The Holy Sacraments of our Faith
Holy Baptism is one of the four compulsory sacraments of the Orthodox Church which sanctifies and gives strength to the faithful. When one enters the baptismal font they are not only cleansed from sin, but also reborn through God’s Grace. This death and resurrection is real, as they literally die to the old person and are reborn in Christ. The water used in Baptism is salvific water. Once blessed by the Holy Spirit it becomes, as emphasised in the service of Baptism, a fountain of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remover of sins and a protection against infirmities.
Christ Himself establishes the sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament. He instructs the Apostles to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). This is a definite and clear command from our Lord to firstly make disciples, which involves catechising those who wish to enter the Christian faith, and secondly to baptise them in the name of the Holy Trinity. Here we have Christ giving us the essence of the sacrament. However, the Church over time, which is guided be the Holy Spirit, has decided on how the sacrament is to be conducted and celebrated.
For the sacrament of Baptism to be complete and valid the following needs to occur:
1) The epiclisis (calling upon) of the Holy Trinity – the Baptism must take place in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for it to be canonical.
2) Three immersions in water, which symbolises Christ’s three-day burial and resurrection. Through ecclesiastical economy the Church allows for a person to be sprinkled (or even baptised in the air) if they are in danger of dying and are unable to be immersed in water. However, sprinkling water is performed in extremely rare situations and the Church has never made this a general rule as practiced in the Western Church.
3) A canonical bishop/priest performs the Baptism and must not be forced or pressured to conduct the sacrament. In the case of an emergency a deacon can baptise as seen occurring in the New Testament where Philip baptises the eunuch (Acts 8:38). In the instance where there is no priest and the life of a person is in danger, then even a layperson is able to baptise. These types of Baptisms are still recognised by the church as valid and canonical. However, if the person baptised by a layperson recovers and is taken to church, then everything in the sacrament is conducted as normal, except the three immersions.
4) Preparation is required prior to Baptism. In the early Church all who wished to be baptised were catechised first for a number of years. However prior to this, in order to see if they had serious intentions in being baptised, the candidates were first brought to the bishop and asked to answer certain questions regarding their conversion to the Christian faith. Once this was complete, the candidates were considered catechumens and underwent catechism. Infants were excused from this and could still be baptised without having to prepare themselves. Today in the Orthodox Church the catechisms are conducted mainly at the door of the church looking towards the West, symbolising how we are still in the dark and yet to be enlightened. Here the priest asks the candidate (or the godparent if an infant baptism is being conducted) to renounce Satan three times. Then the candidate looks towards the East and is asked three times if they pledge allegiance to Christ. Following this they are asked to confess their faith in the Trinitarian God by reciting the Creed. Once all this is completed then, and only then, does the priest proceed with the sacrament of Baptism.
The sacrament of marriage, or crowning, is performed by the bishop, or priest, to a man and a woman who – being blessed with love and mutual respect – want to share their lives as husband and wife. Their commitment is expressed by the rings they exchange and by partaking from the ‘common cup’. In the scriptural readings within the service, wedding appears as endowed with mystical character, taking place ‘in the Lord’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:39). Thus, the apostolic pericope (Ephesians 5:20-33) asserts the sanctity of marriage by assimilating it to the communion between Christ and his Church. In turn, the gospel reading (John 2:1-11), of the change of the water into wine, suggests marriage’s dimension of spiritual transformation.
According to the first prayer of betrothal (preceding the sacrament of crowning), God is the one who calls people together into union and blesses them with love. In our tradition, consequently, love is never treated lightly as merely ‘natural’ or an ephemeral event of chemical reactions. The synaxis of love manifests a mystery of divine-human interaction, on the one hand through the mutual affection and agreement of the groom and the bride, and on the other hand through the blessing they receive from above. In addition, there is a related aspect indicating the significance of marriage: the whole ritual points to the Christian wisdom and sacrificial spirit to which the two are called together. This aspect is suggested by the remembrance in the ceremony of a series of saintly families – icons of wisdom, commitment and blessed life. Also, by the crowns bestowed upon the groom and the bride, crowns of martyrs, indicating the spiritual, or ascetical, dimension involved with living together in Christ (as further suggested by the mystical dance around the book of the Gospels and the holy cross).
