The Transformation of Reality
CHRISTIAN LIFE IS CENTERED in that act of God becoming man: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This union of the Divine and human nature in one person, the Incarnation of our Lord, has once and for all bridged the gap between God and Creation. By the Incarnation, the material world is redeemed.
Creation is brought back to the possibility of harmony with its Creator. Our redemption, however, is no one-time event, over and done with at the moment of the Passion or Ascension. God did not become man simply to provide for the inspiration of future generations; His saving acts have brought about in the world in which we live a permanent alteration. Prior to the Incarnation, man could only know God as if at a distance, even as a shadow. But now God Himself lives among us, as Jesus promised: "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20).
This enduring presence of Christ in Creation is not the vague and dilute divine presence that a muddled pantheism preaches. God is certainly present in all of His Creation. But He is more specifically and intensively present in particular and reliable ways that He Himself has established.
The Fathers most frequently call these particular forms of the Lord’s enduring presence a "Mystery." The most familiar term in English is "Sacrament." For our purposes here, the two terms will be used interchangeably — for "mystery" conveys a truth about God’s Grace which is lacking in the word "sacrament."
The Holy Mysteries are no mere signs or symbols; they are not just external indications of the presence of some invisible reality. A Sacrament is the Divine presence, just as the man Jesus Who walked among men 2,000 years ago was God Himself incarnate. When some portion of this created world (a cup of wine, a piece of bread, a vial of oil, a touch upon the head, etc.) becomes a Mystery, it becomes thereby "of God"; it is divinized; it becomes the real and present location of that continuing presence — of Christ, and in some sense it is Him.
Sacraments are indefinite in number, not restricted to an easily-identified, categorizable few. Neither are they of uniform intensity; there are varying degrees of universality and sharpness of focus of His presence. Fundamentally, the whole of Creation is in some degree a sacrament, for He is everywhere present and fills all things. But we must not fall into the trap of assuming a bland universality of that presence which recedes into a pointless vagueness. The eternal Christ came and dwelt among us as a man in a particular place and time. He continues to dwell among us in quite specific and identifiable ways, radiating His presence throughout the world in specific and orderly forms. This is not to say that He may not also manifest His presence in other, less predictable manners. . . .indeed, He does!
Even though the term is not often used in this context, the most fundamental form of this real presence of Christ is in the Church and the Scriptures: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). St. Paul instructs us: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tim 3:16). The measure of the Divine presence in both Church and Scriptures is that of universality: Christ is fully present in the whole of Scripture, not some selected portion, and likewise in the whole Church.
We speak here, and throughout, of the Church as the living Body of Christ, constituted by all those in this world and the next who have truly united themselves to Christ by obedience to Him and by a pious life. The Church is no mere human association, nor is it a vaguely defined community of believers. It is that body constituted of individual members, living and departed, who do and have united themselves to Christ through obedience to His commands, most conspicuously in Holy Baptism and partaking of His Body and Blood, in adherence to the faith delivered to us through the Holy Apostles, and through love.
Beyond this universal presence of our Lord in the Church and in Scripture, Christ has provided through the Church certain specific and regular forms of His presence. These "channels of Grace," are what we specifically refer to as the Mysteries. Above all else, the term refers to the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Unction, Holy Orders, Marriage, and Confession. It is, however, by no means limited to these seven. Before we turn our attention to the individual Mysteries, let us consider in some greater detail the nature of "mystery" or "sacrament."
A Sacrament is something real — it does something. Through it, in it, and by it, a substantial change is made in some person or thing of the created order: bread is no longer just bread. The Mystery does not merely indicate some change which has occurred for some unrelated reason but rather is the effective cause of the alteration. Sacraments are, however, above all else mysteries, and this effective causality is not reducible to the level of ordinary technological causality. A Sacrament is not some form of magic or technique; it always operates only by and through Divine Grace and can in no way be manipulated by men for their own self-centered purposes.
