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Membership of the Body of Christ: Sacraments of Initiation (1)

Hieromonk Hilarion Alfeyef , The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 43n. 1-4, Brookline , Massachussets 1998, p. 565- 572


In the Orthodox Church three sacraments are regarded essential for becoming a member of the Church: Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist. Baptism and Chrismation together constitute what one might call the rite of initiation, while participation in the Eucharist is the foundation of the Christian life for all those who were initiated into the Church.

In this paper I shall touch upon the understanding of sacraments in the Orthodox Tradition, after which I shall speak of the meaning of Baptism and Chrismation . The question of the catechesis and confession of faith will not be discussed separately but will be considered within the framework of the baptismal rite.

Orthodox theology regards the sacraments as sacred actions through which an encounter between God and the human person takes place. In them our union with God, in so far as it is possible in this earthly life, is realized; the grace of God comes down upon us and sanctifies our entire nature, both soul and body. The sacraments bring us into communion with the Divine nature, animating, deifying and restoring us to life eternal. In the sacraments we experience heaven and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God , that Kingdom which we can only ever become fully a part of, enter into and live in, after our death.

The Greek word mysterion ("sacrament" or "mystery") comes from the verb myo ("to cover," "to conceal"). This word was invested with a broader meaning by the church Fathers: the incarnation of Christ was called a "sacrament," his salvific ministry, his birth, death, Resurrection and other events of his life, the Christian faith itself, doctrine, dogma, worship, prayer, church feast days, the sacred symbols, and so on. Of the sacred actions, Baptism and the Eucharist were preeminently named sacraments. Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of three sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist, while the rites of clerical consecration, tonsuring a monk and burial were also listed among the sacraments (2). Following the same order, St. Theodore the Studite (ninth century) referred to six sacraments: Illumination (Baptism), the Synaxis (Eucharist), Chrismation , Priesthood, monastic tonsuring and the burial rite (3). St. Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century) emphasized the central place of the two sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, while St. Nicholas Cabasilas (fifteenth century) in his book The Life in Christ provides commentaries on the three sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist (4).

At present the Orthodox Church regards Baptism, the Eucharist, Chrismation , Penance, Holy Unction, Marriage and Priesthood as sacraments; all the other sacred actions are listed as rituals. However, it ought to be borne in mind that the practice of numbering the sacraments has been borrowed from Latin scholasticism; hence also the distinction made between "sacraments" and "rituals." Eastern patristic thought in the first millennium was unconcerned about the number of sacraments and never felt the need to enumerate them.

In each sacrament there are both visible and invisible aspects. The former consists of the rite, that is, the words and actions of the participants, and the "material substance" of the sacrament (water in Baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist). The latter is in fact the spiritual transfiguration and rebirth of the person for whose sake the rite is accomplished. It is primarily this invisible aspect, hidden from sight and hearing, beyond the mind and beyond sensible perception, that is the "mystery." In the sacrament, however, the human person's body is also transfigured and revived along with the soul. The sacrament is not only a spiritual, but also a bodily Communion with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The human person enters the divine mystery with his whole being, his soul and body become immersed in God, for the body too is destined for salvation and deification. It is in this sense that we understand immersion in water, anointing with holy oil and myrrh in Baptism, the tasting of bread and wine in the Eucharist. In the age to come the material "substance" of the sacrament will no longer be necessary, and the human person will not partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Rather, he will communicate with Christ directly. "Grant that we may more truly have communion with Thee in the day of Thy Kingdom which knoweth no eventide," (5) prays the Church, which believes that it is in the heavenly homeland, in patria, that we look for a fuller, closer union with Christ. At present we are only on the way, in via, on earth, and we need the visible signs of God's presence. Hence we communicate with the Divine nature through water satiated with God and through bread and wine confused with him.

The author of all the sacraments is God himself. Before the beginning of the Liturgy the deacon says to the priest, "It is time for the Lord to act" (6). This means that the time has come, the moment has arrived, when it is God who will act, while the priest and the deacon are but his instruments. When the Holy Gifts change, the priest does not act by himself, but only prays: "make this Bread the precious Body of Thy Christ, and that which is in this Cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ." In the rite of Baptism the priest says, "The servant of God... is baptized." It is not therefore the priest, but God Himself Who performs the sacrament. As St. Ambrose of Milan says, "It is not Damasus , or Peter, or Ambrose or Gregory who baptizes. We are fulfilling our ministry as servants, but the validity of the sacraments depends upon You. It is not within human power to communicate the divine benefits - it is Your gift, O Lord" (7).

