The Orthodox Church is vastly different from the various Christian denominations in how it approaches the Holy Mysteries. If you’re thinking, “what are the Mysteries?”, they are those miraculous acts which are part of Liturgies and church services and are often referred to as “sacraments”.
The word “sacrament” is Western in origin and used heavily in Western denominations, and while it is not wrong to use this word it does not reflect the Orthodox position on these miraculous parts of our services.
The difference between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic position on the Mysteries is summed up by this difference in wording. To take Holy Communion as an example, the Roman Catholic position is that the process by which the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ is transubstantiation. This explanation of the process is the difference. The Orthodox teaching on Holy Communion is that while the bread and wine transforms into the Body and Blood of Christ, the process cannot be explained. We Orthodox only know what the result is and that the Holy Spirit is acting in these moments, acknowledging that the rest is unknown and unknowable. Hence this is why the Orthodox call these acts “Mysteries”. The other reason why they are called Mysteries is because they are not available to non-believers.
In the Roman Catholic tradition there are only seven sacraments, but it is traditionally not the same in the Orthodox Church. The idea of there only being seven arose in the West and entered Orthodox catechisms after the Council of Lyons in 1274. Other acts are treated as mysteries by the Church Fathers, including funeral rites, monastic consecration and even the making of the sign of the Cross. The seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic tradition are also present in the Orthodox Church mysteries, although these are done very differently as will be explained in subsequent articles. These are:
Some Protestant traditions have maintained some of these sacraments but very few maintain all of them. When they are done, they are often not done in ways which would be satisfactory in the Orthodox Church. The Calvinist and Reformed tradition has only kept two of the sacraments it received from the Roman Catholic tradition: Baptism and Communion. These are the two which are regularly kept in the many Protestant denominations. Coming back to the Orthodox Church, it is important to understand that these mysteries play an important part in our everyday lives. Unlike some Protestant denominations, which rarely if ever engage with the sacraments, we Orthodox take part in this life of Christ as often as possible.
There were many times throughout history when the Orthodox faithful did not engage with the Mysteries as much as they should have, and in each of these circumstances the clergy and bishops pulled them back into line. One instance from Constantinople in the 4th and 5th centuries involved the faithful not partaking of Holy Communion as much as they should, only taking it a few times a year as a way of showing reverence for the Mystery and in order to prepare properly. St John Chrysostom criticised this, and showed that cutting oneself off from the mysteries would only have a detrimental effect on one’s spiritual life as it is really a separation from the life of the Church.
These mysteries are so important in the Orthodox Church because they are among the main means by which we are able to grow closer to God, alongside prayer, fasting and partaking in the liturgical life of the Church. All of these mysteries are a path to Christ and to transcend our fallen human nature according to St Nicholas Cabasilas.
In our modern times we often hear the question “Why can’t I just pray to God in my room?” or some variant thereof. The Mysteries are one key reason to partake in the life of the Church, as the Mysteries can only be performed by priests.
This eight-part series will continue with an examination of the first mystery in the lives of all Orthodox, Holy Baptism.