Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Life As a Sacrament

Posted in Practical Matters, Theology by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 24 December 2011

Русский: Жизнь как Таинство

A talk given at St. Herman Orthodox Youth Conference on 24 December 2011 in Ottawa, Canada

Introduction

We all know of the sacraments of the Church and recognize them as certain events or milestones in our Christian lives: we get baptized, we prepare for confession and Communion, get married, and some may get ordained to the holy priesthood…  These important markers provide us with the time and place to be face-to-face with God, to unite with Him within His Holy Church, His Body.  But what about the rest of our life?  Well, we pray for a few minutes in the morning and also in the evening.  But what about the rest?  All too often, our lives are fractured: there is the Christian part—Church sacraments and services, prayers and readings; and there is the secular part—school, work, a party at a friend’s house, a movie on Friday night—and the two parts seem to be as far apart as the east is from the west.  Indeed, what is so spiritual about cooking breakfast?  Or, how can one be (or not be) a Christian while brushing one’s teeth?  The very mechanistic separation between Church and the rest of life seems to be as commonplace in modern Christianity as the separation of Church and state.  But can there be another model?  Is there a way to reconcile the broken pieces of the modern fractured life and to live one whole and simple Christian life?  Here, we will discuss the meaning of the word “sacrament,” the role that sacraments play in our life, and also some ways in which we can guide and shape our everyday life toward a greater connection with God and His Church.

What is a Sacrament?

Before we begin our discussion of sacraments, let us first try to define what a sacrament actually is.  This task is not entirely in keeping with the tradition of the Orthodox Church.  In fact, the Orthodox Church as a whole never has formulated a precise definition.  Nonetheless, some individual theologians have tried to define the word “sacrament.”  Blessed Augustine of Hippo, for example, wrote that, “The Word comes to the element; and so there is a sacrament, that is, a sort of visible word,” or, in other words, “a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality.”  Another definition can be found in the Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church by Saint Filaret (Drozdov):  “A mystery or sacrament is a holy act, through which grace, or, in other words, the saving power of God, works mysteriously upon man.”

Are these acceptable definitions?  In many ways, they are.  However, these definitions leave us with some questions.  For example, is a bagel you may have eaten for breakfast a visible sign of an invisible reality?  Of course!—It is a very visible, tangible, and tasty sign of the blessings that God bestows upon the labors of farmers and bakers.  And what about the prayer service before the beginning of this Conference—is it a sacrament?  According to the definition of St. Filaret, yes, since it is an act through which God’s grace works mysteriously upon man.

“But wait,” you may say, “Aren’t there only seven sacraments?”  We will return to this question, but first, I will dare to offer yet another definition of what a sacrament is.  Let us define a sacrament as a place and time where a willful act of God intersects with a willful act of man.  In other words, a sacrament is when God and man work together.  What are they trying to accomplish?  Well, we know what God is trying to accomplish—the salvation of man, and even more precisely, theosis.  So, when God and man co-labor in the process of theosis, this act is a sacrament.  Why is this duality so important?  Because, without the will and participation of God, all we get are acts or works of men.  And without the will and participation of man, what we get is a miracle performed by God alone.  It is only when the two acts come together that we get a sacrament.

How Many Sacraments Are There?

In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent decreed that there were seven sacraments,[1] and they are the same sacraments that we find in the Orthodox Law of God books or the Catechism of St. Filaret[2]: baptism, chrismation, confession, Communion (or Eucharist), unction, matrimony, and ordination.  This list came into the Orthodox tradition from the Latin West, and became a convenient and neatly-packaged reference for Sunday-school textbooks and popular catechisms.  Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, however, which excommunicates anyone who says that there are fewer or more than seven sacraments,[3] Orthodox authors have named as few as two and as many as ten sacraments[4] without any claims of exclusivity.  Indeed, if a sacrament is a collaborative act of God and man in the process of theosis, then monastic vows, for example, are also a sacrament,[5] and so is the blessing of water.