In fact, living together requires a mutual predisposition to make room to one another and to grow in communion, goals impossible to attain without small sacrifices for the sake of one another. This dynamics of sacrifice determines St Maximus the Confessor to point out the validity of both ascetic ways – marriage and celibacy – with respect to realising the virtuous path (see his Difficulty 10:31a5). The idea, ultimately, of both the order of the service and the traditional literature (worth mentioning here St John Chrysostom’s homilies dedicated to marriage) is that without spiritual progress there is no accomplished married life.
The wedding was initially performed as a blessing within the frame of the divine liturgy, to indicate the ecclesial dimension of the event. Only after the eighth century did it became a separate service, comprising moments and prayers with strong mystagogic character.
There is a series of differences between the various ecclesial traditions with respect to marriage. In the Roman rite marriage as a sacrament is unique and therefore people are unable to divorce and remarry; another feature, suggesting the ‘natural’ dimension of it, is the fact that the recipients are also considered performers of the sacrament; probably related to this ‘natural’ aspect, Roman clergy cannot marry. To the Churches of the Reformation, marriage rather is a contractual bond than a sacrament and therefore can be dissolved for innumerable times. In our tradition, the sacrament of crowning is performed once and for all. However, our Church approaches life realistically, allowing people to divorce and remarry but no more than two times; usually, the second and the third weddings are not considered sacraments and the prayers they comprise have a penitential character. This indicates again, even if indirectly, the spiritual dimension of marriage in the Orthodox Church.
The Funeral Service
The funeral service, although not considered as specifically sacramental, is a special liturgical rite. The Church has special prayers for those who have “fallen asleep in the Lord”. When a person dies, the Church serves a special vigil over the lifeless body, called traditionally the Parastasis or Panikhida, both of which mean a “watch” or an “all-night vigil”.
The funeral vigil has the basic form of Matins. It begins with the normal Trisagion Prayers and the chanting of Psalm 91, followed by the special Great Litany for the dead. Alleluia replaces God is the Lord, as in Great Lent, and leads into the singing of the funeral Troparion. The Troparion and the Kontakion of the dead, as all hymns of the funeral vigil, meditate on the tragedy of death and the mercy of God, and petition eternal life for the person who is fallen asleep.
Our only Creator Who with wisdom profound mercifully orders all things, and gives all that which is useful, give rest, O Lord, to the soul of Your servant who has fallen asleep, for he has placed his trust in Thee, our Maker and Fashioner and our God.
With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Your servant where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
Psalm 119, the verbal icon of the righteous man who has total trust in God and total devotion and love for his Divine Law, the verbal icon of Jesus Christ, is chanted over the departed, with its praises and supplications for life in God. It is this same psalm which is chanted over the tomb of Christ on Great Friday.
It is the psalm which sings of the victory of righteousness and life over wickedness and death.
“My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (Ps 119:25).
“Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way” (Ps 119:37).
“Behold, I long for Your precepts; in revive me in Your righteousness” (Ps 119:40).
The righteousness of Your testimonies is everlasting; give me understanding, and I shall live” (Ps 119:144).
Plead my cause, and redeem me; give me life according to Thy promise (Ps 119:154).
This psalm together with the verses and prayers that go with it, the canon hymns of the service, and the special funeral songs of St John of Damascus all are a meditation on life and death. They are, in the context of the new life of the Risen Christ who reigns in the Church, a lesson of serious instruction for those who are immune to the full tragedy of sin and its “wages”, which are death.
Sometimes men criticise the funeral vigil for its supposed morbidity and gloom; they say that there should be more words of resurrection and life. Yet the vigil itself is not the Church’s “final word” about death. It is simply the solemn contemplation upon death’s tragic character, its horrid reality and its power as that of sin and alienation from God. The realisation of these facts, which particularly in the modern age is so strikingly absent, is the absolute condition for the full appreciation and celebration of the victorious resurrection of Christ and his gracious gift of eternal life to mankind. Without such a preparatory meditation on death, it is doubtful whether the Christian Gospel of Life can be understandable at all.
Thus it is not at all ironic that the same St John of Damascus who wrote the joyful canon sung by the Church on the night of Pascha (Easter) is also the author of the Church’s songs of death, which are indeed unyielding in their gravity and uncompromising in their bluntness and realism about the inevitable fact of the final fate of fallen human existence.
What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on the earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams, yet one moment only, and death shall supplant them all. But in the light of Your countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Your beauty, give rest to him whom You have chosen, for as much as You love mankind.
I weep and lament when I think upon death, and behold our beauty created in the likeness of God lying in the tomb disfigured, bereft of glory and form. O the marvel of it! What is this mystery concerning us? Why have we been delivered to corruption? Why have we been wedded unto death? Truly, as it is written, by the command of God Who gives the departed rest (Funeral Hymns).
