Sacraments in the Orthodox Church

   Sacraments have a crucial place in the theories and practices of the Orthodox Church. They are religious rites, spiritually perceptible means of salvation. Through visible signs and activities they give invisible divine bless, which cleanses from sins, sanctifies the human nature and gives its powers on the road to eternal life.

There are seven sacraments in the Orthodox Church :

People go through some of the sacraments (Christening, Chrismation and Holy Orders) only once. The other four can be performed many times (Marriage can take place up to two times and only in very special cases - three times). All members of the Church have to undergo the sacraments of Christening, Chrismation, Eucharist and Penance.

Every sacrament has two sides - visible, or outward, or invisible, or inward.

The visible aspect of the sacraments is the substance used when they are performed, the words that are uttered and the main actions that accompany them.

The invisible aspect is the mystery of accepting the blessed gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are unique for each sacrament.

  • Christening cleanses a person from sins and gives him or her a new life.
  • Chrismation gives divine gifts which the Christian needs to mature and strengthening in his or her new life.
  • At the Eucharist the believer accepts Christ's body and blood and thus merges with Jesus Christ.
  • Penance gives blessing and forgiveness of sins committed after the Christening.
  • At the Holy Orders a devout Christian receives a blessing necessary for his or her spiritual rebirth and for enlightening others through teaching and the sacraments.
  • Marriage blesses the Christian's matrimony and the natural birth and upbringing of his or her children.
  • The Unction cures physical diseases by healing spiritual disease, i.e. through forgiveness of the sins begged for in the prayers of the sacrament.

The Orthodox Church distinguishes between validity and effectiveness of the sacraments.

The following requirements need to be fulfilled for the sacrament to be valid:

  1. The performer has to be an authorised hierarchical person (presbyter or bishop);
  2. The performer has to invoke the Holy Spirit and utter the necessary sacramental formula and
  3. The substance needed for the sacrament should be present.

The effectiveness of the sacrament depends on the correct procedure of its performance and, which is especially important, on the frame of mind of the person for who the sacrament is carried out. The soul of the person to take part in a sacrament needs to be ready to accept God's grace.

The sacraments are a means of sanctification of the devout Christians. They, however, do not function magically or grant holiness. Holiness comes as a result of a lot of efforts, with faith, hope and love. Everyone receives equal grace during the sacraments, but this grace increases or diminishes depending on our actions, just as seeds are planted in different soil and some of them die and some yield bounteous fruit.

All sacraments were established by Jesus Christ. They can be performed only in the Church, whose head is Jesus Christ Himself and in which the Holy Spirit resides eternally.

The sacrament of Baptism

Jesus Christ established the sacrament of Baptism immediately after His Resurrection, when He appeared to His disciples and told them: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19).

At Baptism the Christian is immersed three times in water and utters the names of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, thus cleansing himself or herself from the original sin and from his or her personal sins (if he or she is an adult). The Christian is thus reborn for a new righteous life in union with God.

Baptism is the only sacrament performed on non-Christians. Through Baptism a person becomes a Christian. It is a gateway to the Church and a requirement for participating in its blissful spiritual live. The baptising performed by St John was not a sacrament - it was a preparation for the Christian Baptism.

The visible aspect of the sacrament of Baptism is the immersion in water and the sacral baptising invocation: "The servant of God is baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost". Water may be only poured over or sprinkled if the person is sick and weak.

The following rituals, too, comprise the external aspect:

  1. Denunciation of the devil,
  2. Putting on a white dress,
  3. Positioning of a cross over the christened and
  4. Lighting of candles and walking around the dome.
  1. The devil is denounced so that he stays away from the baptised person.
  2. Putting on a white garment is a symbol of spiritual purity which a person receives through baptism and which has to be cherished throughout the whole of one's life.
  3. Placing of a cross on the baptised person is a sign that this person belongs to Christ and like Christ has to bear the cross of his life.
  4. The burning candles and the walk around the dome are an expression of spiritual joy and happiness. The burning candles indicate that the baptised person has to give out spiritual sight. The circle is a symbol of eternity thus walking around a circle shows to the newly-baptised person that he or she has to belong to Christ eternally.

The invisible aspect of the sacrament of Baptism is the effect God's grace has on the baptised person. God's blessing cleanses him or her from the original sin and from his of her personal sins (if he or she is an adult), and thus this blessed person is reborn for a new, righteous life.
 Cross, XIX C.

