In his love for us, our Lord Jesus Christ established the Church, and through it gave us the means of salvation.
The most important of these are the Holy Mysteries.
What is a mystery?
Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) explained the term "mystery" in this way:
It is called a mystery when we do not consider what we see, but see one set of things and consider another... Here the judgment of the unbeliever is one thing, while that of the believer is another. For myself, I hear that Christ has been crucified, and at once I marvel at His love for humanity... The unbeliever, hearing of a bath, thinks only of water; I, on the other hand, consider not only what is seen, but the purification of the soul by the Holy Spirit.
In this sense, the great mysteries of our faith are the Unity and Trinity of God; the coming in the flesh of the Second Person of the Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ; and the Paschal Mystery of His suffering, death, and resurrection. We can spend our lives in prayer, study, and lived experience to achieve insights into these mysteries, but we can never "comprehend" them, in the sense of completely understanding them. We believe in them by faith, and it is through faith that our understanding grows.
The Holy Mysteries are particular points at which we come into the "story" of these great mysteries - in which God's life and ours come into close contact. In the first printed Carpatho-Ruthenian catechism in 1698, Bishop Joseph de Camillis of Uzhorod provided a definition of a Holy Mystery:
It is a visible sign of an invisible grace instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ for the sanctification of man.
Though this definition originally came from the Western Church (which refers to the Holy Mysteries as sacraments), it has become generally adopted by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, though their detailed explanations of the theology of the Holy Mysteries may differ.
The Seven Holy Mysteries
From the seventh century onwards, the number of the Holy Mysteries has generally been fixed at seven - a sacred number in the Old Testament, symbolizing completeness.
Through the Mystery of Baptism, a human being – man, woman, or child – is washed clean of sins, and made a child of God by adoption. At the same time, the one being baptized becomes a member of the Church founded by Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. By means of this mystery, God comes to dwell in the heart of the believer. All this is accomplished through a series of prayers and a symbolic washing with water in the name of the Holy Trinity.
Through the Mystery of Chrismation - that is, by a symbolic anointing with holy oil - a baptized Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, the principal of movement and growth in the soul.
Finally, in the Mystery of the Eucharist, the Christian becomes intimately united with the very life of God, 0 receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ as spiritual nourishment, in accordance with the words of Our Lord: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting" (John 6:54).
In the Mystery of Crowning, a man and woman are united in holy matrimony, forming a new "domestic church", for their mutual support and for the building up of the Kingdom. The crowns that are worn during the wedding service symbolize the authority and honor they have as a married couple.
In the Mystery of Priesthood, a man is set aside for service to the Church as a bishop, priest, or deacon. The mysteries of Crowning and Priesthood are sometimes called the mysteries of vocation (meaning the calling to a particular mode of Christian life).
The cleansing of sins which accompanies Baptism can only be received once. For sins committed after baptism, the Christian turns to the Mystery of Penance, by which, through the ministry of the Church, Christ provides counsel, healing, and forgiveness of sins.
For those suffering from physical or emotional illness, or for those in danger of death, the Mystery of Anointing of the Sick was instituted to provide healing, forgiveness, and comfort.
In addition to these seven mysteries, there are other rites of the Church that have sometimes been closely associated with them, including the funeral service, and the entry into the monastic life (which was sometimes called a "second baptism").
The Holy Mysteries and the Church
Each of the Holy Mysteries is an action of God in the life of the believer - but they also involve the Church:
- In Baptism, a believer becomes a member of the Church.
- In Chrismation, the baptized believer receives spiritual gifts for his own good, and for the building up the church.
- In the Eucharist, Christians are united ever more closely into the one Body of Christ.
- In the mysteries of Crowning and Priesthood, individuals enter publicly into new states of life for the growth of the Church and receive gifts to assist them in their vocation.
- In the mystery of Penance, a Christian who has sinned is received back into the Church.
- In the mystery of the Anointing of the Sick, the church assembles to offer its prayers for its own.
For this reason, the Holy Mysteries are celebrated in the church whenever practical. In addition, the mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Crowning, and Priesthood can all be held in connection with the Divine Liturgy.
- Holy Mysteries - The Sacraments in the Tradition of the Byzantine Rite. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 47. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1989).
- Light for Life: Part Two, The Mystery Celebrated. (Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 1996). Chapter Five covers the Holy Mysteries.
- Nicholas Cabasilas. The Life in Christ (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974). Classic Orthodox explanation of the place of the Mysteries in the life of the Christian believer.