The sacrament of Baptism is understood as the door into the Church, the Kingdom of grace. It is with Baptism that Christian life begins. Baptism is the frontier that separates the members of Christ's Body from those who are outside it. In Baptism the human person is arrayed in Christ, following the words of St. Paul which are sung as the newly-baptized is led around the baptismal font: "For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (8). In Baptism the human person dies to his sinful life and rises again to new spiritual life (9).

The sacrament of Baptism was instituted by Christ Himself: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (10). Christ's commandment already contains the basic elements of the baptismal rite: preliminary teaching ("catechization"), without which the adoption of faith cannot be conscious; immersion in water (Greek baptismos , literally "immersion"); and the formula "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." In the early Church Baptism was accomplished through complete immersion in water (11) more precisely, in "living water" (12), that is, in the running water of a river, not the stagnant water of a lake. However, at an early date special pools (baptisteries) were built and into these the candidates for baptism were plunged. The practice of pouring water over the person or sprinkling him with water existed in the early Church, though not quite as a norm (13).

At the time of Constantine (fourth century) adult baptism was more common than the baptism of infants, the emphasis being laid on the conscious acceptance of the sacrament. However, the practice of baptizing infants is no less ancient - the apostles baptized whole families which might well have included children (14). St. Irenaeus of Lyons (second century) says: "Christ came to save those who through Him are reborn into God: infants, children, adolescents and the elderly"(15). The local Council of Carthage (third century) pronounced an anathema upon those who rejected the necessity of baptizing infants and newly-born children (16).

The sacrament of Baptism, like all other sacraments, must be received consciously. Christian faith is the prerequisite for the validity of the sacrament (17). If an infant is baptized, the confession of faith (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) is solemnly pronounced by his godparents, who thereby are obliged to bring the child up in the faith and make his Baptism conscious. An infant who receives the sacrament cannot rationally understand what is happening to him, yet his soul is fully capable of receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit. "I believe," writes St. Symeon the New Theologian, "that baptized infants are sanctified and are preserved under the wing of the All-Holy Spirit and that they are lambs of the spiritual flock of Christ and chosen lambs, for they have been imprinted with the sign of the life-giving Cross and freed completely from the tyranny of the devil" (18). The grace of God is given to infants as a pledge of their future belief, as a seed cast into the earth: for the seed to grow into a tree and bring forth fruit, the efforts both of the godparents and of the one baptized as he grows are needed In the early Church Baptism was not carried out daily to satisfy the needs of the candidates, but only on special feast days, notably at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Baptism was preceded by a long period (several months or years) of catechization. During this period those preparing for the sacrament would come to church and be instructed by a bishop or priest. The catechumens (those preparing for Baptism) comprised a special class in the early Church: they were allowed to be present at services, yet they had to leave during the Liturgy after the Gospel reading and sermon. Only the faithful could remain in the church after the Gospel reading, and not even all of them, but those who were to receive Holy Communion.

Although no extensive instruction in the faith is normally given today, its need, especially for adults who are to be baptized, is obvious: before Baptism, one has to be instructed. In fact, the Orthodox rite of Baptism has preserved within it some elements of catechization. Upon its completion, the exorcisms take place, and a candidate makes a solemn proclamation of the faith. There follows the blessing of the water, the anointing with holy oil and the three-fold immersion with the words, "The servant of God (name) is baptized in the Name of the Father, amen; and of the Son, amen; and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The sacrament of Chrismation follows the immersion. A few words might be said about the meaning and history of this sacrament. It was instituted in apostolic times. In the early Church every newly-baptized Christian received a blessing and the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by an apostle or a bishop. The Book of Acts relates how Peter and John laid hands on women from Samaria so that they could receive the Holy Spirit, "for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus' (19). In apostolic times, the descent of the Holy Spirit was occasionally accompanied by visible and tangible manifestations of grace: like the apostles at Pentecost, people would begin to speak in unfamiliar tongues, to prophesy and work miracles.

The laying on of hands was a continuation of Pentecost in that it communicated the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In later times, by virtue of the increased number of Christians, it was impossible for everyone to meet a bishop; so the laying on of hands was substituted by Chrismation . In the Orthodox Church, Chrismation is administered by a priest, yet the myrrh is prepared by a bishop. Myrrh is boiled from various elements (20). In contemporary practice only the head of an autocephalous Church (the Patriarch, Metropolitan or Archbishop) has the right to consecrate myrrh, thus conveying the episcopal blessing to all those who become members of the Church.