In any attempt to define "Grace," we enter upon dangerous theological waters. Perhaps the less said the better. But we must at least understand that in using this term, we refer to the specific and effective action of God upon man’s life and being, whereby man is enabled to approach the oneness with God for which he was created and to which he is called. Only in virtue of God’s Grace is this possible — we cannot make our way to the Kingdom of Heaven by our own resources.
This Grace is most evident in our lives in the Holy Mysteries, which are the continuing, operative form of the act of Redemption. They are the means by which the restoration of communion made possible in the Incarnation is made effective and present in the lives of Christians of this and every age. In the Fall, it was the whole of man that fell (body and soul alike), entering into a state of alienation and separation from God. In the continuing sacramental 1ife of the Body of Christ, it is the whole man who is brought back into communion with God — not just some spiritual part of him. In its fulfillment, this restoration to divine communion is life in the Kingdom of God. The Mysteries, by which we approach that restoration, provide the means by which we even now to some degree experience that Kingdom.
As it is not just our thinking or our willing, but our whole being, that is to be redeemed, it is in the nature of a Sacrament always to have visible form. There is no such thing as a "purely spiritual" Mystery; there is always a concrete, visible manifestation of sacramental Grace. Further, just as there were specific agents of the Fall (Adam) and the Redemption (the Lord Jesus), so also for any Sacrament there is a proper agent or minister. This minister is not just any person, but rather one appointed by Christ (through the Church) as His agent for the purpose.
It is further necessary that both minister and recipient approach the Mysteries with a proper intent; God does not impose His Grace upon us willy-nilly, in spite of ourselves. Rather, He grants us ordinary and reliable means in the Holy Mysteries whereby we may turn to Him for the Grace and energy needed for leading the life to which He calls us.
The application of these characteristics of the Holy Mysteries will become more apparent as we turn to specific manifestations of sacramental Grace. If we truly grasp the nature of the Sacraments, we shall see that the whole of human life is transformed by His Grace. Not the smallest niche of Creation escapes the possibility of divinization by the flow into it of sacramental Grace.
A World of Mysteries
IT WOULD BE QUITE MISLEADING to leave this discussion of the sacramental life at this point, giving the impression, despite the disclaimer in the beginning, that there are "seven sacraments." On the other hand, it is quite impossible adequately to explore the multitudes of sacramental acts that so deeply infuse the lives of devoted Orthodox Christians. We must content ourselves with a brief indication and description of only a few of these.
We earlier defined "sacrament" as something real that does something that makes a material change in the created order. Sacraments are the continuing, operative form of the act of Redemption, in which spiritual and material reality are alike and together brought into that communion which in its fulfillment is the Kingdom of God. A multitude of actions and created objects participate in this creative process.
Perhaps most obvious are the manifold blessings bestowed by the Church upon the Creation in which she exists. While nearly any dimension of this Creation may be, and sometimes is, blessed, perhaps the most conspicuous is the blessing of water. Done in its most solemn form on the feast of Theophany (January 6/19, also known by the name Epiphany), the blessing of water is also done in a lesser form at any Baptism, on August 1/14th, and at numerous other times throughout the year. In it, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the waters is invoked in a manner directly analogous to His invocation in the Divine Liturgy. By it, the water so blessed is transformed from mere created water into a vessel of the "rivers of divine Grace" flowing throughout Creation. This water blessed at the Theophany celebration is sprinkled upon the faithful and drunk by them. It is taken for use in the blessing of homes and other objects. This Blessed water is kept in the church and many Orthodox homes throughout the year. Especially in times of adversity or sickness it is sprinkled upon the faithful and/or taken as a drink; in many homes the custom is to partake of it daily, often together with a particle of blessed bread (not the consecrated Body and Blood of the Lord) from the Divine Liturgy. Further, its use is prescribed in the blessing of various objects.
The blessed bread is the remainder of the loaves offered at the Divine Liturgy, "prosphora," from which the particles to be consecrated as the Body of our Lord Jesus were taken. These portions of bread are blessed simply by their having been brought into the altar and offered. They are thereby transformed into something which is no longer just ordinary bread, but neither are they the Body of Christ. They are treated with great respect and partaken of after the Liturgy and at other times "instead of the Gifts" — "antidoron," as they are known.
