Being Orthodox 9: A Mysterious Faith10.0104

A “Mystery” in the Orthodox Church is what is called a sacrament in the West. This work of the Holy Spirit is the very life of the Church.


We saw in the post on the importance of the Apostolic Tradition and its reflection in the writings of the ancient Fathers that the very first Christians truly believed that a miracle happened in the Eucharist, and that in a mystery, Christ became truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, so that they became His true flesh and blood. This is one illustration of the fact that the idea of the Holy Spirit working mysteriously in our lives goes all the way back to Apostolic times. When Christ ascended to heaven, He promised not to leave His followers orphaned. He sent to them His own Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete (or ‘Advocate’), the Comforter. In this way, God dwells constantly and powerfully amongst His people.


The Apostolic Churches (and a small minority of Protestant Churches) have maintained this faith in the continuous presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the Church through what is generally called in the west, the sacraments. However, the Orthodox prefer the word ‘Mystery’ (Greek / Coptic ‘mysterion’; Arabic ‘serr’) to the word ‘Sacrament’. The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin ‘sacramentum’ which means an oath. It was apparently first applied to baptism, signifying that being baptised involved promising to be a true follower of Christ (until today in the Coptic Baptism rite, the baptised or their parents still make a public oath to reject the devil and all that is evil, and to follow Christ and all that is good). But in the East, the word ‘mystery’ was used, perhaps to indicate that the nature of what happened was hidden from non-Christians. But Eastern theology also emphasises the fact that what happens when the Holy Spirit works in us is something far, far beyond the comprehension of the human mind, something in the liturgical words of St Gregory the Theologian that is “more than we ask or understand”.


The historical evidence suggests that although the Mysteries were well known from the earliest Christian times, they were not limited to the seven Mysteries we now teach in the Coptic Church, namely: Baptism, Chrismation or Confirmation; Eucharist; Repentance and Confession; Marriage; Unction of the Sick; and Priesthood or Holy Orders. The early Church, and the Orthodox Churches today, do not limit the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit to just those seven specific circumstances, but sees the work of the Holy Spirit extending far beyond them, into every aspect of our lives. In fact, it was only from around the twelfth century that the Western Church began to limit the number and character of the sacraments and to try to define them accurately. Some have suggested that this was in response to the more open understanding of the Eastern Church.[1] This process of formalisation and definition took its present form at the Council of Trent in 1547, when the Roman Catholic Church formally defined the seven Sacraments and what they mean, in response to attacks on sacramentality by the new-born Protestant movement. Nonetheless, due to Western influence, the Coptic Church now often teaches the “Seven Sacraments”, and since the understanding of a Mystery does not differ that much between the Catholic and Orthodox, perhaps it is not a big deal, although I do think the Orthodox approach of not limiting the Holy Spirit makes a lot more sense.


The practice of counting the sacraments was adopted in the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholics. It is not an ancient practice of the Church and, in many ways, it tends to be misleading since it appears that there are just seven specific rites which are “sacraments” and that all other aspects of the life of the Church are essentially different from these particular actions. The more ancient and traditional practice f the Orthodox Church is to consider everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical. (Fr Thomas Hopko, “The Orthodox Faith: An Elementary Handbook on the Orthodox Church. Volume 2: Worship”, 1972, Department of Religious Education, The Orthodox Church in America. This quote from page 25 of the 1997 reprint).


Only in the seventeenth century, when Latin influence was at its height, did this list become fixed and definite. Before that date Orthodox writers vary considerably as to the number of sacraments: John of Damascus speaks of two; Dionysius the Areopagite of six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), of ten; and those Byzantine theologians who in fact speak of seven sacraments differ as to the items which they include in their list. Even today the number seven has no absolute dogmatic significance for Orthodox theology, but is used primarily as a convenience in teaching. (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, 1993, “The Orthodox Church”,Chapter 14)


Indeed, we pray in the Third Hour of the Agbia (the Coptic Orthodox Book of Canonical Hours) that the Holy Spirit “is present in all places and fills all”. To limit His presence or work to seven Mysteries seems just wrong.


If there are minor differences in the understanding of the Mysteries between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, there are major differences between the Apostolic and non-Apostolic Churches. Although both Martin Luther and John Calvin accepted and held onto the concept of sacraments (although they held to less than the Catholic seven) the majority of Protestants today, especially Evangelical Protestants, reject the ancient concept of a Mystery altogether. They see in these events nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Where the Apostolic Churches sees the real Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, they see only a ‘remembrance’, a commemoration of a past event, but not its reliving. Where the Apostolic Churches believe that a person spiritually dies and is reborn in baptism, they see only a symbolic expression of commitment to the Christian faith. And we could go on in like manner for the other Mysteries.


In fact, the Mysteries are an integral part of the Orthodox Christian’s life. As we saw in the earlier post on how we understand Christian salvation, Christ came to restore humanity to the life God had always intended for us, and to defeat the power of death and corruption that had robbed us of that life and held us captive. The Mysteries are the continuation or perhaps the implementation of that mission. In baptism, the old man dies with Christ on the Cross and the new man is born with the resurrected Christ. The corruption of this fallen world is washed away from us. In Chrismation, we invite the presence of the Holy Spirit in us, and are filled with His power which guides and comforts us and leads us to all truth. I consider the Eucharist to be the very centre of our lives, the time when we come in the closest, most intimate contact with Christ Himself, when we become actually one with Him, so that He dwells within us, sanctifying, purifying, transforming us. Could there be any more direct way of being restored to the image of God than by becoming actually one with Him? Through repentance and confession we lay our corruption before God and He wipes it away, restoring us to the purity which is our intended nature. The couple united by the mystery of marriage experiences the most intimate form of love possible between two human beings, surrendering themselves and their whole lives to one another freely and joyfully, a lifelong act in which we adopt the image of the God who surrendered Himself, body and soul for our salvation. In the unction of the sick, we pray for the healing of the body and soul of those who have been touched and damaged by the corruption that fills our fallen world and allows things like diseases of the body, mind and spirit to afflict us. And finally, the priesthood are ordained to dedicate their lives to washing the feet of humanity, no matter how smelly, in imitation of Christ’s humble service.


We need the Mysteries because we cannot find spiritual healing on our own. All of us have experienced the frailty of human nature, the weakness of will, the divided heart, the repeated disappointment. With our Protestant brothers and sisters we cry out for the saving grace of God, for we know that without it we are lost. But we have an avenue to that grace that is tried and tested in the fires of history, the Mysteries have transformed and sustained countless generations of Christians since the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles of Christ. And so we ask our Protestant friends, why reject this wonderful grace?


The likely reason behind that rejection is that the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century and beyond could not separate the Catholic sacraments from the Catholic hierarchy who administered them, albeit often corruptly. Human frailty in the clergy sadly resulted in the rejection of the cure for human frailty by those who sincerely sought it. Out of their bitter experiences, many of the reformers concluded that the Church would be better off without priesthood altogether, and if that meant giving up the sacraments they dispensed, then so be it. I see this as a classical example of the old adage, ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. The Church needs clergy, and that shall be our next topic.


[1] Halsall, Paul. 1998. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Seven Sacraments: Catholic Doctrinal Documents” Fordham University. accessed November 2013.

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