The Holy Mysteries: Institution and Spirit

It is with great timidity that I undertake a post on this topic, for neither the medium or the author are able to do much justice to the question at hand. The question is: What legitimizes the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments, if you prefer)? Pious acts are certainly profitable to those who desire to please God, but the Sacraments are quite literally the life of the Church. Baptism is for the “remission of sins” and the Eucharist is “for the life of the world”, confession perpetuates baptism, unction is for healing, Chrismation is the transmission of the Holy Spirit within the Church. These things are vital and efficacious means of Grace acted upon the people of God; if the Church is the Body of Christ then the Church without the Sacraments is a lifeless Body.

But what do we make of this mysterious life? Being that in it’s very title it declares itself to some extent unknowable and “other”, how much can we reasonably expect to delve into the life-giving Mysteries? Mysterious or not, the question of “legitimate” Sacraments is a huge piece to the Ecumenical dilemma. Is the Eucharist at the Episcopal church ecclesial community down the road the same as the one at my parish? What about the one at the One-ness Pentecostal gathering or the Calvary Chapel? Does Baptism do more for the Zwinglians than they claim it can? I propose that we must keep in mind the two movements of the Church (yes the visible Orthodox Church) if we desire not to err in speaking about the Sacraments and their faux rituals.

The first movement is one that is understandable to the rational and analytic. Bibles appear, the Fathers are given a voice, and tomes of Church history are consulted in order to find the appropriate and precise vocabulary to navigate our way in the life of the Church.

For example, my brother John and I were discussing this very question and St. Cyprian of Carthage was brought up and consulted. Concerning baptism outside the Church Cyprian makes some strong and strict arguments; calling these rites “a deluge in pagan waters”. Remember the book of Acts where Paul re-baptizes those who had only been baptized in the baptism of St. John the Forerunner, which was a baptism of repentance. The baptism of Christ is the baptism of the Holy Spirit says St. Paul. Remember that baptism is for the remission of sins, and thus separate from the act of Christmation. Remember also that the disciples laid their hands on the converts, made great pains to establish a pedigree from Christ, and that they were promised that what they bound on earth was also bound in heaven. In summary, remember that it is the institution of the Church, the hierarchs, are what validates and empowers these New Testament Sacraments.

St. Cyprian states the harsh, but obvious: men who aren’t part of the Church and don’t know the power and working of the Spirit cannot be administers of the Sacraments. Therefore, heretics (which for the Orthodox is about everyone) do not have any valid Sacraments. What good is the faith of a heretic or immature believer in the stained pagan waters of their baptism? How could that be part of our “One Baptism”? Even their “form” of the Sacrament cannot be realized and later empowered through Christmation, since their form was an imitation of the real thing; their can be no pseudo-authority and no pseudo-spirit, only false authority and false spirits. Either the water in which you were baptized was Holy or it wasn’t, and though not everything touched by the water is redeemed, neither should we deny the efficaciousness of the material object itself.

There are many understandable responses to this, some of which are helpful and some of which are cowardly and defensive. Some would challenge me on my definition of Church, and posit a differing model of what the Church is. Certainly this is helpful, since what I just described was more along the lines of a Roman Catholic way of speaking about the “Church” and its institutional authority. But rather than exchanging one large and pertinent question for another, a better response is to point out that this is not what the Church is currently doing, but is instead accepting people (like me!) through Christmation without the Sacrament of baptism.

St. Cyprian was speaking to his fellow hierarchs, urging them to take the purity of the faith and the Sacraments seriously, protecting them against the several heresies that threatened to dilute the life the Church. He encourages them to use their own judgment, remembering that they will answer to God. This is the first movement; the movement to purity, the movement that recognizes that holy things necessarily exclude the pagan. This is the “fencing” of the table, the protection of the holy things from, but primarily for the sake of the sinful and perverse.

We can get to the second movement when we ask the question: what in the Sacraments is life-giving? St. John makes it clear in his gospel when he quote Jesus saying “I am the true Bread” and “I am living Water”, and “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Christ, having conquered Death, is our means of life. It is only in Him that we have eternal life. Baptism is participation with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and the Eucharist is feeding on Him who is life Itself.

What it means to recognize Christ in the Sacraments is that we cannot treat the rites and rituals as magic, or some sort of formulaic conjuring up of power. This is not alchemy or chemistry, and it not the execution of seemingly arbitrary tasks and a prescribed order that legitimizes or guarantees power. Life in the Church is mysterious because relationships are mysterious and it is ultimately on our relationship with Christ on which our salvation rests.

Relating to Christ is not simple, and that is one of the reasons that we have the rites and rituals that we do. But we are blind if we forget that He calls us to imitate Him, and be like Him to the world. It is here that we see the other movement of the Church and the Sacraments, the movement of Incarnation; or perhaps more specifically, the movement of Condescension. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well? Remember the feeding of the hungry and poor? Remember Abraham, and the covenant? The actions of Jesus Christ was to see something of our, something like our faith, and upon that to count us righteous. The Eucharist is perhaps the most beautiful thing in creation, but remember that it is God’s condescension to us humble children that can reckon it righteous.

I have heard people accuse the Orthodox of seeing salvation as a matter of “find the right church to get the right sacrament”. We invite this critque that if we do not remember the two movements of the Christ and His Church. Our Eucharist is truly Eucharist and it is Holy, and there are things that also claim to be and are neither. But neither is our salvation a matter of finding the right faucet to drink from, it is about abiding in Christ.

So for now we will end simpler than were we started, and better off for it. The discussions will rage on, and we will be in the thick of it, searching after truth with all love and sincerity. As we search so shall we as part of the Body be aware of our simple and paradoxical nature that is distinctive of the the Church. These discussions, this effort, and this remembrance presses us deep into the marrow of the Church; the Bride visible, present, and accessible for our healing and our salvation.


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