Unfortunately, after several generations of children learning the list of seven sacraments in their Sunday school lessons, many Orthodox people equate the sacraments with a list of seven rites or rituals of the Church, which are not only relatively rare (how often, for example, do you get baptized or married), but also may not be for everyone (for example, women cannot be ordained, and monastics cannot be married).  So, let us next try to talk about some of the sacraments in ways that make them relevant for all of us throughout our lives.

Baptism

Many Orthodox lay people and even some clergy believe that once a person has been baptized as an infant, he remains Orthodox for the rest of his life.  This really should be the case, but often it is not.  Baptism is the entrance into the Church—both as the mystical Body of Christ and as a human institution established by God.  But neither one of these is a prison, and anyone is free to leave at any time.  In fact, every one of us through sin leaves the Church and is no longer in the Body of Christ.  Recall the words of a prayer you hear during confession: “Reconcile and unite him with Your holy Church…”  It is because, through sin, we become enemies of the Church, we are no longer in Christ’s Body, we break our baptismal vows and defile our baptismal garment.  And we have to reconcile and unite again through repentance.  Thus, baptism, while a singular event indeed, places obligations on our entire life; much like planting a seed is a singular event, but growing a tree requires effort and patience.

Confession

Many people understand confession also as a singular and sometimes rare event.  Some only go to confession once a year (which, by the way, I would consider an abomination).  Others may confess more often and even more or less regularly…  But let us replace the word “confession” with the word “repentance.”  What is the difference?  Imagine a thief who proudly tells his friend about all the things he has stolen, and then goes and steals some more.  He has just confessed his sins—undoubtedly.  But has he repented?  Now imagine a Christian who goes to confession, names all his sins—he is well aware of them—and then goes and continues to live in sin.  Can this be considered a sacrament?  Obviously not.  While God is ready to erase the sins from this person’s life, the person does not want them erased, he wants to keep them.  He confesses them without any resolve to change his life, that is to say, without repentance.

The word “repentance” has a Latin root which does not reflect the full meaning of the Orthodox concept.  The Greek equivalent—μετάνοια—means the changing of one’s mind, of not remaining the same.[6]  Therefore, to repent is to resolve to turn away from sin and to make an effort not to return to sin.  And it is here—within the union of God’s will and act to erase our sins and our will and act to turn away from sin—that the sacrament takes place.  Thus, the sacrament of repentance is not limited to listing our sins before a priest and receiving an absolution, but continues into the following minutes, hours, days, weeks and the rest of our changed and changing life.

Communion

Similarly, Holy Communion is not only that moment in church when we actually receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our mouth and swallow it.  The Latin word communio means “sharing in common,”[7] that is, the sharing in the nature and life of Christ’s Body, becoming one with it; as Apostle Paul said, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20 NRSV).  Note that the Apostle used the word “lives”—not “visits” or “stops by for a brief moment,” but “lives.”  You know the popular folk wisdom, “You are what you eat.”  We partake of the Body of Christ in order to become the Body of Christ.  In a prayer during the Liturgy, a priest asks God to send down His Holy Spirit upon us (first and foremost!) and then upon the Holy Gifts which are set forth.  And this—our becoming the Body of Christ—is to be not just for a minute or for a day, but quite literally for eternity.  In this way, Communion is outside of time, and we are to be in Communion with Christ not only when we partake in church, but also the next day, and the next, and the next, and right now as we sit here listening to this talk.

Matrimony

This same principle of the sacraments not being limited by the constraints of the ecclesiastical rites and rituals associated with them, but instead permeating the entirety of a Christian life can be applied to the rest of the sacraments on the “official” list, although we will not discuss all of them here.  But as a last example, let us take a look at a sacrament which is seemingly not for everyone—marriage.  Indeed, some people get married, yet others do not.