God's grace does not function mechanically. It does not by itself bring the salvation of the individual. What it does is it helps, stimulates and strengthens a person's will on the way to moral perfection and salvation. The blissful effect of Baptism restores the powers of the human spirit making a person able to grow freely and flourish in the righteousness.

The person willing to be baptised needs to have faith and be repentant (cf. Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38). The Orthodox Church baptises both adults and children. Indeed, children do not have faith and they cannot be repentant, but they are baptised because of the faith of their parents and godparents. The circumcision of eight-day old babies in the Old Testament has been replaced with Baptism in the New Testament. Small children are not required to repent as thy have no personal sins. At Baptism they are released from the original sin of the arch-parents.

There have always been martyrs for faith throughout the history of Christianity. Very often people who had not been baptised were killed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. This is called baptism of blood, i.e. the martyr was baptised in his or her own blood, through which he or she gave evidence of the strength of his of her faith.

Presbyters and bishops are authorised to perform the sacrament of Baptism. But in extreme circumstances (chiefly when in risk of imminent death) Baptism could be performed by deacons or even laymen, as long as they have already been baptised in the name of the Triune God. It is self-evident that deacons, having been ordained into the first hierarchical degree, are baptised too.


The sacrament of Chrismation

The second sacrament in the Orthodox Church is Chrismation.
A person needs air, light and food to sustain his or her life on earth and grow physically, and a person born for spiritual life also needs the blissful power of the Holy Spirit to help him or her not only sustain their spiritual life, but also grow and flourish in it.

Chrismation is a sacrament that imparts to a baptised person power from on high, which is would make that person stronger and more mature in the new life. Chrismation is performed by anointing different parts of the body with holy chrism and uttering the sacramental formula: "A seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Chrismation as a sacrament was established by Jesus Christ as a means of sanctification of man. Jesus Christ promised that when the day of His glory comes He would give to all those who believe in Him the gifts of the Holy Spirit: "On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified" (John 7:37039). Here He speaks of the gifts given with Chrismation.

What we now know as Chrismation was the baptism with the Holy Spirit done by the apostles with the laying of the hands.
This sacrament gives the baptised person the bliss of the Holy Spirit, which helps him or her grow in spiritual life, serves as a guiding light to the truths of faith needed for salvation, and strenthens piety.

The visible aspect of the sacrament is the anointing the forehead, the breast, the eyes, the ears, the mouth, the hands and the feet of the christened person with holy oil. The anointing is made with in the form of a cross and each time the performer of the sacrament (the presbyter or the bishop) utters the sacral formula "Seal of the Holy Spirit's gift". Holy chrism is applied to the forehead to consecrate the mind and the thoughts, to the breast - to consecrate the heart or the wishes, to the eyes, the ears and the mouth - to consecrate the actions and the overall behaviour of the christened person.

The invisible aspect is the spiritually-beneficial aspect, which gives to the newly-christened person blissful gifts from the Holy Spirit for gaining strength and moving forward in the new life.
Chrismation is performed by presbyters and bishops. The holy chrism is consecrated by the patriarch together with the bishops.

The blissful gifts received at the sacrament of Chrismation have an effect upon the whole life of the Christian and this is why this sacrament, like Baptism, is not repeated.


The sacrament of the Eucharist

The Eucharist is a sacrament in which the devout and baptised Christian takes in Jesus Christ's blood and body in the form of bread and wine. This act unites the believer with Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ established the sacrament of the Eucharist shortly the crucifixion, at the Last Supper: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 22.26-28)
 Silver cup, 1779 C.

The visible aspect of the sacrament of the Eucharist includes:

  1. The substances used at the sacrament - bread, water and wine,
  2. The service during which the sacrament is performed and
  3. The words which when uttered transform the bread and the wine into Christ's flesh and blood.

The bread has to be wheaten and leaven, of pure quality and purely prepared. The wine has to be pure, made of grapes, like the wine with which Christ performed the sacrament; it has to be red and resemble in colour the blood Christ shed at Golgotha, and diluted in water - to recall the blood and water that ran out of Christ's ribs when He was crucified.

The invisible aspect of the Eucharist is the sublime moment when the power of the Holy Spirit transforms the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. This is a great and inexplicable mystery. What we know is that this transformation does happen and by taking in what has the form of bread and wine we take in Christ's blood and body. We know that God's word is real and omnipotent but it is impossible for us to comprehend how this transformation takes place.

