Inquiry Class 001: Mysteries/Sacraments (a first take)

Questions for consideration: does God just work through ideas and the heart, or does He work in the physical world, too?  How about mankind?  Is there such a thing as a blessing?  A curse?  How do they work?


  • God is un-created.  He made this world as an expression of His Love.  He made man in His image to be the steward of creation.  Creation was designed to respond to our touch and to our care (as a reflection of how it responds to His touch and care).
  • We failed in our first calling as good stewards.  We were cast out of the Paradise where blessings were meant to compound eternally.  But creation still responds to our touch and to our care.  
  • Alas, we have become a curse to the earth; “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3: 5-7)”
  • Christ is the “New Adam” (Romans 5); He has restored humanity’s ability to be the good steward of creation.  Note that this is accomplished by those who unite themselves to Him in His Holy Church.  The Mysteries are the way God reliably manifests His grace (His energies) in the world (through the New Adam – Christ AND the Church).
  • A different, more Western way of thinking about this is that God desires something greater for us, but our sin keeps us from it (i.e. deification, union with Him and one another; a life of communal blessedness).  Christ has freed us from death and sin so we can grow in perfection and fellowship.  The Mysteries are the most obvious part of The Way from where we are in our fallenness to where God wants us to be.  It is the bridge across the chasm (a popular meme has the Cross doing this – that is a useful but incomplete symbol of this).
  • Remember that Mysteries are reliable ways that God has chosen to change us and this world through the Church.  They do not rely on the holiness of any individual person.  We are priests not shamans (or priests in addition to being shamans).  Nor are we magicians manipulating an impersonal grace (or worse!).

Mysteries (not as in “strange”, but as in the way the ineffable God is made known and accessible). 

  • Baptism.  The theology of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ); “The Jordan turned back!”  The Psalms are full of language about how God has tamed nature.  Our baptisms are not just symbolic of an inward change.  The water is blessed, the old man dies through immersion and is brought up a new man in Christ.  Because it is a real change, it is meaningful for a baby to be baptized.  Moreover, this allows the child to grow up in Christ and not just waiting for Him.  (Matthew 28:19).
  • Chrismation.  The seal of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 1 John 2:20, Acts 2:38).  The physicality is through the oil, which was prepared by the Patriarch on Holy Thursday.  The anointing with chrism makes us a “christ”, an anointed one!  
  • Communion.  The Body and Blood of Christ.  This is the central Mystery of the Christian Church.  Instituted by Christ Himself, the Gospel and Epistle references make is clear that it has always been the central rite of believers and more than just a symbol or remembrance.  The physicality here is obvious.  (Scripture: Mystical Supper & 1 Corinthians, but also John 6!)
  • Confession.  The “Second Baptism”, with tears in the place of water (God accepts even “a portion of a tear”).  We are all sinners and there can be no salvation without repentance.  Confession was done in the midst of the Church; now the priest stands in for all the people.  The “seal of confession.”  It is more than counseling and more than the repentance the believer does on his knees at home (James 5:16; John 20:23; but also e.g. 1 John 1:9).
  • Holy Unction.  The healing ministry of the Church in its most iconic form (St. Mark 6:13; St. James 5:14).
  • Marriage.  This is one of the greatest icons of the Church: the union of two live in love through Christ (John 2:1-11; Ephesians 5:32).
  • Ordination.  The laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:22).  Bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, readers, taper bearers.
  • “Minor” Mysteries.  Funerals.  Prayer.  Silence.  Loving touch.  Listening ear.  

A note on the relation of Scripture to practice: we are not creating from scratch (Tradition!).  Tradition and Scripture arise from the same source: the synergetic and constantly lived relationship between God and His people.  We do not need to start from scratch (but we should grow in understanding).

An Apology for Orthodoxy:  It is radically Incarnational.  It takes God’s call for us to be stewards – and anointed ones – seriously.  It also takes our own incarnation (psycho-somaticism) seriously.  It also takes our pride seriously.