Scripturally, a marriage between a man and a woman is an icon of the great mystery of Christ and the Church (see Eph. 5:32).  In fact, to speak about this mystery, Apostle Paul used the very words with which God established the sacrament of marriage between a man and a woman: “…and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31 cf. Gen. 2:24).  This should immediately remind us of the sacrament we discussed earlier, Holy Communion, but also of baptism and confession as they help us enter into and remain in the Body of Christ—the two will become one flesh.   In fact, uniting with Christ is the central goal of Christian life, and, by extension, the main purpose behind every sacrament of the Church.  The sacrament of marriage is one icon of the mystery of Christ and the Church, but there are others.  Monasticism, for example, is also a living icon of a man’s or woman’s union with Christ, and likewise is a life devoted to selfless and sacrificial service to others, which, by the way, is also the oft-forgotten essence of marriage between a man and a woman.

All Christians are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb—not as guests or spectators, but as partakers, as members of the holy and unblemished Bride, the Church; to be united with the Divine Bridegroom into one flesh, the Body of Christ.  Whether some marry or remain single, follow the path of monasticism or remain in the world—every one of us is called to be partakers of the sacramental marriage of Christ and His Church.  And our earthly participation in the icon of this divine sacrament is not limited to the few minutes that we wear our wedding crowns during a church ceremony, but is a life-long commitment which continues into eternity with Christ.

“The unexamined life is not worth living…”[8]

As we talked about the various sacraments of the Church, you may have noticed that we kept saying the same thing and often using the very same words.  I am not trying to talk in circles, but it may appear that way.  Perhaps, this is because there is really only one sacrament—the sacrament of being in the Body of the Risen Christ, the sacrament of theosis.  Every sacrament of the Church, every prayer, every rite and ritual, every reading and hymn has the goal of showing us the way and giving us the strength to be in the Body of Christ.  Indeed, our very life—from the first “Blessed is our God…” to the last “Amen!”—has only one question: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” and only one correct answer: “I do unite myself to Christ!”  These words are not only or even primarily a part of the Rite of Making of a Catechumen, but must resonate through the whole Christian life.  It is this continuous union with Christ which allowed Apostle Paul to say: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) and Saint John of Kronstadt to speak of his life in Christ.  This is not some feel-good expression—his literally was a life in Christ.  So, there is only one virtue—being in the Body of Christ.  Likewise, there is really only one sin—being separated from Christ.  Whatever in our lives makes us unlike Christ, distorts His image in us—that is the sin.

Unfortunately, very often the question of “what would Jesus do” becomes quite confusing.  In fact, some people have such a two-dimensional picture of Christ in their minds that it becomes absolutely impossible to even imagine what this two-dimensional character would do when faced with a real four-dimensional world.  But let us not forget that Christ took our human nature upon Himself not in order to sanctify two-dimensional icons of Himself, holy as they may be, but in order to heal, restore, and sanctify the very human nature—in all of its complexity.  When Christ enters into us—in the same way that He entered into Apostle Paul, Saint John of Kronstadt, and all other Christian saints—this union affects the entirety of human life: our comings-in and goings-out, our prayers to God and conversations with friends, our partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ in Church and the everyday family supper.

According to Plato, Socrates once remarked that the unexamined life is not worth living.  What is an unexamined life?  Imagine doing absolutely nothing and just waiting for a day to end… one day, two days…  Or imagine living from one party to another, from entertainment to entertainment, with nothing in between—well, work, school, the usual boring stuff, waiting for a year to hurry up and go by, so we can go on that next vacation.  Mechanical, thoughtless life on autopilot: eat-work-sleep.  Now imagine thinking about God only once or twice a day, or once or twice a week, or even once or twice a year.

But what are we supposed to do?  Sing psalms in Church Slavonic in the shower?  Well, that is not really such a bad idea.  In any case, to my taste, it is better than singing the latest tune by Justin Bieber.  But the larger point is that anything in life can and should be done with intention and prayer.  And this is not only a matter of some inner spiritual condition, but also a very outward and visceral action.  We are not a mechanical compilation of parts—body, soul, spirit—all put together with some screws and glue.  Rather, we are wholesome beings—what our body does / affects our soul, and the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Matt. 12:34; Like 6:45).