Through the communion with the holy Secrets at the Eucharist the Christians enter a closest union with Christ Himself and in Him they become part of the eternal life.

Every Christian has to go through the sacrament of the Eucharist because it is a source of spiritual food and eternal bliss.

All Christians, children or adults, who have been baptised and gone through chrismation are ready to unite with Christ's body and blood and accept them after a necessary preparation. The communion with the holy Secrets consecrates the souls and bodies of the devout Christians and gives them divine grace. Adults are expected to prepare through the Eucharist with fasting and praying and then clear their conscience in the sacrament of Confession.

The Eucharist is not only a sacrament that unites us with Christ. It is also a sacrifice made for the sake of both the living and the dead. The congregation at a holy Liturgy receives a blessing by offering a bloodless sacrifice with prayer and faith.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is the most important part of the blissful life of the Church.

The sacrifice made at the Eucharist and the sacrifice made on Golgotha are of equal force because they offer the same body and shed the same blood. The difference between them is that the Golgotha sacrifice is a sacrifice of blood while the Eucharist sacrifice is bloodless, commemorative.


The sacrament of Penance

Penance is a sacrament in which the devout Christian openly and directly confesses his or her sins and receives forgiveness from the priest. Thus that person's sins are forgiven directly by God Himself and the he or she regains the purity and innocence attained at baptism.

Penance existed in the Old Testament as an expression of one's awareness of his ro her sinfulness. David sincerely repented the sins he had committed. St John the Baptist preached for repentant baptising. Although penance in the Old Testament was beneficial for man, it did not have the blissful power to cleanse man from all sins and bring about reconciliation with God.

Penance was established as a sacrament by Jesus Christ. After the Resurrection He told his disciples: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (John 20:22-23).

The power to forgive or not to forgive sins is blissful and mysterious. The apostles, who received this power from Jesus Christ, bestowed it upon their followers. It is thus that it is being preserved in the Church eternally.

The visible aspect of the sacrament of Penance includes the spoken confession of the sins of the repentant believer to God and in the presence of the father confessor, and the forgiveness of the sins by the confessor, who does this on behalf of God.

The invisible aspect of the sacrament of Penance is the releasing from sins of the repentant by Jesus Christ Himself through God's blessing. This reconciles the repentant with God and gives him or her hope for salvation. Jesus forgave the sins of the sinner repentant on the cross and destined him for eternal and blissful life.

The sincere penance for the committed sins is accompanied with a firm decision never to return to them. The eager willingness to remedy our lives is a natural consequence of the real defeat over sins, because we cannot in effect overcome the sins we have committed without having a sincere desire to change our way of life. Fast and the prayer are an important preparation for Penance. Fasting, accompanied with sincere praying, helps us concentrate on ourselves, analyse and repent the sins we have committed.

Considering specific individual needs the Church has ordered confession to be accompanied with prohibition. Like the physician, who prohibits certain foods and prescribes certain medicines, the priest prohibits certain things and prescribes other to help the spiritual convalescence of the confessing person.


The sacrament of Holy Orders

The sacrament of Holy Orders brings to a person grace from the Holy Ghost that sanctifies him and gives him a specific hierarchical degree. It is performed when the prelate with a prayer lays his hands on the head of the ordained person and utters a specific sacramental formula. This helps the ordained person perform his hierarchical duties and lead the flock he is in charge with if he is a presbyter or a bishop.
 Cover from the Gospel of Shtipsko, XIIV C.

Jesus Christ established the sacrament of Holy Orders after His resurrection, when he appeared to His students and told them: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:21-23).

These words show that God has given the power and authority of the hierarchical persons to forgive and not to forgive. Thus it is clear that there is a special sacrament through which power and authority are vested into specific people.

The birthday of the church, when all sacraments are in reality performed, is the Pentecost. It was on that day that the Apostles received the Holy Spirit's grace, which was necessary for their spiritual service. The Holy Spirit helped them chose from among the believers some that were worthy of pastoral service and through laying of hands passed on to them the bliss of the Holy Orders. This continuity within the Church is unbreakable and will be sustained until the end of the world.

The visible aspect of the sacrament of ordinance is the prelate's laying of his hands on the head of the ordained person and reading a special prayer for grace from the Holy Spirit.

