“At the self-same moment you die and are born; the water of salvation is at once your grave and your mother” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem).
In baptism, the believer enters into the mystery of the life hidden in Christ. It is more than just a mere symbol; baptism is the initial entrance into the life of the Church and God’s Kingdom. The Orthodox Church baptizes by triple immersion (in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in water. In baptism we partake of the mysterion of the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Baptism unites the believer not only with Christ but with his people, the Church. Each person is baptized into the community of faith to share in life, its values, and its vision. After rising out of the waters of baptism, the Christian immediately begins the daily process of death and resurrection in the life of prayer and in the Eucharist. “As many as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia” (Galatians 3:27).
In the Orthodox Church, as well as Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, infants are brought into the full life of the church through baptism. Following the custom of the early Church, we believe that the sacrament of baptism is “bearing witness to the action of God who chooses a child to be an important member of His people.”
Chrismation – Receiving the Holy Spirit
The sacrament of Chrismation is essentially the impartation of the Holy Spirit upon the baptized believer. Chrismation immediately follows Baptism in the Orthodox Church. It is a beautiful liturgical act in which the celebrant anoints the body of the baptized believer using the words, “(the person’s name), is sealed with the seal of the Holy Spirit.”
Eucharist – The Lamb’s supper feast
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the center of Orthodox Christian worship. We refer to ourselves as a “Eucharistic community” meaning that all believers gather in unity at the Lord’s Table. The Eucharist is more than just a ritual, it is a divine mystery. The River Cathedral of Charlotte believes that the real presence of Christ is in the consecrated bread and wine.
To understand our perspective on Holy Communion, it is important to compare our views with those of other churches. For example, the Roman Catholic Church uses the term “transubstantiation” to describe their understanding of what happens to the bread and wine during the Eucharist. According to this view, the bread and the wine are literally changed in to the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
“As for the bread, as bread, nothing remained of it. After the prayers of consecration, not even a morsel of it existed. It only looked like bread; in reality it was the Body of Christ which hung on Calvary.” (Jordan Bajis, 1996)
The Orthodox perspective is different from Roman Catholicism in describing what happens to the elements at the consecration. We believe that the Eucharist is indeed a mystery, and that the bread and wine are really transformed into the body and blood of Christ. However, we do not attempt to explain exactly how this happens. For the Orthodox, we do not mind letting a mystery remain a mystery. We know that the Lord Jesus Himself commanded us to eat his body and drink his blood, and we know that by doing so we are nourished spiritually. We are not required to believe any more or any less.
The word “Eucharist” literally means thanksgiving. It is a meal in which we call forth (anamnesis) the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. In our churches Holy Communion is the climax of our worship. We pray to the Father to send down His Holy Spirit upon the bread and the wine (epiclesis), and also upon his people. When we enter into this sacred act, we are transformed by the Holy Spirit just as the bread and wine are changed. This beautiful mystery cannot be explained by words or theological precision. It is something which must be experienced by those who have hidden their lives in Christ.
The Orthodox view of Holy Communion is often misunderstood by other Christians, particularly Protestants. Since the reformation, many Christians have reacted strongly against some of the medieval practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Holy Communion is often perceived as a “work” to attain righteousness. However, this has never been the view of the Orthodox Church. We understand the Eucharist to be a reaffirmation of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
Another point of confusion is the term “sacrifice.” By using the word sacrifice, we do not mean that Jesus is sacrificed again and again as some understand. Orthodoxy agrees with scripture which declares that Jesus’ crucifixion was a sacrifice “once and for all.” Each time we celebrate the Eucharist (thanksgiving) we are offering back to the Father the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ. It is truly a sacrifice of praise.
We uphold the ancient teaching that at the Lord’s Table, we return to that very moment itself. Obviously our perspective is more than just a symbolic remembrance, but beyond this definition of mystery we cannot go. The Eucharist is called the “mystical supper,” and those who truly believe received the transforming power of the body and blood of Christ.
Some Christians object to the idea that Holy Communion is more than just a mere symbol. To this we respond by clarifying how Orthodox Christians ultimately perceive worship. One of the most significant elements of our perception has to do with time. Most people understand time as chronological and linear (past, present, and future). When it comes to worship their views are no different. In many Protestant churches, worship is understood in the now (the present). They remember the past and look forward to the future. While this seems like a logical way to understand worship, the Orthodox practice is quite different.
Our God, the Creator and the Uncreated Light, exists outside of linear and chronological time. This is why in the Bible; the Lord can speak of the future in the past tense. God is omniscient (all-knowing) and He is eternal. On the other hand, we must live out our lives toward understanding eternity. God is already at the end of time, waiting for us. God exists in the past, present, and future, and he exists outside the limitations of linear time. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Sometimes we need to be reminded of just how incredible God is, and how limited we are in our understanding of Him.
We say all of this to bring your attention to a very important aspect of Orthodox theology, and how we understand worship. When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we no longer see ourselves in “ordinary time.” The Orthodox Church sees its worship as a participation in the worship of heaven, which transcends linear time. Therefore, the bread and the wine we partake of, is from the same table that Jesus sat at with his disciples. We speak of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice,” but this is to be understood within this context of time. We uphold the ancient teaching that during the Eucharist, we are truly at the Lord’s Table.
Reconciliation – Hearts turning back to God
In the sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as confession and absolution), the Christian confesses their sins to God in the presence of a Priest who acts as a witness only. Confession recognizes sin as the source of alienation from God, and it restores the believer to His love and forgiveness. The Orthodox Church does not practice “anonymous” confession as done in the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, the priest stands with the person, usually facing the altar together.
Holy Matrimony – Two become one in Christ
The joining of two souls in marriage is also considered to be a Holy mystery in the Orthodox Church. Marriage is a public celebration of the union of husband and wife. Spiritually, they become “one flesh,” and by the Holy Spirit the couple is called to live out their eternal vocation together on this earth. They are to nurture and encourage each other in the spiritual life. Together, the husband and wife draw closer to God through the mutual submission of love.
Holy Orders – Answering the call of God in Ministry
The sacrament of Holy Orders involves the entire church. The process begins with the local congregation which recognizes and affirms the calling of a candidate into the Holy Priesthood. The calling of the candidate is confirmed only by the Bishop. But it is important to remember that the process of ordination involves the entire church community.
In the Orthodox Church there are three major orders (sometimes called offices), Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. Each order is a specific calling by which the ordained is set apart to perform a special service in the church. Both the Priest and the Deacon act in the name of the Bishop who is the living icon (representative) of Christ. Each member of the clergy performs his/her duties according to the ancient structure of the early church. In Orthodoxy, all who enter into Holy Orders do so by Apostolic Succession. This means that the clergy can trace its lineage back to the Apostles themselves. This aspect of the sacrament of Holy Orders is absolutely essential in the Orthodox Church.
Holy Unction – Divine healing of body, mind, & spirit
Sometimes this sacrament is known as “Holy Unction.” When a person suffers from illness and pain, they are anointed with oil by the Priest. As with Chrismation, oil is also used in this Sacrament as a sign of God’s presence, strength, and forgiveness. It is the recognition that Christ is with us through the ministry of His Church. We believe that this is the same Christ who healed the lepers and raised the dead. The mysterion of the Anointing of the Sick is not an empty symbol; it is the faithful submission of our lives into the hands of the great physician, our Lord Jesus Christ.