Consider, for example, the words of Joshua, son of Sirach: “In all thy works, remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin” (7:40 DRA).  This verse speaks of the whole human being—body, soul, and spirit.  “In all thy works”—with your hands, feet, even your mouth; “remember your last end”—remember with your mind, let the memory of death guide your soul; “and thou shalt never sin”—your spiritual compass, that part of you which points toward God, will remain true.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul writes: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 KJV).  Sometimes, people interpret this verse as speaking not about prayer in the way that most people usually understand it—the act of communicating with God through worship, petitions, or contemplations—but as speaking about the highest levels of the art of noetic labors, and thus unattainable for most people just like the highest levels of most other arts.  Perhaps, this is a valid interpretation—I don’t know; I have not achieved the highest levels of the noetic arts.  But reading Paul’s epistle, another interpretation comes to mind.  Is it not likely that the Apostle is speaking about the simple everyday things pertaining to the life of any Christian, simply about the Christian life and mindset?  Here is the larger context (14-18):

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.

See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men.

Rejoice evermore.

Pray without ceasing.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

Of course, giving thanks could be seen as another one of the noetic arts, or it can be as simple as thanking God for everything—not only those things which seem pleasing to us, but also those which are as bitter as medicine and as painful as surgery.  Indeed, a doctor takes a knife and cuts into our flesh, and yet we say, “Thank you, doctor!” and actually feel grateful, albeit sore for a while.

But let us take another look at the words of the Scripture: “in all thy works,” “ever follow,” “evermore,” “without ceasing,” “in every thing…”  Is this not an admonition to pay careful attention to every single moment of our lives?  Sounds daunting, does it not?  In reality, this is rather simple and starts with very small steps.  For example, many people use a telephone—they call their friends and family, answer when it is ringing—all without too much thought.  Really, it is such a commonplace experience that we don’t think twice about it.  I know one person who makes the sign of the cross every time before picking up the telephone.  How beautiful and meaningful!  How simple!—a pause, a short prayer, a realization that the interaction about to take place is within the sacred space and time of human life.  Life examined…  We all take showers, right?   I once read of a person who recited only one short verse from Psalm 50 (51 in Masoretic enumeration): “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (7 KJV).  Again, how beautiful in its simplicity!

A life sanctified, a life as a sacrament—is this not what the Church teaches us?  Our bodies and souls are washed in the waters of holy baptism; our cars and homes sanctified with holy water; our eyes, ears and mouths sealed with holy chrism—a Christian is a special vessel separated, set aside for service to God (cf. 1 Peter 2:9).  Why do you think we wear a cross at all times?  For the same reason that there is a cross on any church—to signify that this is not a barn or a warehouse, but a sacred temple of God.  Clearly, in this short talk we cannot discuss a human life in any detail, but in conclusion, I would like to mention only two aspects of our daily routines which are already marked by the Church as sacred.

Mealtime

We all eat, often without giving much consideration to the act of eating—we get hungry, so we eat.  However, eating is one of the most ancient sacred acts known to men.  Through eating Adam and Eve fell away from God, and through eating Christ enters into us in Communion.  Cain and Abel offered food that they raised / as a sacrifice to God.  Abraham fed the three divine visitors.  When the prodigal son returned home, the father ordered that a meal be prepared.  And the union of Christ and man is often symbolized by a feast.

We pray before and after each meal.  Prayers mark the sacred and separate it from the profane.  Thus, mealtime is sacred time, a sacred rite.  Put simply, mealtime is an icon: earthly bread nourishes and sustains our bodies as Christ, the heavenly bread, nourishes and sustains our souls.  And every meal is in some way sacramental inasmuch as it gives us a visible symbol of an invisible reality.  And just as with painted images there are holy icons and then there are caricatures, so it is with meals—there are sacred times and then there are caricatures.

