Holy Synod of Saint Athanasius Congregation
In America & The Middle East

Sacraments

According to Orthodox theology, the purpose of the Christian life is to attain theosis, the mystical union of mankind with God. This union is understood as both collective and individual. St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote concerning the Incarnation that, "He (Jesus) was made man that we might be made divine (θεοποιηθῶμεν)." See 2Peter 1:4, John 10:34-36. The entire life of the church is oriented towards making this possible and facilitating it. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the terms "mystery" or "the mysteries" refer to the process of theosis. While it is understood that God theoretically can do anything instantly and invisibly, it is also understood that he generally chooses to use material substance as a medium in order to reach people. The limitations are those of mankind, not God. Matter is not considered to be evil by the Eastern Orthodox. Water, oil, bread, wine, etc., all are means by which God reaches out to allow people to draw closer to him. How this process works is a "mystery" and cannot be defined in human terms. These mysteries are surrounded by prayer and symbolism so that their true meaning will not be forgotten. Those things which in the West are often termed sacraments or sacramentals are known among the Eastern Orthodox as the "sacred mysteries".

Baptism

is the mystery which transforms the old and sinful person into a new and pure one; the old life, the sins, any mistakes made are gone and a clean slate is given. Through baptism a person is united to the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the Orthodox Church. During the service, water is blessed. The catechumen is fully immersed in the water three times in the name of the Trinity. This is considered to be a death of the "old man" by participation in the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and a rebirth into new life in Christ by participation in his resurrection. Properly a new name is given, which becomes the person's name. Children of Orthodox families are normally baptized shortly after birth.

Chrismation

Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the mystery by which a baptized person is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with Holy Chrism or laying hands with prayer by the Bishop. It is normally given immediately after baptism as part of the same service, but is also used to receive lapsed members of the Orthodox Church. As baptism is a person's participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. So Chrismation is a person's participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. A baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian is a full member of the church and may receive the Eucharist regardless of age.

Holy Communion (Eucharist)

The Eucharist at the center of Orthodox Christianity. In practice, it is the partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to become the genuine body and blood of the Christ Jesus through the operation of the Holy Spirit by the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. The Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Catholic Church has in the West. Communion is given only to baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who have prepared by fasting, prayer and confession.

Repentance (Confession)

Orthodox Christians who have committed sins but repent of them, and who wish to reconcile themselves to God and renew the purity of their original baptisms confess their sins to God before a spiritual guide who offers advice and direction to assist the individual in overcoming their sin. Parish priests commonly function as spiritual guides, but such guides can be any person, male or female (not commonly a layman but in these cases monks or nuns), who has been given a blessing to hear confessions. Spiritual guides are chosen very carefully as this is a mandate that once chosen must be obeyed. Having confessed, the penitent then has his or her parish priest read the prayer of absolution over them.
Sin is not viewed by the Orthodox as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, or a legal transgression that must be set right by a punitive sentence, but rather as a mistake made by the individual with the opportunity for spiritual growth and development. An act of penance (epitemia), if the spiritual guide requires it, is never formulaic, but rather is directed toward the individual and their particular problem, as a means of establishing a deeper understanding of the mistake made, and how to effect its cure. Because full participatory membership is granted to infants, it is not unusual for even small children to confess; though the scope of their culpability is far less than an older child, still their opportunity for spiritual growth remains the same.

Marriage

From the Orthodox perspective, marriage is one of the holy mysteries or sacraments. As well as in many other Christian traditions, for example in Catholicism, it serves to unite a woman and a man in eternal union and love before God, with the purpose of following Christ and his Gospel and raising up a faithful, holy family through their holy union. The church understands marriage to be the union of one man and one woman, and certain Orthodox leaders have spoken out strongly in opposition to the civil institution of same-sex marriage.
Jesus said that "when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mk 12:25). For the Orthodox Christian this passage should not be understood to imply that Christian marriage will not remain a reality in the Kingdom, but points to the fact that relations will not be "fleshy", but "spiritual". Love between wife and husband, as an icon of relationship between Christ and Church, is eternal.
The church does recognize that there are rare occasions when it is better that couples do separate. Holy Matrimony has divine sanctions from the words of the Lord Himself, Who says: "Have you not read that He Who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh' (Genesis 2:24)? "So then are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has jointed together, let not man put asunder." (St. Matthew 19:5-6) Although marriage is indissoluble, if it has "ceased to be a reality" and there is a divorce, the Church does not insist on the preservation of a legal fiction and will help men and women rise again after the fall and permit a second marriage. Did Christ consider marriage to be indissoluble? We need to be very clear in this as when Christ teaches that marriage may not be dissolved...that does not mean that He is stating that divorce or dissolution cannot occur. We know the completeness of the marriage relationship can be tainted by erroneous behavior. As the Early Church taught: “It is not the letters of divorce that dissolve the marriage in relation to God...but the errant behavior."
According to the spirit of Orthodox Christianity, the unity of the married couple cannot be maintained through the virtue of a legal obligation alone; the formal unity must be consistent with an internal symphony.
The problem arises when it’s no longer possible to salvage anything of this symphony, for “then, the bond that was originally considered indissoluble...is already dissolve...and the law (that Marriage License) can offer nothing to replace grace...and can neither heal nor resurrect, nor say: ‘Stand up and go.’”
This is where the Church recognizes that there are cases in which married life has no content or may even lead to loss of the soul. Our Holy Fathers say in this regard that it is: “better to break the covenant than to lose one’s soul."
The Orthodox Church sees divorce as a tragedy due to human weakness and sin...but, despite the fact that the Church condemns sin, she also desires to be an aid to those who suffer and for whom she may allow another marriage. This is certainly the case when the marriage has ceased to be a reality. Another marriage is therefore only permitted because of “human weakness."

Holy Orders

Since its founding, the church spread to different places and its leaders in each region came to be known as episkopoi (overseers, plural of episkopos, overseer—Gr. ἐπίσκοπος), which became "bishop” in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (Gr. πρεσβύτερος, elder), which became "prester" and then "priest” in English, and diakonos (Gr. διάκονος, servant), which became "deacon” in English. There are numerous administrative positions among the clergy that carry additional titles.
In the Greek tradition, bishops who occupy an ancient see are called metropolitans, while the lead bishop in Greece is the archbishop. (In the Russian tradition, however, the usage of the terms "metropolitan" and "archbishop" is reversed.) Priests can be archpriests, archimandrites or protopresbyters. Deacons can also be archdeacons or protodeacons. The position of deacon is often occupied for life. The deacon also acts as an assistant to a bishop.
The Apostolic Orthodox Churches has always allowed Bishops, priests and deacons to be married, provided the marriage takes place before ordination. Though In Nicea Council they preferred the celibacy of bishops, yet they did not forbid their marriages. Throughout the history of the Orthodox church there were married bishops like St. Gregory the Nazianzian and his father. In general it is considered preferable for parish priests to be married as they often act as counsel to married couples and thus can draw on their own experience. Unmarried priests usually are monks and live in monasteries, though there are occasions when, because of a lack of married priests, a monk-priest is temporarily assigned to a parish.

Unction

Anointing with oil, often called "unction", is one of the mysteries administered by the Orthodox Church and it is not reserved only for the dying or terminally ill, but for all in need of spiritual or bodily healing. In Greece, during the Ottoman occupation, it became the custom to administer this Mystery annually on Great Wednesday to all believers; in recent decades, this custom has spread to many other locations. It is often distributed on major feast days, or any time the clergy feel it necessary for the spiritual welfare of its congregation. According to Orthodox teaching unction is based on the Epistle of James: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. _James 5:14-15

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