In the teachings of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the five pillars of mysteries and the seven sacraments of the church are foundational. Astemhro has already published detailed articles focusing on each of the five pillars of mysteries. The seven sacraments of the church are built on the foundation of those mysteries. Hence, a proper understanding of the seven sacraments presupposes adequate knowledge and faith in the teachings of the Apostolic Orthodox Church. In terms of focus, while the pillars of mysteries focus on dogmatic issues, the seven sacraments of the church mainly highlight the “living aspect” of the mysteries by exploring both dogmatic and canonical issues pertaining to the performance of the sacred sacraments.
The seven Sacraments of the Church are the channels by which we receive the graces and blessings of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has existed in the church since the day of Pentecost when He dwelt in it according to the Lord’s promise: “I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth when the world cannot receive because it neither sees Him nor knows Him, but you know Him for He dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:16, 17). The Holy Spirit works in the church through the Sacraments, giving us His gifts, blessings and comfort, and teaches us and guides us to the way of truth. “But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).
The Seven Sacraments of the Church are the Sacrament of Baptism, Sacrament of Confirmation, Sacrament of Confession, Sacrament of Eucharist, Sacrament of Unction of Sick, Sacrament of Matrimony, and Sacrament of Priesthood. The Lord Christ instituted all these Sacraments, and the Holy Bible mentions them in detail.
Sacrament of Baptism
Instituted by the Lord Jesus by His Baptism in the River Jordan and by His words to Nicodemus saying: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3), and by saying to our fathers the Apostles, “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” (Matthew 28:19).
Sacrament of Confirmation
Instituted by Lord Jesus when He said: “If anyone thirsts let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”. But this He spoke concerning the Spirit whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39). About the Sacrament of Confirmation, in the Book of Acts it is mentioned: “Now when the Apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).
The Holy Spirit was received by the laying of hands, but when the number of believers increased, the Apostles were unable to keep track of each individual to lay upon them their hands in order to receive the Holy Spirit. So they made the Myron out of certain oils mixed with spices; the same spices which were brought to the tomb to embalm the shrouded Christ. It was approved for the dwelling of the Holy Spirit and allowed the priests to anoint the newly baptized by the Myron to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, to dwell in them, in order to become temples of the Holy Spirit.
Sacrament Of Repentance
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament when He said to His pure disciples: “Assuredly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew: 18:18). After Resurrection, He said, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you and when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20: 21-22).
Sacrament Of The Eucharist (Thanksgiving)
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament in the upper room in Zion, on the night of His passion when He took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take eat, this is My Body. Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it and He said to them “This is My Blood of the new covenant which is shed for many” (Mark 14: 22-24).
Sacrament Of The Unction Of The Sick
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament when He said to His disciples, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers” (Matthew 10:8), and, “Whatever city you enter … heal the sick who are there” (Luke 10:8). The Apostles then put the Lord’s words into practice: “They anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13). St. James the Apostle also advised believers to practice it, by saying, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
Sacrament of The Holy Matrimony
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament when he blessed the Sacrament of Matrimony by attending the wedding of Cana of Galilee, where, “He manifested His glory and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2: 1-11). Also, teacher St. Paul says, “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Churches” (Ephesians 5:32). This means that the physical union between a man and his wife is a sign and symbol of a greater spiritual matter, that is, of the unity of heart and soul, resembling the unity of Christ and the Church.
Sacrament of Priesthood
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ instituted this sacrament when He chose His twelve disciples among many of His followers and called them ‘Apostles.’ The selection was accomplished after a whole night of prayer, when the Lord Jesus went out to the mountain to pray (Luke 6: 12-13), and then sent them to preach saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 10:7). The Lord said to them, “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). He gave them the authority saying, “Assuredly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). After His resurrection, the Lord, “Breathed on them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 2:23), and to them only, He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew: 28:19-20). He gave the mystery of His Holy Body and Blood only to them saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).
Visible rite, invisible grace
The Church Sacrament is an invisible grace we receive by practicing a visible rite, and a visible sign or substance performed by a priest. In Baptism, the substance is water by which we receive the second birth from Water and Spirit. In the Confirmation, the substance is the oil of Myron, by which the Holy Spirit dwells in us. The sign of the Sacrament of Confession is the confessing person, who accepts the prayer of absolution at the end of Confession to gain forgiveness of sins. The substance of the Sacrament of Communion is the bread and wine, by which we eat the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Emmanuel our God. The substance of the Sacrament of Unction of sick is oil, by which we receive physical and psychological remedy. The sign of the Sacrament of Matrimony is the bride and groom who receive the prayers, so the Holy Spirit dwells upon them and unites them in body and spirit. The sign of the Sacrament of Priesthood is the ordained person, who accepts the prayers of the Sacrament of Priesthood and the laying of hands for a certain priestly rank, to gain the grace for starting church services – whether Sacraments or authority for various church matters and management.
