The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments)

Published by Jacob P Varghese on


St. John Chrysostom describes the Holy Sacraments as “the symbols of our salvation perceivable through faith”.  Throughout the centuries there were various definitions of the Holy Sacraments emerged.  St. Augustine’s definition became a classic one since the fifth century:  A Sacrament (Holy Mystery) is a visible sign of an invisible grace instituted by Christ, for salvation of man.  It remained in general use both in the West as well as the East. The later theologians added only the purpose of the institution, namely: “for sanctification” or “for the salvation of man.”

So, sacraments are the outward, efficacious visible acts or signs, instituted by our Lord, to receive the invisible grace of God. In each sacrament we receive a special grace. Jesus Christ is Himself the Sacrament, as He gave His life for the Salvation of humankind. It is through Christ that the life of the Father and the Holy Spirit come to us as grace through the sacraments. It is Jesus Christ alone who mediates the sacraments to allow grace to flow to mankind.

The English word ‘Sacrament’ is derived from the Latin word ‘sacramentum’, literally meaning ‘seal’ or ‘stamp or oath’. Its original meaning is a non-Christian Latin term that goes back to pre-Christian usage. In the ancient Roman world, the oath taken by soldiers and the stamp put on the animal for sacrifice were indicated by the same word Sacramentum. Sacramentum is the Latin term used in antiquity to designate an oath. When Roman soldiers, came into the army, had to swear a sacramentum, an oath to the Emperor to serve in the army. Also, in ancient Rome, when there was a legal dispute between two people, a pledge was left by both parties at the temple for the gods and this sacred pledge constituted a sacramentum. Thus, the word ‘Sacrament’ also means to ‘consecrate’ or to make holy.

A Sacrament (Holy Mystery) is a visible sign of an invisible grace instituted by Christ, for salvation of man.  It remained in general use both in the West as well as the East. The later theologians added only the purpose of the institution, namely: “for sanctification” or “for the salvation of man.”

St. Augustine

The Holy Mysteries
The Orthodox term for sacraments is ‘Holy Mysteries’, from the Greek word ‘mysterion’. The word mysterion essentially means anything hidden or incomprehensible. It has been applied by the Church to the essential beliefs and doctrines of the faith and its chief meaning is linked to the hidden and secret will of God related to the salvation of the world, now manifest in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word (Logos). Mystery means an act through which we are called to the inner chamber of God. Each mystery is directly rooted in Christ. Christ Himself is the primordial mystery (John 1: 1-18), and the very True Celebrant of all the Mysteries. Through all these acts we are made participants and beneficiaries of the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. Christ becomes everyone’s contemporary in the mysteries.

Holy Mysteries are Liturgical Celebrations
The Orthodox Church also use the word ‘Rozo‘ (Syriac) from the root word ‘Roz‘. The word Roz means ‘Celebrations’. So Sacraments are Celebrations. Hence, Holy Mysteries are Efficacious celebrations, of outward and visible holy rites, which are channels of inward and invisible grace needed for salvation of mankind,  commissioned and instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. 

The Holy Mysteries are commonly called ‘Koodasa’ in our Church; from the Syriac word ‘Koodoso’ meaning ‘sanctification or purification’. The sacraments are God’s tools for our sanctification. Through the sacraments we are purified, and we grow to perfection. They are, the divinely appointed means to receive divine aid and grace, by which we struggle to overcome sin. The sacramental graces that make our worship, acceptable and delightful to the Father, as well. 

Holy Sacraments are divine mysteries, God’s channel for bestowing graces and are often called as extension of incarnation, as the meaning of the Holy Mysteries are enshrined in the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God’s life is infused into the present age and mingled with it, without change or confusion, through the mysteries. God touches, purifies, illumines, sanctifies and deifies human life in his uncreated divine energies through the mysteries (Eph. 3:4,9; 6:19; Col. 1: 26ff). The Holy Mysteries have been given to us by God for our spiritual nourishment and salvation. They are administered by the Church. Our whole life must be centered around the Church and receiving the Holy Mysteries (sacraments).

