Orthodox theology regards the sacraments as sacred actions through which the encounter between God and the human person takes place. In them our union with God, in so far as it is possible in this earthly life, is realized; the grace of God comes down upon us and sanctifies our entire nature, both soul and body. The sacraments bring us into Communion with the Divine nature, animating, deifying and restoring us to life eternal. In the sacraments we experience heaven and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom which we can only ever become fully a part of, enter into and live in, after our death.
The Greek word mysterion (‘sacrament’ or ‘mystery’) comes from the verb myo (‘to cover’, ‘to conceal’). This word was invested with a broader meaning by the church Fathers: the incarnation of Christ was called a ‘sacrament’, His salvific ministry, His birth, death, Resurrection and other events of His life, the Christian faith itself, doctrine, dogma, worship, prayer, church feast days, the sacred symbols, and so on. Of the sacred actions, Baptism and the Eucharist were preeminently named sacraments. Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of three sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist; while the rites of clerical consecration, tonsuring a monk and burial were also listed among the sacraments. Following the same order, St. Theodore the Studite (ninth century) referred to six sacraments: Illumination (Baptism), the Synaxis (Eucharist), Chrismation, Priesthood, monastic tonsuring and the burial rite. St. Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century) emphasized the central place of the two sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, while St. Nicholas Cabasilas (fifteenth century) in his book The Life in Christ provides commentaries on the three sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist.
At present the Orthodox Church regards Baptism, the Eucharist, Chrismation, Penance, Holy Unction, Marriage and Priesthood as sacraments; all the other sacred actions are listed as rituals. However, it ought to be borne in mind that the practice of numbering the sacraments has been borrowed from Latin scholasticism; hence also the distinction made between ‘sacraments’ and ‘rituals’. Eastern patristic thought in the first millennium was unconcerned about the number of sacraments and never felt the need to enumerate them.
In each sacrament there are both visible and invisible aspects. The former consists of the rite, that is, the words and actions of the participants, and the ‘material substance’ of the sacrament (water in Baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist). The latter is in fact the spiritual transfiguration and rebirth of the person for whose sake the rite is accomplished. It is primarily this invisible aspect, hidden to sight and hearing, beyond the mind and beyond sensible perception, that is the ‘mystery’. In the sacrament, however, the human person’s body is also transfigured and revived along with the soul. The sacrament is not only a spiritual, but also a bodily Communion with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The human person enters the divine mystery with his whole being, his soul and body become immersed in God, for the body too is destined for salvation and deification. It is in this sense that we understand immersion in water, anointing with holy oil and myrrh in Baptism, the tasting of bread and wine in the Eucharist. In the age to come the ‘material substance’ of the sacrament will no longer be necessary, and the human person will no longer partake of the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Rather, he will communicate with Christ directly. ‘Grant that we may more truly have communion with Thee in the day of Thy Kingdom which knoweth no eventide’, prays the Church.
The author of all the sacraments is God Himself. It is not therefore the priest, but God Himself Who performs each sacrament. As St. Ambrose of Milan says, ‘It is not Damasius, or Peter, or Ambrose or Gregory who baptizes. We are fulfilling our ministry as servants, but the validity of the sacraments depends upon You. It is not within human power to communicate the divine benefits — it is Your gift, O Lord’.