Rituals and Sacraments

Rituals and Sacraments


It is difficult to open a book of systematic theology and not find reference to “the seven sacraments,” often capitalized for greater effect: The Seven Sacraments. They take their place in a list of other enumerated realities—the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. They don’t all come in groups of seven. The list also knows of the Four Cardinal Virtues and the Three Theological Virtues. It is all very organized and tidy, like things filed neatly in a large drawer. Each of the Seven Sacraments can be further analyzed into three further parts, each Sacrament having the proper Form, the proper Matter, and the proper Intention. All three must be present, the systematic theology texts tell us, for the sacrament to be a real sacrament. Like I said, it is all very tidy.

Too tidy, in fact, because the Church bestows life from Christ, and life is never that tidy. If, as the proverb goes, a tidy desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, I suggest that a tidy theology is a sign of a church that has lost its way among the clutter of the world—or at least is guilty of a serious reductionism, for truly abundant life resists analysis.

Take for example, something as common as one’s love for one’s wife. If a husband tried to reduce his relationship with his spouse to The Seven Forms of Love, he would be guilty of reducing something rich to something immeasurably poorer. He would also probably spend a lot of time sleeping on the couch.

That is perhaps why the Fathers never bothered to define a sacrament, much less to offer a comprehensive list of them. Come to that, they never bothered defining the Church either, and for the same reason—the reality was too rich and overwhelming. It could be described (and they often did describ it), but never defined, so that one looks in vain for a clear and comprehensive Ecclesiology in the Fathers of the kind that could later be found among the Scholastics, the Reformers, and the Counter-Reformers. This omission is significant. The theologies of the Fathers were untidy, because they were true.

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, and the Eucharist, and ordination, and anointing, and marriage, and confession, and burial, and tonsuring into monasticism, and blessing Holy Water, and many, many other things. The one thing we can’t do is reduce it all to a tidy system, so that what applies to one ritual reality 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 and hard to understand. A mystery, as Agatha Christie uses the word, is indeed a story about something we do not understand or know—such as whodunit. There are lots of characters in these mysteries, and no one knows at the outset who the villain of the piece is. His identity is thus “a mystery,” and we don’t find out until the last few pages that it was Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead pipe.

But a “mystery” as the Church uses the word is not about something which Christians cannot understand, but about something that Christians do understand, at least experientially. The element of mystification is for the world, not for the Christians. In that sense, the Gospel itself is a mystery (see Romans 16:25), for it is something the wisdom of which 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 in this article, I use the term “sacrament” to refer 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 together in His Name, even if the gathering is as small as two or three (Matthew 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 together 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. Regardless of what certain television evangelists suggest, you cannot find sacramental healing by placing your hand on the television set, nor have Holy Communion when alone in your house, even if you do have bread and wine (or more likely, bread and grape juice) on hand. Even drive-in churches (remember them?) are “iffy.” One needs to gather together in a single assembly to have Church and to experience the Church’s sacraments. After all, “assembly” is what the word “church” (Greek ekklesia) really means.


Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979 before serving Anglican parishes in central Canada. He converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and spent two years at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the O.C.A., St. Herman of Alaska Church.

The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C., where they worship each Sunday. The community has planted a number of ‘daughter churches’, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence has written a number of books, published by Conciliar Press, including the Bible Study Companion Series, with verse-by-verse commentaries on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, the Early Epistles, the Prison Epistles, the Pastoral Epistles, the Catholic Epistles, and the Book of Revelation, as well as a volume about how to read the Old Testament , entitled The Christian Old Testament. He has also written a commentary on the Divine Liturgy, entitled, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. SVS Press has published his book on Feminism and Tradition, examining such topics as the ordination of women and deaconesses. He has also written a synaxarion (lives of Saints), published by Light and Life, entitled A Daily Calendar of Saints, recently updated and revised and available through his blog. He has also written a series of Akathists, published by Alexander Press, including Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness, Akathist to the Most-Holy Theotokos, Daughter of Zion, A New Akathist to St. Herman of Alaska, Akathist: Glory to the God who Works Wonders (a rehearsal of the works of God from Genesis to Revelation). His articles have appeared in the Canadian Orthodox Messenger (the official diocesan publication of the Archdiocese of Canada), as well as in the Orthodox Church (the official publication of the O.C.A.), in The Handmaiden and AGAIN magazine (from Conciliar Press).

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio, the Coffee Cup Commentaries. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at the local Regent College, Vancouver. He can also be found on his personal blog, Straight from the Heart.

Fr. Lawrence lives in Surrey with his wife, Donna. They have two daughters, and three grandchildren.