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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Eastern Orthodoxy recognizes the same seven sacraments as the Roman Catholic tradition. They are baptism, chrismation (called confirmation in the western rites), Eucharist, confession, ordination, marriage, and the anointing of the sick. As in other Christian traditions, baptism and the Eucharist are the most significant sacraments. This article supplements the general understanding of the sacraments with an introduction to some of the distinctive features of Eastern Orthodox sacramental practice.

The rites of the sacraments are very similar to those in Roman Catholicism, but in Eastern Orthodoxy the physical ingredients of the rites are used generously in full confidence of the divine transformation of the tangible world. Baptism is conducted by full immersion, with liberal amounts of water used. The Eucharist is offered with leavened bread. The priest does not go behind a screen to hear confession, but stands with the person confessing, and lays his hands on the person's head.

It could be said that the goal of Eastern Orthodoxy is to transform all of life into a sacrament. As a result, any number of activities can be made sacred, although these activities, called sacramentals, do not have the same significance as the seven sacraments. Nearly any activity can be sacramental, including the blessing of homes or businesses, the blessing of a voyage, prayers over cars and trains, and the burial of the dead.

The Eucharistic service is called the Divine Liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Divine Liturgy dates at least to the time of Basil of Caesarea in the 4th century. Basil wrote down a form of the liturgy in use at the time. Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that Basil's liturgy is based on the liturgy created by James the Apostle, first bishop of Jerusalem. Called the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, Basil's liturgy is used at special times during the year, while the normal Eucharistic service uses the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a slightly shorter version of Basil's liturgy. This use of an ancient liturgy promotes a sense of universality, as every Orthodox Christian in the world prays and worships in the same way. The repetition of a shared liturgy across the centuries reflects the Orthodox Christians' belief in participation in a communion of saints, the community of Christians past and present.

There is nothing spontaneous about the conduct of the liturgy. Every word and act is prescribed in minute detail, and every aspect of the service is symbolic. The symbolism is rooted in the stories of the Bible, particularly the New Testament. For example, the wine used in the Eucharist must be red, because that is the color of blood. It is mixed with water, because the Gospel of John reports that after Jesus had died on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear and blood and water flowed out (John 19:33-35).


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