This is the first in a series of posts about the sacraments of the Orthodox Christian Church.
We hear about the Sacraments, and we know that they are part of our life in the church. Do we really know what the Sacraments are? If we do, is there more that we can learn about them? Whether we’re new converts, or we’ve been Orthodox our whole life, could there be a way for us to more fully enter into the Sacraments of the church? This series of posts will take a closer look at the Sacraments to help us begin!
So what, exactly, are the Sacraments? The glossary of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission’s wonderful student book, “The Way the Truth and the Life,” does not offer a definition for “Sacrament.” In that space, it simply says, “see Mystery.” The Orthodox Study Bible‘s glossary agrees, listing the following definition for “Sacrament:” “Literally, a ‘Mystery’. A Sacrament is a way in which God imparts grace to His people. Orthodox Christians frequently speak of seven sacraments, but God’s gift of grace is not limited only to these seven—the entire life of the Church is mystical and sacramental…” (2. p. 1786) It goes on to list some of the Mysteries that the Orthodox Church recognizes: Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Confession, Ordination, Marriage, and Healing or Unction. In each of these Mysteries, we rely on the Holy Spirit to work a change in us. “The Way the Truth and the Life” explains the use of the word “Mystery” in lieu of “Sacrament” as follows: “The Greek word mysterion was used by the Church Fathers to describe these acts. The word was translated to Latin as ‘sacrament’.” (1, p. 173) The Latin word for holy is “sacred,” so the Sacraments are all about making us holy.
Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory once wrote that Orthodox tradition does not limit the Sacraments to the seven listed above. Rather, “The more ancient and traditional practice of the Orthodox Church is to consider everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical. The Church may be defined as the new life in Christ. It is man’s life lived by the Holy Spirit in union with God. All aspects of the new life of the Church participate in the mystery of salvation. In Christ and the Holy Spirit everything which is sinful and dead becomes holy and alive by the power of God the Father. And so in Christ and the Holy Spirit everything in the Church becomes a Sacrament, an element of the mystery of the Kingdom of God as it is already being experienced in the life of this world.” (3)
So, whether we use the word “Sacrament” or “Mystery,” and whether we count seven of them or more, our Orthodox Christian life should be pushing us towards increased holiness! May we be mindful of that reality, and press on to become ever more holy, by the grace of God. As we do so, we will encourage and enable others to help us, and to join us.
- Hopko, Fr. Thomas (2011, October 5). The Sacraments. Retrieved from http://ww1.antiochian.org/sacraments.
- Various editors. (2008). The Orthodox Study Bible. USA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. (available here: http://store.ancientfaith.com/osb-hardcover)
- Various editors. (2005). The Way the Truth the Life. Yonkers, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission. (available here: https://store.antiochianvillage.org/The-Way-The-Truth-and-the-Life-Student-s-Edition.html)
Here are some links and ideas of ways to help our Sunday Church School students to learn more about the Sacraments:
Find illustrations of the sacraments on these puzzle blocks. http://store.ancientfaith.com/orthodox-block-puzzle-the-holy-sacraments-of-the-orthodox-church/ Teachers of young students may find that solving the puzzles with students is one way to introduce the idea of the sacraments to their class.
This picture book offers an overview of the sacraments, as well as an explanation of each. Teachers of younger Sunday Church School students may find it helpful in introducing a series of lessons about the sacraments: https://www.amazon.com/Christina-Learns-Sacraments-Maria-C-Khoury/dp/B007EVO56S
This “Be the Bee” episode (#119, “What is a Sacrament?”) takes a look at the sacraments and helps its viewers begin to better understand them. https://youtu.be/JN20cpM6zpQ It would be a great way for Sunday Church School teachers to introduce their students to the sacraments and begin to discuss what they are and how they help our Christian life.
Orthodox ABC offers several lessons (with printables!) about the sacraments. Find them here: http://www.orthodoxabc.com/faith-sacraments/
Find lessons about each sacrament at every age/grade level, here: http://orthodoxsundayschool.org/epistles-feasts
This printable image offers a short definition of each sacrament, as well as a scripture verse related to each one. Teachers of middle-years or older students may wish to refer to it as they introduce the sacraments to their students: http://orthodoxsundayschoolresources.tumblr.com/post/35064918375/the-seven-sacraments-of-the-orthodox-church-click
“Most of the Sacraments use a portion of the material of creation as an outward and visible sign of God’s revelation. Water, oil, bread and wine are but a few of the many elements which the Orthodox Church employs in her Worship. The frequent use of the material of creation reminds us that matter is good and can become a medium of the Spirit. Most importantly, it affirms the central truth of the Orthodox Christian faith: that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and entered into the midst of creation thereby redirecting the cosmos toward its vocation to glorify its Creator.”
Share this quote with older Sunday Church School students. Invite them to think of ways in which something material is transformed in each of the sacraments. Challenge them to look for the ways God transforms their life through each sacrament. (the quote comes from this article: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-sacraments)