Its chief meaning is linked to the hidden and secret will of God related to the salvation of the world, now manifest in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word (Logos). God touches, purifies, illumines, sanctifies and deifies human life in his uncreated divine energies through the mysteries. John Chrysostom explains: “It is called mystery, because what we believe is not the same as what we see; one thing we see and another we believe.  For such is the nature of mysteries.” St. John Chrysostom describes the Holy Sacraments as “the symbols of our salvation perceivable through faith”.

Mysteries is holy and sacred.  In our case, it means a sacred rite which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, confers divine grace, i.e. a redeeming power of God on man’s soul.  Since the work of the Holy Spirit in man’s soul remains a hidden reality covered with a mystery (Greek: mysterion, secret), we by tradition properly call the Sacraments the Holy Mysteries.

The powers of the Kingdom already experienced in the Holy Church are manifested through the divine mysteries or sacraments offered in faith. The mysteries prepare the faithful for the future life, but they also make that life real, here and now. We are given the vision and have the foretaste of the things to come through them.  

Jesus Christ is Himself the ‘Mystery’ as He gave His life for the Salvation of mankind – Eternal Life – Theosis. It is through Christ that the life of the Father and the Holy Spirit come to us as Grace through the Mysteries. It is Jesus Christ alone who mediates the Mysteries to allow grace to flow to mankind. We receive the flow of The Divine Grace of Jesus Christ. We get connected to His fullness of His Incarnation and Resurrection.

  • The Sacrament is holy and sacred. 
  • Holy Sacraments are divine Mysteries
  • The Mysteries are God’s tools for our sanctification.
  • They are God’s channel for bestowing graces
  • Through the sacraments we are purified, and we grow to perfection.
  • They are, the divinely appointed means to receive divine aid and grace, by which we struggle to overcome sin.
  • The sacramental graces, make our worship, acceptable and delightful to the Father, as well. 
  • The Holy Sacraments have been given to us by God for our spiritual nourishment and salvation.
  • They are administered only by the Church.
  • Our whole life must be centered around the Church and receiving the sacraments.

Outward and Visible Signs that give Inward and Spiritual Grace.  
The material elements, signs and gestures used in each mystery, are living symbols that relate to the realities of our human experiences.  Due to our human limitations in this material world, visible acts are necessary to receive God’s grace. The act of salvation was done through God’s visible act-Jesus Christ becoming man. Jesus himself asked to do and Himself used visible acts using material things to receive God’s inward grace. e.g. Water for Baptism, bread and wine for the Holy Eucharist and oil for anointing of the sick. Jesus also healed the sick through visible acts to fill the people with faith. Material things are made into vehicles of the Spirit, and are adequate in each case to express deeply and amply the mysterious power of divine grace. Most of the Sacraments use a portion of the material of creation as an outward and visible sign of God’s revelation. Water, oil, bread and wine are but a few of the many elements which the Orthodox Church employs in her Worship. The frequent use of the material of creation reminds us that matter is good and can become a medium of the Spirit. The words and symbolic actions employed in the sacraments also constitute the outward actions.

The Holy Mysteries are not the only channels of divine grace, but they also are perceptible signs (symbols) of the invisible grace of God, which they confer through the performance of the sacred rites.  The redeeming power of God (grace) and the working of the Holy Spirit in our soul are invisible and imperceptible to us.  Jesus Christ therefore decided to confer His saving grace in a visible manner, through outward symbols or signs, the holy ritual, by which divine grace is implied and conferred.  Thus, enlightened by our faith, we become certain of receiving divine grace through the invisible working of the Holy Spirit in our soul. All the Mysteries are connected to the Salvific plans aimed at Sanctification & Divinization – Theosis – The True purpose of human life.


1 Comment

Suja Mary John · July 20, 2022 at 9:31 am

Excellent read especially after attending the session with Sir..may God bless him and keep using him as a tool to give understanding for the laity

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