We don’t study the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox that much, although it’s one of the largest denominations of believers on the planet. This is largely due to the Protestant’s common history with Catholicism. We have less in common with the Orthodox, making them seem all-the-more foreign.
But often there are insights to gleaned from those who are outside our peculiar culture and history. And while I disagree with the Orthodox on several things, I think there are some insights to be had from their community. One of these has to do with their view of the sacraments.
This is from a “missionary tract” by Bishop Alexander (Mileant). It’s a long quote. I’ve edited out references to particular sacraments, as that’s not the part that’s of interest today (bold, caps, and italics are all in the original).
CHRISTIAN LIFE IS CENTERED in that act of God becoming man: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This union of the Divine and human nature in one person, the Incarnation of our Lord, has once and for all bridged the gap between God and Creation. By the Incarnation, the material world is redeemed.
Creation is brought back to the possibility of harmony with its Creator. Our redemption, however, is no one?time event, over and done with at the moment of the Passion or Ascension. God did not become man simply to provide for the inspiration of future generations; His saving acts have brought about in the world in which we live a permanent alteration. Prior to the Incarnation, man could only know God as if at a distance, even as a shadow. But now God Himself lives among us, as Jesus promised: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
This enduring presence of Christ in Creation is not the vague and dilute divine presence that a muddled pantheism preaches. God is certainly present in all of His Creation. But He is more specifically and intensively present in particular and reliable ways that He Himself has established. The Fathers most frequently call these particular forms of the Lord’s enduring presence a “Mystery.” The most familiar term in English is “Sacrament.” For our purposes here, the two terms will be used interchangeably — for “mystery” conveys a truth about God’s Grace which is lacking in the word “sacrament.”
The Holy Mysteries are no mere signs or symbols; they are not just external indications of the presence of some invisible reality. A Sacrament is the Divine presence, just as the man Jesus Who walked among men 2,000 years ago was God Himself incarnate. When some portion of this created world … becomes a Mystery, it becomes thereby “of God”; it is divinized; it becomes the real and present location of that continuing presence — of Christ, and in some sense it is Him.
Sacraments are indefinite in number, not restricted to an easily?identified, categorizable few. Neither are they of uniform intensity; there are varying degrees of universality and sharpness of focus of His presence. Fundamentally, the whole of Creation is in some degree a sacrament, for He is everywhere present and fills all things. But we must not fall into the trap of assuming a bland universality of that presence which recedes into a pointless vagueness. The eternal Christ came and dwelt among us as a man in a particular place and time. He continues to dwell among us in quite specific and identifiable ways, radiating His presence throughout the world in specific and orderly forms. This is not to say that He may not also manifest His presence in other, less predictable manners. . . .indeed, He does!
Even though the term is not often used in this context, the most fundamental form of this real presence of Christ is in the Church and the Scriptures: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). St. Paul instructs us: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim 3:16). The measure of the Divine presence in both Church and Scriptures is that of universality: Christ is fully present in the whole of Scripture, not some selected portion, and likewise in the whole Church.
We speak here, and throughout, of the Church as the living Body of Christ, constituted by all those in this world and the next who have truly united themselves to Christ by obedience to Him and by a pious life. The Church is no mere human association, nor is it a vaguely defined community of believers. It is that body constituted of individual members, living and departed, who do and have united themselves to Christ through obedience to His commands, most conspicuously in Holy Baptism and partaking of His Body and Blood, in adherence to the faith delivered to us through the Holy Apostles, and through love.
Beyond this universal presence of our Lord in the Church and in Scripture, Christ has provided through the Church certain specific and regular forms of His presence. …
A Sacrament is something real — it does something. Through it, in it, and by it, a substantial change is made in some person or thing of the created order: bread is no longer just bread. The Mystery does not merely indicate some change which has occurred for some unrelated reason but rather is the effective cause of the alteration. Sacraments are, however, above all else mysteries, and this effective causality is not reducible to the level of ordinary technological causality. A Sacrament is not some form of magic or technique; it always operates only by and through Divine Grace and can in no way be manipulated by men for their own self-centered purposes.
In any attempt to define “Grace,” we enter upon dangerous theological waters. Perhaps the less said the better. But we must at least understand that in using this term, we refer to the specific and effective action of God upon man’s life and being, whereby man is enabled to approach the oneness with God for which he was created and to which he is called. Only in virtue of God’s Grace is this possible — we cannot make our way to the Kingdom of Heaven by our own resources.
This Grace is most evident in our lives in the Holy Mysteries, which are the continuing, operative form of the act of Redemption. They are the means by which the restoration of communion made possible in the Incarnation is made effective and present in the lives of Christians of this and every age. In the Fall, it was the whole of man that fell (body and soul alike), entering into a state of alienation and separation from God. In the continuing sacramental life of the Body of Christ, it is the whole man who is brought back into communion with God — not just some spiritual part of him. In its fulfillment, this restoration to divine communion is life in the Kingdom of God. The Mysteries, by which we approach that restoration, provide the means by which we even now to some degree experience that Kingdom.
As it is not just our thinking or our willing, but our whole being, that is to be redeemed, it is in the nature of a Sacrament always to have visible form. There is no such thing as a “purely spiritual” Mystery; there is always a concrete, visible manifestation of sacramental Grace. …
The application of these characteristics of the Holy Mysteries will become more apparent as we turn to specific manifestations of sacramental Grace. If we truly grasp the nature of the Sacraments, we shall see that the whole of human life is transformed by His Grace. Not the smallest niche of Creation escapes the possibility of divinization by the flow into it of sacramental Grace.
Now, without endorsing every turn of phrase, I have to say I like this a lot. I think it’s true to the scriptures — and much truer than the Protestant approach, especially the Zwinglian view which has so affected the Churches of Christ.
We’ll consider this further as this series continues.