The invisible aspect is that the ordained person receives blissful gifts from the Holy Spirit that are needed for the pastoral service.

The grace bestowed at the sacrament of Holy Orders is one, but it is given in different degrees: in a smaller degree to the deacon, in a larger to the priest and in the largest to the bishop. The difference between the three hierarchical degrees (deacon, presbyter and bishop) is the following: the deacon helps the presbyter and the bishop perform sacraments but he cannot officiate at a sacrament himself; given the blessing of the bishop, the presbyter can perform all sacraments except Holy Orders; the bishop not only performs all sacraments, but he can also ordain others. A deacon and a priest are ordained by one bishop, and a bishop by at least two bishops.

The grace deacons, presbyters and bishops receive at their ordinance remains in their souls forever. That is why neither the bishop, nor the presbyter nor the deacon needs to be ordained more than once in the same hierarchical degree. The sacrament of ordinance is not repeated.


The sacrament of Marriage

Marriage is a sacrament in which the bride and bridegroom become man and wife in the name of love and solemnly promise in front of the Church to be true to each other. Through the performer of the sacrament they receive divine grace. This grace sanctifies their marital union and elevates it to the status of the spiritual union between Jesus Christ and the Church. It helps them achieve the three main purposes of marriage: mutual endorsement on the way to moral strengthening, blissful birth of children and Christian upbringing of these children.
 Golden wedding-ring from the "Welikata Lawra"- Monastery

God established marriage as a union between man and woman in heaven, when He created the first human couple.

According to the Orthodox tradition Marriage is a sacrament. Speaking to the Pharisees Jesus Christ repeated the words with which God initiated the matrimonial union in heaven and added "What God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19:6). St Apostle Paul calls the matrimonial connection a "profound mystery" and compares it to the connection between Jesus and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

The visible aspect of the sacrament of Marriage consists of the laying of a wreath on the heads of the bride and bridegroom, the threefold solemn blessing of their matrimonial union by the minister and the uttering of a short prayer to God. The sacramental prayer is the following: "Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honour." During this ritual God Himself invisibly blesses the newly married couple and the two of them become one.

The burning candles carried by the bride and bridegroom are a symbol of the spiritually blissful light received during the sacrament. The exchange of rings and the tasting of wine from the same cup show that from that moment on the wife and husband have to share joys and sorrows and always help each other.

Walking in the middle of the church reveals their spiritual joy and their eternal connection.

The invisible aspect of the sacrament of Marriage is the consecration of the matrimonial union by the divine grace, similarly to the union between Christ and the Church, and the help this grace gives to the husband and wife to fulfil praiseworthily their duties.

Marriage is the only sacrament performed to two people at the same time and making them one whole entity.
Considering the human weakness and vulnerability the Orthodox Church allows divorce, but only in case of adultery. (cf. Matthew 5:32)


Unction of the Sick

The Holy Unction helps a person overcome an illness. Parts of the body of the sick person are anointed with holy unction and a prayer calls for God's grace to heal that person's physical illnesses and spiritual discomfort.

The Holy Scripture does not specify the exact time when Jesus Christ established this sacrament. It is believed that He ordered the Unction after His Resurrection, when he spoke to His disciples about healing sick people through laying of hands (cf. Mark 16:18).
As early as in the times of the Apostles anointing with unction was used as an alternative to the laying of hands (cf. James 5:14-15).

The visible aspect of the Unction of the sick comprises the prayers (perceived as words) and the actions that accompany them, as well as the Gospel, the Cross, the candles, the wheat, the wine and the unction.

The Gospel and the Cross symbolise our salvation. The seven candles are a symbol of the Holy Spirit's seven gifts. The wheat reminds the sick person that just as dry grain can grow and yield fruit, so can the diseased person restore his or her health with God's power and the prayers of the Church, or, if he or she dies, come back to life in a new and imperishable body, just as a new plant is born from the wheat grain. The unction and the wine recall the merciful Samaritan who washed the wounds of the person attacked by bandits with unction and wine (cf. Luke 10:34).

The invisible aspect of the Unction of the sick is the effect of the physically and spiritually healing power of God.
It is true that the sick person does not always come back to health after the Unction has been performed. But it is equally true that those who undergo this sacrament with strong faith receive at least a temporary relief or, which is more important, receive grace that helps them endure the pain patiently. And this is of enormous importance for the devout Christian.