Daily Prayers

We sometimes feel that the sacred time in our day is the time of prayer.  We treat prayer as some form of an obligation: 15 minutes for God, the rest of the day for myself.  Indeed, we often misunderstand religious obligations and see them in the same way as we see our social obligations.  Let’s take a look at taxes, for example: we give a certain portion of our income to the government because it needs funds for various programs, and we keep the rest for our own needs.  Clearly, with God it is not the same.  God does not actually need our tithes, and he does not need our prayers.  On the contrary, we offer our first fruits to God in order that all of our earthly labors will be sanctified.  Everything we own and, by the way, everything we eat is sacred because it is sacrificial—it has been sanctified by our offering of the first and best to God.  Likewise, we offer morning and evening prayers to God in order that our whole day may be holy, peaceful and sinless.  In other words, the sacred time of the day is not the time of prayer, but the time which is marked, framed, crowned by prayer—that is to say, the whole day itself.  A good example may be a beautiful chalice: as sacred and beautiful as it may be, it’s what’s inside that matters.  Or a beautiful temple—it is sanctified not by gold and glitter, but by the presence of God; and without God inside, it is merely a museum of architecture and fine arts.  Think about it next time when you want to hurry up and finish your prayers so that you can get on with your day.

Another important aspect of prayer is that it keeps us in touch with God, person to Person, reminds us that we are not alone, that that which we see is not all that there is.  Of course, this only works if prayer is constant or at least frequent.  Some may be surprised, but the early Christians did not have the Jordanville Prayer Book.  Instead, they said much shorter prayer rules much more frequently—up to five times a day or more at specific hours.  The prayer rule probably consisted of the Lord’s Prayer.[9]  Perhaps, an interesting echo of the practice of short but frequent prayers can be found in our Evening Prayer Rule—the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom with a short supplication for every hour of the day.  It is unclear whether Saint John ever followed a rule of saying one petition every single hour of the day, or whether he did what we now do—read through the whole list in a few minutes, but our divine services also follow a set pattern throughout the day: the first hour (6 a.m.), the third hour (9 a.m.), the sixth hour (12 a.m.), the ninth hour (3 p.m.), and then vespers (6 p.m.).

The modern industrial world has been built in such a way that for most working people it would be impossible to recite a ten- or fifteen-minute prayer rule three or five times a day.  But the ancients did not do this either.  What if we tried to do what they did—the Lord’s Prayer?  Or, perhaps, something even shorter—the Jesus Prayer?  Could we do that five times a day?

*          *          *

If you are a Christian, then you do not believe that your life is an accident, a meaningless, purposeless, random peak of a cosmic probability wave.  You know that your purpose is to become the Body of Christ.  You know that your life is a sacrament, not unlike the Eucharist.  Grains of wheat grow from the earth, shaped and fashioned through much labor to be offered to God and to become His Body.  Likewise a human life: taken from the earth, shaped and fashioned through much labor to become an offering to God and His Body.  And just as there are differences between different liturgical traditions, different people found different ways to live their lives as a sacred offering to God.  Perhaps it is less important whether you sing psalms in the shower or not, recite the Lord’s Prayer three times a day or five—what is important is that you live your life as a sacrament, as an icon, and not as a caricature.


[1] The decree by the Council of Trent was an official formulation  of an earlier Roman Catholic scholastic tradition which dated back to the twelfth century and had already been twice affirmed by two previous Councils of the Roman Catholic Church—the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439).

[2] See also the same list in The Orthodox Confession by Met. Peter Mohila (17th cent.).

[3] The Seventh Session of the Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacraments, “On the Sacrament in General,” Canon I.

[4] St. John of Damascus mentioned two, St. Cyril of Jerusalem—3, St. Dionysius the Areopagite—6, Joasaph of Ephesus—10, to name a few.

[5] In fact, Saint Theodore the Studite, among others, listed monastic vows as one of the sacraments.

[6] The concept of Christian repentance can also be seen as a continuation and combination of the two Hebrew words representing the idea of repentance:  שוב—to return, and נחם—to feel sorrow.  In other words, to repent is not only to list one’s sins and not only to feel sorry about them, but also to turn away from what is bad and to return back to what is good—consider, for example, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

[7] The corresponding Greek word κοινωνία is translated as “fellowship” to refer to both the fellowship of God and man, and also the fellowship of people.

[8]  “ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ”—Plato, Apology 38a.  Plato ascribed these words to Socrates, but, I suppose, it is rather impossible to know with any certitude that some of Plato’s own thoughts were not misrepresented as those of his famous teacher.

[9] See Didache 8.

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