As the funeral service is now normally served, the Beatitudes are chanted after the canon and the hymns of St John, with prayer verses inserted between them on behalf of the dead. The Epistle reading is from First Thessalonians (4:13-17). The gospel reading is from St John (5:24-30). A sermon is preached and the people are dismissed after giving their “final kiss” with the singing of the final funeral song: Eternal Memory.
It has to be noted here that this song, contrary to the common understanding of it, is the supplication that God would remember the dead, for in the Bible it is God’s “eternal memory” which keeps man alive. Sheol or Hades or the Pit, the biblical realm of the dead also called Abaddon, is the condition of being forsaken and forgotten by God. It is the situation of non-life since in such a condition no one can praise the Lord; and the praise of the Lord is the only content and purpose of man’s life; it is the very reason for his existence. Thus, this most famous and final of the Orthodox funeral hymns is the prayer that the departed be eternally alive in the “eternal rest” of the “eternal memory” of God; all of which is made possible and actual by the resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the destruction of the Pit of Death by the splendour of Divine Righteousness and Life (see Ps 88; Hos 13:14; 1 Cori 15; Eph 4:9; Phil 2:5-11; 1 Peter 3).
The vigil of the dead should normally be fulfilled in the Eucharistic Liturgy in which the faithful meet the Risen Lord, and all those who are alive in him, in the glory of his Kingdom of Life. The fact that the funeral vigil, in recent years, has lost its preparatory character and has simply been transformed into the funeral service itself, separated from the Eucharistic Liturgy, is a sad fact which allows neither for the proper appreciation of the vigil itself nor for the full Christian vision of the meaning of life, death and resurrection in Christ, the Church and the Kingdom of God.
The fact that the divine liturgy, when it is preserved with the funeral vigil, is served before it and is made into something mournful, converted into a “requiem mass” offered “on behalf of the dead”, is also an innovation of recent centuries under old Roman Catholic influence which further distorts the Christian understanding and experience of death in Christ.
Our Parish Priest, Father Asterios Zouriakas is a spiritual father that is able to hear confession. Please feel free to ring or email father for support and to book in your confession.
Confession is an important and integral aspect of Christian life. Its foundation is Scriptural and its practice goes back to Apostolic times. The ongoing forgiveness of sins in the Church rests in Him that makes all things possible in the Church: the Holy Spirit sent by Christ from the Father to those who are His.
When Jesus sees the Apostles after His resurrection, He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”(John 20:22,23). The presence and the power of Christ’s forgiveness remains in the Church in which all of His gifts reside.
Jesus tells His disciples to hear the sins of the people and impart His forgiveness, just like at the Last Supper He tells them to perform what we know as the Eucharist and Holy Communion. Confession was a public part of Christian life in the early Church. In his epistle, James teaches his readers to “confess to one another” (James 5:16). In fact, in the early Christian Church, confession was public. Secret and private confession (at home by oneself) is a modern idea completely unknown in the Bible and throughout Christian history. A Confession which is not made before God, humanity and creation, is no confession at all. This is the Orthodox Faith.
In the early Church, confession was made to the whole congregation. Afterwards the priest read a prayer over the person which manifested God’s forgiveness. With time this practice became difficult to keep up because of growth in Church membership. Confession to the whole congregation ceased by the fourth century and the priest came to represent the whole congregation in Confession.
The priest would hear the person’s sins, offer guidance and encouragement and then pray over the person. This is how confession is still practised today. Confession is totally based on the Bible and Holy Tradition. Any person who is seriously trying to live an Orthodox Christian life will go to Confession regularly. They will choose a priest they feel comfortable with and make time to confess their sins and seek guidance in their spiritual life. The priest is not a judge, but a fatherly friend. He cannot forgive sins, only God does that, but Christ has given him the authority to hear sins and pray over the person for forgiveness. The priest helps our confessions to be more reflective, less rationalised and more honest, He can act as a mirror for us which feeds back things we would be more likely to avoid on our own. The priest may guide us into a deeper prayer life and Scripture reading. He slowly becomes what the Orthodox call, our Spiritual Father, nurturing us with the words of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in our Journey to the Father.
If you haven’t been to confession, then pray for guidance, see a priest and make some time to get together. Ask him how you should prepare and then make the commitment to seek regular confession in a spirit of sincere repentance and faith in God. The rewards to your life will be immense.