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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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The Mysteries or Sacraments

The inward life of the Church is mystical (or sacramental). (The wordmysteries” (Greek mysteria) is

the term used in the Orthodox East; “sacraments” (Latin sacramenta), the term used in the Latin West. Since the

latter term was used in the West before the schism of the Roman Church, there is nothing wrong with its usage by

Orthodox Christians of the West, especially since few people around them are familiar with the wordmysteries;”

but Orthodox people often prefer to use the Greek term. The adjectival formmystical,” used in the East, has of

course a rather different and more inward connotation than the Western adjectivesacramental,” which refers more

specifically to the outward rites of the Mysteries.) It does not at all coincide with the history of the

Church, which shows us only the outward facts of the Church’s existence, and especially its coming

into conflict with the life of the world and the passions of the world The inward life of the

Church is the mystical cooperation of Christ as the Head, with the Church as His Body, in the

Holy Spirit, by means of all mutually strengthening ties: “This it a great mystery: but I speak

concerning Christ and the Church, instructs the Apostle(Eph. 5:32).

Therefore when the Apostles called themselves “stewards of the mysteries of God,” saying,

“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God

(1 Cor. 4:1, in Greek, oikonomous mysterion Theou), they have in mind various forms of their

ministry and stewardship, as for example: a) preaching, b) the baptism of those who have come

to believe, c) the bringing down of the Holy Spirit through ordination, d) the strengthening of the

unity of the faithful with Christ through the Mystery of the Eucharist, and e) the further deepening

of the hearts of the faithful in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, the deepening of the

more perfect among them in “the wisdom of God an a mystery, even the hidden wisdom(1 Cor.

2:6-7).Thus the activity of the Apostles was full of mystical elements (mysterion). Among them the

central or culminating place was occupied by sacred rites. Therefore it is entirely natural that in

the Church’s life the series of special and most important moments of grace-given ministry, the

series of sacred rites, gradually acquired preeminently the name of “mysteries.” St. Ignatius the

God-bearer, an immediate disciple of the Apostles, writes concerning deacons that they likewise

are “servants of the mysteries of Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Trallians, par. 2). These words of

St. Ignatius overturn the assertion of Protestant historians that in the ancient Church the concept

of “mysteries” or “sacraments” was supposedly never applied to the Church’s sacred rites.

The sacred rites calledmysteries” are, as it were, peaks in a long mountain range composed

of the remaining rites and prayers of the Divine services.

In the Mysteries, prayers are joined with blessings in one form or another, and with special

acts. The words of blessing accompanied by outward sacred acts are, as it were, spiritual vessels

by which the grace of the Holy Spirit is scooped up and given to the members of the Church who

are sincere believers.

Thus, “a mystery (sacrament) is a sacred act which under a visible aspect communicates to

the soul of a believer the invisible grace of God.”

The name of “mystery” has become established in the Church as referring to seven rites:

Baptism, Chrismation, Communion (the Eucharist), Repentance, Priesthood, Matrimony, and

Unction. (In the Orthodox East, one may say, seven is not regarded as the “absolutenumber of the Mysteries, as it

tends to be regarded in the Latin West. Most commonly, it is true, only seven Mysteries are spoken of but certain

other sacred rites, such as the monastic tonsure, might also be considered, informally, as “Mysteries.”) The Longer

Christian Catechism thus defines the essence of each Mystery:

“In Baptism man is mystically born into spiritual life. In Chrismation he receives grace

which gives growth and strengthens. In Communion he is spiritually nourished. In Repentance he

is healed of spiritual diseases (sins). In Priesthood he receives the grace spiritually to regenerate

and nurture others, by means of teaching, prayer, and the Mysteries. In Matrimony he receives

grace which sanctifies marriage and the natural birth-giving and upbringing of children. In Unction

he is healed of diseases of the body by means of a healing of spiritual diseases.”

For the life of the Church itself as a whole, both as Body of Christ and as the “courtyard of

the flock of Christ,” the following are especially important and stand in the chief place: a) the

Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ, or the Eucharist; b) the Mystery of the sanctification of

chosen persons to the service of the Church in the degrees of the hierarchy, or ordination, which

gives the indispensable structure of the Church; and together with these, c) the Mystery of Baptism,

which sees to the increase of the numbers of the Church. But the other Mysteries also,

which are appointed for the giving of grace to individual believers, are indispensable for the fullness

of the life and sanctity of the Church itself.

One must distinguish the “efficacy” of the Mystery (that is, that in itself it is an authentic

grace-giving power) from the “effectiveness” of the Mystery (that is, the extent to which one who

receives the Mystery is vouchsafed its grace-giving power). The Mysteries are “means which unfailingly

act by grace upon those who come to them,” as is said in the Epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs.

However, the fruitfulness of their reception by believers — their renewing and saving

powerdepends upon whether a man approaches the Mystery worthily. An unworthy reception

of it can draw upon oneself not justification, but condemnation. Grace does not interfere with the

freedom of man; it does not act upon him irresistibly. Often people, making use of the Mysteries

of faith, do not receive from them that which they could give; for their hearts are not open to re-ceive grace, or else they have not preserved the gifts of God which they have received This is

why it happens that baptized people not only do not fulfill the vows given by them or by their

sponsors at baptism, and not only are deprived of the grace of God already given to them, but often,

to their own spiritual perdition, they become the enemies of God, deniers, unbelievers,


By these facts of life the dignity of the Mysteries is by no means decreased. The great attainments

of sanctity, righteousness, the ranks of martyrs for the faith, confessors, ascetics and

wonderworkers, who even on earth became “earthly angels and heavenly men” — attainments

unheard of outside of true Christianity — are the action of the invisible grace of God, received in

baptism and chrismation, kept warm through repentance and communion of the Holy Mysteries,

and preserved in the humble and trembling awareness that in every ChristianChrist is the One

Who fights and conquers, and He is the One Who calls on God and prays and gives thanks and is

reverent, and seeks with entreaty and humility. All this Christ does, rejoicing and being glad

when He sees that in each Christian there is and remains the conviction that Christ is He Who

does all of this” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, Homily 4).

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