In order to carry on His work of redemption “until the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20), our Lord Jesus Christ established the Church, investing it with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33) and all the necessary means of salvation. The most important of those means of salvation are the Sacraments.
Sacrament means something holy, something sacred. In our case it means a sacred rite which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, confers divine grace, i.e. a redeeming power of God on man’s soul. Since the work of the Holy Spirit in man’s soul remains a hidden reality covered with a mystery (Greek: mysterion, secret), we in the Byzantinetradition properly call the Sacraments the Holy Mysteries.
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) explains: “It is called mystery, because whatwe believe is notthe same as what we see; one thing we see and another we believe. For such is the nature of mysteries.” (Homily on I Cor. 7 :2).
1. In creating man, God made him to His “image and likeness” (Gen. 1 :26) and endowed him with the gift of divine life. After a trial on earth, man was then destined to eternal life with God in heaven. However, through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, man lost the gift of divine life in his soul and thus heaven became closed to him. Instead, man inherited suffering and sorrow, while sin took domination of his soul, leading him to the “eternal judgement”. (Hebr. 6:2).
In His infinitive love and mercy, God decided to save man. He therefore gave “His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (In. 3:16). By his sufferings and death Jesus has taken away the “sins of the world” (In. 1 :29) and obtained salvation for all. Therefore, having been “justified” by the grace of Christ, once more we become “heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Tit 3:7).
2. Jesus Christ came on earth that we “might have (divine) life and have it more abundantly” (In. 10:10). To initiate and to sustain this divine life in our soul He established the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which thus become the most important means of our salvation. The seven mysteries satisfy all of the fundamental needs of our spiritual life to which we are born through baptism “of water and the Holy Spirit” (In. 3:5). St. Paul describes the Mystery of Baptism as a “cleansing water of rebirth and renewal (of divine life) by the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5).
The simple birth, however, is not enough to stay alive. We must grow and become strong so that we can overcome all of the obstacles to our spiritual advancement. For this reason , through the Mystery of Chrismation (Confirmation), Jesus strengthens us with the “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), i.e., with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Divine life of grace, given to us by baptism. is then sustained and nourished by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, provided for us in the Holy Eucharist. Holy Communion thus becomes a token ofthe “eternallife” for us (In. 6:54).
These three mysteries are usually referred to as the Mysteries of Initiation, since through them divine life is restored to us and we become closely united with Jesus Christ, making us members of His Mystical Body, the Church (Col. 1 :18). Through them we become initiated into the Church. Consequently, from the very beginning of Christianity, these three mysteries were administered to the converts at the same time.
3. During our earthly pilgrimmage we remain exposed to temptations and frequently we become overwhelmed by sin, causing our spiritual sickness. As a remedy against sin and eventual spiritual death (loss ofthe divine life of grace) our Lord provided us with the Mystery of Repentance, by which our sins are forgiven and our spiritual health is restored. In the instances of serious physical sickness, the Church is ready to comfort us with the Mystery of Annointing, by which our sufferings become united with those of Christ “in hope of life eternal” (Tit 1 :2).
The Holy Annointing cleanses our soul from sin and often restores even our bodily health, as explained by St. James: “The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, they will be forgiven” (James 5:15).
So that the kingdom of God may expand, our Lord elevated the nuptial union of a Christian couple to the dignity of the Holy Mystery of Marriage, thus endowing them with grace to foster their mutual love (£ph. 5:32-33) and to secure a Christian education of their children (1 Cor 7:14).
The Church carries on Christ’s work of salvation through its ministers, invested by the power of the Holy Spirit, given to them by the imposition of the bishops’ hands. Thus, the Mystery of the Holy Orders provides the Church with the authentic “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1), leading the people of God toward salvation.
These seven Holy Mysteries (Sacraments)’ as instituted by Jesus Christ, were in use since apostolic times. A documentary evidence of their dispensation is given to us by the Holy Scriptures, supported by the writings of the Church Fathers.
4. The early Christians did not speculate about the Holy Mysteries. Instead, they availed themselves of their “marvelous power” (St. John Chrysostom) and tried to live by them as redeemed children of God (Col. 1 :10). They also were not concerned about a precise number of Holy Mysteries.