Redemptive and Non-Redemptive Sacraments
There are four redemptive Sacraments out of the Seven Sacraments. They are necessary for eternal salvation, and every believer should practice them in order to gain eternal salvation. These are Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, and Eucharist. The other three Sacraments are non-redemptive and may not be necessary for eternal salvation. Sacrament of Unction of the Sick is given for the remedy of those who are physically or psychologically unwell only. Sacrament of Matrimony is for those who want to marry for the purpose of sharing lives and bearing children. However, there are many monks and nuns, and those who live celibate lives who gain eternal life with merit. The Sacrament of Priesthood is reserved only for those who are ordained as a Deacon, Priest, or Bishop. However, the majority of the Congregation has no priestly ranks but is called for redemption and eternal life.
Seven Sacraments are Spiritual Medicine
Physical medicine has three classes of medicine: 1) Preventive Medicine like vaccination given to children against smallpox, paralysis, and others, to protect them against these diseases; 2) Curative Medicine: prescribed for a person after having had the doctor diagnose the reason for illness; and 3) Supplementary Medicine that includes various vitamins, prescribed by the doctor to strengthen the human body, giving energy and immunity against a disease once more. The same applies to the soul in that resembles the body; it is prone to spiritual diseases like sin, satanic warfare, and others.
Our great physician, the Lord Jesus made the church our spiritual hospital, and the priest as its spiritual physician, as St. John Chrysostom once said, “Are you a sinner? Go to the Church which is a hospital, not a court.” In the church, you will find the spiritual physician who is the priest. Tell him your sins, as he accurately examines everything and prescribes the appropriate cure. The spiritual medicines are the Seven Sacraments of the Church, which are preventive, curative, and supplementary.
Preventive: Sacrament of Myron, by which the Holy Spirit dwells to fortify against sin and evil, helps to overcome sin and provides victory in spiritual struggle. Sacrament of Matrimony protects the couple from falling into the sin of adultery.
Curative: Sacrament of Baptism provides the cure from sin. Sacrament of Confession and Repentance, for those who repent and confess, provides the cure and forgiveness of their sins. Sacrament of Unction of the Sick provides a cure for those who are physically and psychologically ill, caused by sin.
Supplementary: Sacrament of Communion: after receiving the Holy Body and precious Blood of the Lord Jesus, we gain the power to help us in overcoming the evil one. Sacrament of Priesthood: Priesthood gives the priest grace and power in his struggle as he strives to be our example in attitude, and not be a stumbling block, but rather to keep him pure from sin, and accept the great rank of priesthood in reverence. He should remember what our teacher St. Paul said: “We have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9).
Sacraments with an imperishable feature
Certain Church Sacraments are performed with an imperishable feature, so must not be repeated again at any time. By Baptism, we are made children of God our Father, and this is imperishable. By Chrism, we are made soldiers of our great King, and this is imperishable. By Priesthood we are made servants and priests of the great High Priest, and this is imperishable. But the rest of the Sacraments are performed repeatedly as needed.
Conditions to accomplish the seven sacraments
For each of the seven Sacraments, there are three essential and necessary conditions in order to administer them. An adequate substance for the Sacrament like water for Baptism, bread and wine for the Sacrament of Communion, oil for the Unction of the Sick, and so on. An ordained priest by the laying on of the apostolic hand. Invocation of the Holy Spirit by the priest, by praying certain prayers for the dwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctification of the Sacrament.
That is why the Sacraments must be administered in a correct official way according to the order given by God, as our Good Savior instituted and organized them, placing the adequate substance and specific prayers for every Sacrament, placed by the fathers guided by the Holy Spirit. The Sacrament is not true and effective for the believers unless it is administered correctly according to God’s will, and the placement of the fathers guided by the Holy Spirit and handed over by the Church and Holy Councils.
Adapted from: Sacramental Rites in the Coptic Orthodox Church. 2nd Edition. His Grace Bishop Mettaous. Abbot of El-SYRIAN Monastery