The consecration of a temple (church) is an unusually elaborate blessing. A building is not just set apart for worship or dedicated in the sense that one might dedicate a building for the purposes of learning or living, but it is actually made what it was not before. It is no longer "just a building" but becomes a focal point, a locus, of the divine presence and Grace. Its use for any purpose other than that of worship becomes permanently and absolutely inappropriate. It cannot be abandoned to secular purposes or "deconsecrated."
As we indicated earlier, the Holy Scriptures themselves constitute a Mystery. Above all else is this true of the Gospels: the book containing them is always enshrined upon the holy table (the altar) of an Orthodox temple, and usually elaborately bound and decorated. Even more than the Book itself or the written text which it contains, the proclamation of the word of God is a sacramental act — it has, of itself, power to change those who in faith receive it. The book itself is placed upon the head of one to be blessed in the Mystery of Holy Unction, in the consecration of bishops, and, less formally, in blessing upon those who celebrate their namesdays or some other special occasion.
Just as the word of God has power in and of itself, so also does a name. In the life of a Christian child, the first event after his birth is his reception of a name. For Orthodox Christians, this act is placed firmly in the context of the Church. The name is given at the door of the temple, and the child brought at once into its midst, there to be dedicated to his Creator. The name is normally that of some predecessor in the faith, one of the saints, who thereby becomes a special protector and guide for the child. Many are the instances in which this patronage has had some readily discernible effect on the life of a child.
An Orthodox Christian who receives and heeds a call to the monastic life is given a new name upon entering into that state. By the blessing bestowed upon him and the vows he takes upon himself, he is made what he was not before. He takes upon himself and is given a new life, a life dedicated entirely to the service of his Lord. He renounces all attachments to the things of this world: possessions, his own will and desire, and the comforts and joys and trials of marriage and family. In his profession, he is given the Grace necessary to this new state.
The final event in every Christian’s life in this world is his burial. The sacramental character of burial is perhaps less obvious than is that of some other acts, but again there is a conferral of Grace, even as the Christian departs from this world. It is not merely in some vague sort of "immortality of the soul" that we as Christians believe but in the resurrection of the whole person. In keeping with this belief, the whole person is attended by the prayers and rites of Christian burial.
Even as the body is lovingly cared for in burial, so also in our lives as Christians our worship is a worship involving the whole person. We do not merely think or feel our faith but live it out continually in the action of our bodies. Such actions as the continual signing of ourselves with the Cross, reverences, and prostrations are not mere dramatic expressions of our faith. They are causative acts that invoke the Divine Grace upon us and our lives.
Further, there are the many lesser blessings bestowed upon persons and objects. Most obvious of these is the blessing of food and drink: the recognition that it is God’s gift to us, its dedication to His purposes, and the calling down of His Grace upon it that it may be for our health and salvation. Beyond this, we bless houses, crops, animals, water sources — indeed, any object which is part of our life here on earth. Persons may be blessed in preparation for a special task or for a journey. Indeed, we should bless ourselves before beginning any work.
Orthodox Christians customarily receive a priest’s or bishop’s blessing upon meeting and parting; in many Orthodox homes children receive a blessing with the sign of the Cross from the head of the household upon rising and before retiring, as well as at other times of the day. Such blessings partake of the nature of Mystery and Sacrament, for they are real and effective means of furthering our "spiritual armor."
The icon as a form of the infusion of Grace into our lives forces us to extend our definition of Sacrament. Our Lord has not left us blind, with no means of perceiving anything of the true reality which lies behind this transient world. Icons — sacred depictions — provide us with windows through which we may perceive something of that reality. The sacramentality of icons becomes apparent if we recognize that an Icon is to an ordinary picture as is the Body and Blood of Christ as we perceive and receive It in the Holy Liturgy to ordinary bread and wine.