The primary concern ofthe Fathers was to instruct the candidates and to prepare them to receive the Holy Mysteries with as much spiritual benefit as possible. In an effort to satisfy the actual needs of the converts, they concentrated on the Mysteries of Initiation (Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist) and Holy Orders. The other mysteries were treated by the Fathers only incidentally, without much elaboration.
During the patristic period the dispensation of all seven Holy Mysteries was unanimous, and nobody tried to deny their validity, The Fathers, strictly adhering to the “discipline of secrecy”, limited their treatment to only the devotional and ascetical meaning of the mysteries, without any systematic presentation of sacramental doctrine as a whole. The “discipline of secrecy,” not to divulge the teaching of the Church concerning the Holy Mysteries, was based on the ban of Christ: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Mt. 7:6). Therefore St. Basil (d. 379) explains: “The Apostles and Fathers, who laid down the laws of the Church, from the beginning guarded the awful dignity of the Mysteries in secrecy and silence (cf. On the Holy Spirit, 27).
5. Although the number of Holy Mysteries was fixed at seven since the seventh century, we must nevertheless wait until the time of Scholasticism in the West (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) to give us a systematic presentation of the doctrine on the Holy Mysteries, known as Sacramental Theology. By the fourteenth century the Scholastic presentation, with some minor adaptations, was also accepted by the Byzantine Church.
It was the authority of Archbishop Simeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429) that finally fixed Byzantine theology on the Holy Mysteries in full harmony with the West (cf. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 155). Consequently, at the Council of Florence (1439) there was a complete agreement between the Byzantine and Roman Churches regarding the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). There may be some individual exceptions among the theologians, but the official position of the Byzantine Church remains unchanged to the present time.
When Cyril Lukaris, who became Patriarch of Constantinople by his personal intrigue, tried to introduce a Protestant teaching – that of admitting only two sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist) – he was promptly condemned by the Synod of Constantinople in 1638. The Synod of Jassy in 1642 then adopted the Orthodox Confession of Metropolitan Peter Mohy la of Kiev, containing the traditional teaching on the seven Holy Mysteries. The following year Mohyla’s Orthodox Confession was endorsed by the Synod of Constantinople, and eventually was accepted by all of the Eastern Churches. Thus, the traditional teaching ofthe Byzantine Church regarding the Holy Mysteries remains preserved to the present time.
6. The authentic Byzantine tradition, then, teaches that our Lord provided His Church with seven chief means of salvation – the Holy Mysteries. The Mysteries (Sacraments) are not only the channels of divine grace, but they also are perceptible signs (symbols) of the invisible grace of God, which they confer through the performance of the sacred rites.
St. John Chrysostom therefore describes the Holy Mysteries as “the symbols of our salvation perceivable through faith” (cf. 86 Homily on John, 4).
Throughout the centuries there were various attempts to give us a general definition of the Holy Mysteries. St. Augustine’s definition became a classic one since the fifth century : A Sacrament (Holy Mystery) is a visible sign of an invisible grace instituted by Christ. It remained in general use both in the West as well as in the East. The later theologians added only the purpose of the institution, namely: “for sanctification” or “for the salvation of man.”
The redeeming power of God (grace) and the working of the Holy Spirit in our soul are invisible and inperceptible to us. Jesus Christ therefore decided to confer His saving grace in a visible manner, through outward symbols or signs, the holy ritual, by which divine grace is implied and conferred. Thus, enlightened by our faith, we become certain of receiving divine grace through the invisible working of the Holy Spirit in our soul.
Since the redeeming grace was merited and comes to us through our Lord Jesus Christ (In. 1 :17), only Jesus had the power and authority to establish the Holy Mysteries as the primary means of our salvation. In our future leaflets, when discussing the individual mysteries, we will point out how and when our Lord had in fact instituted each mystery. During the centuries which followed the Church formed and elaborated a proper liturgical ritual for the administration of the Holy Mysteries, to make them more solemn and more meaningful to the faithful. However, it was Jesus Christ, and He alone, who instituted the seven Holy Mysteries, just as He instituted the Church to carryon His work of salvation.
On the Cover: Rome – Mosaic in the Basilica of St. John in Lateran.