on. Atheists ask us why a good God would allow such evil and ultimately we don’t know why God allows these things. The Church has always believed that this world “fell” when Adam and Eve fell into sin. Obviously we cannot prove this, but the idea that human sin is somehow related to the evil in the world is not so hard to believe. Because of this, we believe that when Christ comes again to raise the dead, he will redeem the material world also .As the Book of Revelation says
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev 21:1-5)
This world will not disappear but will be transformed just as our ordinary body will be transformed into a resurrection body. In this way we can say that the sacrament of the Church are foreshadowing of the coming transformation and resurrection. To quote from the Book of Isaiah which is read at the Great Blessing of Water on Theophany
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein. No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Is 35)

The use of bread, wine, oil, water, in the sacraments is a way of participating in and foreshadowing the coming transformation of the world.

Fr. John

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