The term mysteries refers to “an invisible sign of an inward grace.” Saint John Chrysostom (347–407) wrote that they are called mysteries because what we believe is not the same as what we see. Instead, we see one thing and believe another. For example, we see bread and wine, but believe them to be the very Body and Blood of Christ.
Generally, the Church recognizes seven mysteries. These include:
- Baptism—the first mystery of initiation in which we are united to Christ and raised together with Him in the likeness of His Resurrection. We are made new creatures in Him. In the Orthodox Church is performed by triple immersion in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
- Chrismation—the second mystery of initiation in which we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. If Baptism is our personal Resurrection, Chrismation is our personal Pentecost. In the Orthodox Church, the priest anoints the newly-baptized Christian with Holy Oil, similar to how the priests in the Old Testament were anointed. The Holy Spirit thus empowers all believers to serve as priests in His kingdom.
- Eucharist—this term comes from the Greek word for giving thanks. This sacrament is the center of life in the Orthodox Church, performed each Sunday as part of the Divine Liturgy. It is the primary means by which believers are united to Christ and nourished by His life. Orthodox Christians believe that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ. However, unlike traditional Roman Catholics, we do not try to explain how this happens. It is truly a mystery.
- Confession—this is the sacrament of reconciliation. In it, the Christian confesses his sins before Christ in the presence of a priest. As Christ’s representative (but as a fellow sinner himself) the priest then assures the penitent of Christ’s forgiveness. Orthodox Christians see this as the fulfillment of the command to “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16).
- Marriage—this is the sacrament of holy matrimony between a man and a women. Marriage is not merely a civil contract or even a holy covenant. It is a divine mystery in which the two become one flesh (Ephesians 5:31). It has a cosmic dimension inasmuch as it is a picture of Christ’s relationship with His Church.
- Ordination—the Greek word for ordination means literally “the laying on of hands.” In the Orthodox Church, members of the major orders of the clergy—bishop, priest, and deacon—are ordained during the Divine Liturgy by the bishop. (Bishops must be ordained by at least three other bishops.) By this act, they are set apart to serve God and His church.
- Holy Unction—this is the mystery of physical and spiritual healing as described in James 5. It is usually administered formally to all Orthodox Christians on Wednesday evening of Holy week. The priest anoints each person with Holy Oil blessed by the Holy Spirit. However, it can also be administered to individual Christians who are sick and especially in need of divine healing.
In a very real sense, we can say with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, that everything is sacramental. By this, we mean that everything God creates is designed to manifest his presence in the world and point back to Him.
The sacraments are our source of unity, not only with our Lord, but as an expression of the body of Christ. As such, the sacraments of the Orthodox Church are limited to the Orthodox. This is not a statement on the faith of others, but rather on our relationship as a community.