In the Epistles the gift of the Holy Spirit is sometimes called "anointing "(21). 1 Old Testament kings were appointed to their realm through anointing (22). Ordination to the priestly ministry was also performed through chrismation (23). However, in the New Testament there is no division between the "consecrated" and the "others:" in Christ's Kingdom all are "kings and priests; (24)" a "chosen race;" "God's own people;"(25) therefore anointing is given to every Christian. According to St. Cyril of Jerusalem , Chrismation is the final stage in one's way towards becoming Christian.

...Beware of supposing this to be plain ointment. For as the bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit is no longer mere bread, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment... after invocation, but it is Christ's gift of grace. By the coming of the Holy Spirit it is made fit to impart Christ's divine nature. This ointment is symbolically applied to your forehead and to your other members. And while your body is anointed with the visible ointment, your soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit... Having been counted worthy of this Holy Chrism, you are called Christians, verifying the name also by your new birth. For before you were deemed worthy of this grace, you had properly no right to this title, but were advancing on your way towards being Christians (26).

Through anointing we receive the "seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." As Fr Alexander Schmemann explains, this is not the same as the various "gifts" of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit Himself, Who is communicated to the person as a gift (27). Christ spoke of this gift to the disciples at the Last Supper: "And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth" (28). He also said about the Spirit: "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you" (29). Christ's death on the Cross made possible the granting to us of the Holy Spirit. And it is in Christ that we become kings, priests and " christs " (anointed ones), receiving neither the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron, nor the kingdom of Saul, nor the anointing of David, but the New Testament priesthood and the kingdom of Christ. Through Chrismation we become sons of God, for the Holy Spirit is the "grace of adoption as sons" (30).

As with the grace of Baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit, received in Chrismation , is not to be passively accepted, but actively assimilated. It was in this sense that St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the goal of a Christian's life is the "acquisition of the Holy Spirit." The Divine Spirit is given to us a pledge, yet we still have to acquire Him, make Him our own. The Holy Spirit is to bring forth fruit in us. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control... If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (31). All of the sacraments have meaning and are for our salvation only when the life of the Christian is in harmony with the gift he has received.

As soon as the sacrament of Chrismation is completed, there is a procession around the baptismal font with the singing of "For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (32). The rite of Baptism is completed with readings from the Epistle and the Gospel, the symbolic cutting of the hair and the churching.

Immediately after Baptism and Chrismation or in the days that follow, the newly-baptized, irrespective of age, receives Holy Communion. In the Roman Catholic Church Chrismation (Confirmation) and First Communion take place after the child has reached the age of seven, but the Orthodox Church admits children to these sacraments as early as possible. The understanding behind this practice is that children ought not to be deprived of a living, even if not a fully conscious, contact with Christ.


(1)This paper is largely based on my book "The Mystery of Faith. An Introduction to the Orthodox Dogma and Spirituality" (forthcoming).

(2) The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 2, 1-7, 3.

(3) Epistle 165 (PG 99, 1524 B).

(4)See Meyendorff , Byzantine Theology, p. 192.

(5)Cited in The Orthodoxy Liturgy (Oxford , 1982), p. 94.

(6)Ps. 118/119:126.

(7) On the Holy Spirit 1,18.

(8)Gal. 3:27.

(9) Rom. 6:3-11.

(10)Matt. 28:19.

(11)Cf. Acts 8:38 ("they both went down into the water").

(12)Cf. The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles (Didache ) 1.

(13)Cf. The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles 7: "If you have neither (running cold or warm water), pour water three times on the head..."

(14)Cf. Acts 10:48 (the baptism of Cornelius and his entire household).

(15) Against the heresies 2, 39.

(16)Council of Carthage , canon 124.

(17) Cf. Mark 16:1 ("He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned").

(18) Epistle 4 (unpublished).

(19)Acts 8:16.

(20) More than sixty elements are present, including oil, balsam, tar and sweet-smelling substances.

(21)1 John 2:20; 2 Cor. 1:21.

(22)1 Sam. 10:1.

(23)Ex. 30:23-26, 32.

(24)Rev. 1:6.

(25)1 Peter 2:9.

(26) Mystagogical Oration 3, 3-5.

(27) Vodoyu i Duchom [By the Water and the Spirit (Paris , 1986), p. 103.

(28)John 14:16-17.

(29)John 16:7.

(30) The Orthodox Liturgy (Oxford , 1982), p. 120. Cf. Gal. 4:5

(31) Gal. 5:22, 25.

(32) Gal. 3:27.

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