This brief summary by no means exhausts the specific sacramental acts identifiable in Christian life. It may, however, enable us to perceive more clearly the call to truly sacramental living that is our vocation and birthright as children of God.
WE ARE CALLED TO LIVE in such a way as to make holy ourselves and the whole of Creation. This is the true meaning of sacramental living — and of the word itself. Our whole life and experience is to be given up to become one with and a part of the Mystery by which God became man. The reduction of our concept of "Sacrament" to an enumerable list of Sacraments — whether two, seven, or fifty —makes of it a mere technology. Rather, a Sacrament is the means and form for the total transformation of our lives: the creation and living of a Christ-like style of life.
It is Sacraments — the infusion of Grace into the Creation in definite, specific forms — that distinguish a truly Christian life from a merely "good life." The world has known many masters and teachers of good, healthy, caring living. It has known only one God-become-man. Our call is to far more than simple good living; it is to a total transformation of reality, including our own lives. In that transformation, accomplished by the systematic sacramentalization of all Creation, we accomplish our true mission as christs — persons anointed and consecrated to oneness with Christ Himself
As we have insisted before, the Grace which is poured out upon us and the world cannot be manipulated, used as if it were magic. As Christians we are called to love one another and the whole of our Lord’s Creation. If that love is not present in our lives — and it is one of the purposes of the Mysteries to nurture its growth — life itself becomes empty, hollow, a "tinkling cymbal" — and in that emptiness, the sacramental living to which we are called becomes a pointless series of magical manipulations.
An equally serious trap awaits us if we arrogantly suppose that we are capable of loving out of our own "goodness," that is, apart from the food, drink, breath, and life our Lord has prepared for us in the Mysteries entrusted to His Body. Without this support, guidance, and nourishment, all our well-intentioned attempts at love are almost certain to fall into mere worldly affection and attraction. Love in its Christian sense is a demanding reality, not a comfortable and cozy refuge. It requires strength, valor, sacrificial self-abnegation. Only the best of diets, the most invigorating of environments, and the most rigorous training can provide the strength essential to genuine Christian loving. It is precisely this need which sacramental living and that alone can meet.
It is, nevertheless, of course true that under extraordinary circumstances — e.g., in concentration camps, at times of natural and man-made catastrophes, etc.— the ordinary sacramental means of Grace may be inaccessible. Under such circumstances the Holy Spirit provides that which man cannot, and great heights of Christian love may be manifest under the most adverse conditions.
We have previously insisted upon some of the traps from which a correct understanding of the Holy Mysteries protects us: a vague niceness, a magical manipulation of reality, and a pointless diffusion of energy into a weak and senseless pantheism. An equally serious trap — and one into which human beings have repeatedly fallen in their attempts to understand reality — is that of dualism. In its most extreme form, this is the teaching that our present condition is the work of two different creators, one good and one evil, one as the Creator of the spiritual good and the other as that of the material evil.
The anti-Christianity of this blatant form of dualism is self-evident, but various less drastic forms have repeatedly insinuated themselves into Christian life and teaching. The Sacramental life, in its insistence upon the goodness and the possibility of divinization of Creation, of its essential role in our growth and life in Christ, guards against such a perversion of the Gospel. If mere bread and wine are able to become the Body and Blood of our Lord, mere oil the vessel of His Grace poured out upon us — the list could go on endlessly — then it is obvious that this matter within which we live and of which we are made is good. It is not only good, it is in some sense capable of becoming of God while yet remaining matter. No higher calling or possibility can exist.
In His Divine humility, our Lord Jesus by His Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection restored Creation to its state of original Paradise — even in some sense transcending that of the first days of Creation. But since this is a world of process and change, even though that restoration and transcendence was accomplished in the Incarnation of our Lord, it must yet be worked out and completed in the living history of the human race and of the Church — in the order of "becoming." It is the function of the continuing, living sacramental Body of Christ to carry out this mission.
(Missionary Leaflet # E23b
Copyright © 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011)
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant))