There are seven sacraments in the Orthodox Church but in many ways this is misleading as there are a lot more rites where God is encountered through a physical medium. For example, the Great Blessing of the Waters at Theophany (Epiphany) has the character of baptismal blessing yet there may not be a person present to be baptised. Nonetheless, the seven primary sacraments do have a certain consistency about them in that they are all linked to the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist) and involve the whole community. They form the basis for understanding Orthodox sacramental theology. Here is a tabulated explanation. Each sacrament (and the other services that follow) has been given a link on its title to another web site for further exploration. Most of the links are to extracts from Fr. Thomas Hopko's work: "The Orthodox Faith" posted on the Orthodox Church in America's web site.
|Baptism||A new member of the Body of Christ is received after water immersion in the name of the Trinity. Adults becoming Orthodox are instructed in the faith before making their commitment. Children are taught the faith as they grow up.|
|Chrismation||After baptism the believer is sealed in the gift of the Holy Spirit by the use of blessed holy oil. Infants are baptised in the Orthodox Church as well as adults and both receive Holy Communion immediately after the completion of both Sacraments.|
|Bread (Prosphora) and Wine are offered to God who changes them to be the Body and Blood of Christ for all the faithful who, receiving the Holy Gifts are strengthened and made fit for heaven. Christ is present in these Holy Mysteries and is truly received by them in Holy Communion.|
|All the baptised should make their confession as often as advised by his or her spiritual father. The priest will offer counsel and absolution where appropriate. Some choose not to receive Holy Communion until they have made their confession. In some other Orthodox traditions it is necessary, not optional, to make a confession before receiving Holy Communion.|
|Holy Unction (Healing)||The faithful are anointed with holy oil for the healing of body, mind and spirit. The full service has 7 gospel readings within a modified Matins format.|
|Marriage||The couple are prepared and then betrothed in the first part of the service. In this part they give and receive rings. Vows are not used. In the second part of the service they are married by crowning ... a blessing with metal crowns or wreaths of flowers. The first and second parts may be served separately.|
|Holy Orders||The bishop ordains a deacon who may later be ordained a priest. A bishop must be ordained by at least two other bishops. A deacon serves the people, leads the prayers and sings the Gospel. A priest cares for the people, preaches and serves the sacraments with other services. A bishop exercises the pastoring and teaching in his diocese with the authority of Christ. He alone can ordain others. If he teaches error or is negligent in his duties, he and any other clergyman can be suspended or deposed, usually by the authority of a synod.|
|Great Blessing of the Waters (Theophany)||At the end of the Liturgy of the Holy Theophany there is a service with readings and prayers to bless the waters of the font (or any body of water in nature). The waters thus blessed are sprinkled over the people, drunk and kept at home in the icon corner. Such water blessings can take place also on pilgrimages at holy wells associated with saints. Homes of the faithful are blessed annually in the period of the Theophany.|
|Funeral and Burial||The Funeral service consists of readings, prayers and the Last Kiss when the faithful and mourners pay their respects to the reposed who usually lies in an open coffin. Cremation is not permitted in the Orthodox Church as a mark of respect for the body. The committal takes place at the grave side. A Memorial Service (Panikhida) with kolyva will take place at significant times after the burial.|
|Monastic Profession||There are different degrees of monastic profession and differing styles of monastic living but no monastic orders with differing characteristics as in some non-Orthodox Christian traditions.|
Other Services - The Daily Cycles of Prayer and Services of Intercession and Prayer
|Vespers||The evening service, usually sung at about 6pm on the previous day ... the time when the Orthodox liturgical day begins.|
|Matins||The morning service, originally assigned to a very early hour of the morning in monasteries but in parish use in the Greek tradition served before the Liturgy at about 8 am (9 am or even later in the west) and after Vespers in the Slav tradition as a Vigil service on Saturday night.|
|Hours, Compline and Nocturne||The monastic offices of prayer, some but usually not all of which are used in parishes.|
|Molieben||A short prayer service, usually in veneration of a saint.|
|Typica||A prayer and readings service used when a priest is not available or where the community needs to pray and a priest is not strictly necessary. This might be in a mission or in times of persecution.|
|The Akathist Hymn||A devotional poem or chant for the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.|
|The Paraklesis||A service of intercession to a particular saint.|
WHY DON'T YOU SING
This is a question often asked by Protestants and Roman Catholics making their first visit to an Orthodox Liturgy. The answer is that we do sing hymns but visitors don't recognise them because our hymns don't have rhyming endings.
Orthodox hymns were originally written in Aramaic, ancient Greek, Latin or Syriac. Ancient Greek and Latin poetry did not rhyme but set the rhythm of the poem by the alternate use of long and short syllables. We call it 'blank verse'. Orthodox hymns in English are translations of these ancient Greek, Latin and Syrian hymns. In fact we have in the Orthodox Service Books over eight thousand hymns. Every one of them was composed by an Orthodox Christian. In our Services we never sing hymns written by someone who was not a member of the Orthodox Church.
It is interesting to note that Anglicans, Roman Catholics and some Protestants often sing some of our Orthodox hymns, without realising where they come from! For example in the Anglican hymn book The New English Hymnal you can find 62 ancient hymns written by Orthodox saints such as Saint John of Damascus and Synesius of Cyrene. For example, "From glory to glory advancing" NEH 286, which is taken from our Liturgy of Saint James and "Let all mortal flesh keep silence" NEH 295, also from the Orthodox Liturgy. Then there is the much loved Evening Hymn from Orthodox Vespers, " O Gladsome Light " to be found in the NEH, 247 . Some of these hymns were translated from the Greek and put into rhyming versions by that great friend of the Orthodox Church, the Revd. John Mason Neale, in the 19th century.
DAILY HYMNS & SPECIAL SERVICES
In the Orthodox Church a special set of hymns is allocated to each and every day of the year. In the Orthodox Calendar every day of the year has designated people or events to remember. A whole set of hymns is set for each Service on that day, including Matins, Liturgy and Vespers. There are also hymns to be sung at other services such as baptisms, weddings and funerals.
HYMNS AT THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST
During the Divine Liturgy itself as many as 18 or more hymns may be sung at just one Service. A big difference is that at a Protestant Service the Pastor, Choir Director or Organist is often free to choose which hymns shall be sung. He or she can choose any favourite hymn they like. Orthodox Liturgy however is fixed. It cannot be tampered with by the Priest or Choir Director. The text of the Service and the hymns we sing are the same in every Orthodox Church in the world on any given Sunday. There is no room for private preferences. This is the worship of the whole Church, not of one dominant individual or small group.
Orthodox people soon become familiar with the main hymns of the Divine Liturgy. Some of these hymns are sung almost every Sunday. For example the 'Cherubic Hymn' is sung at the Great Entrance. Other hymns of the Liturgy change depending on the Season of the Year or the particular Feast or Saint's Day. Some may be sung only once each year.
SPECIAL or 'PROPER' HYMNS
The special hymns for a Saint or Feast are called Troparia and Kontakia.
The Troparion is like a theme song for a particular Saint or event.
The Kontakion is a hymn like a tiny sermon but originally was much longer. It collects together the main points of the Feast. It may be compared now to the 'Collect' in Anglican and Roman Catholic services. Where the theme is the Mother of God it is called a Theotokion, from 'Theotokos' or 'birth-giver of God.'
VESPERS AND MATINS
In addition to the hymns set for the Liturgy there are whole sets of hymns set for the Vespers and Matins services each day of the week. Sometimes 50 or more hymns may be set for the complete round of Services for just one day. You may hear all of them sung if you were staying in a large Orthodox monastery but in an ordinary parish church fewer services may be served and some of the 8,000 hymns you would therefore never hear.
WHERE ARE ALL THESE HYMNS TO BE FOUND ?
The three main books we use to tell us which hymns to sing on which days are:-
1. The Menaion. This is a Library of 12 books, one for each month of the year.
2. The Triodion. This gives us all the hymns sung during the Sundays of Great Lent.
3. The Pentecostarion. This includes all the hymns sung for Sundays from Pascha
Each year the Church prints 'Ordos' telling us which hymns to sing for each day of that year. Because some of the Feast Days fall on a different day each year we cannot use the same book twice. You may wonder how we are supposed to learn to sing so many different hymns. Fortunately many of the hymns are based on model melodies, or 'Prosomia'.
Countless hymns can be sung to the same 'tune.' If the chanters do not know the special melody for a hymn they may be able to sing it to a model melody which they already know. However some of the hymns, known as 'Idiomela' must be sung to their own special 'tune.'
THERE HAVE BEEN CHANGES!
There has been change in the manner of chanting the Orthodox hymns. The early desert monks chanted everything on one note, in a 'monotone' and regarded 'melody' as a distraction. However, centuries ago in parish churches for ordinary Christians simple singing was introduced with a melody line and a drone note or 'Ison.'
In Russia in the 17th century harmonised and part singing was introduced and gradually spread to other parts of the Church. This had the effect of emphasising the role of the trained choir and reducing the amount of singing by the rest of the congregation. In ancient times, and in some places again today, every member of the congregation joins in the singing of the hymns.
WHERE IS THE ORGAN ?
We do not use an Organ or other musical instrument alongside the human voice since this tends to distort or eliminate the tension and resolution between the melody and the ison and obscures the defining qualities of each Tone or Mode. It is also not unknown for an organ to simply drown the voices of the singers. It is worth the effort to learn and preserve the ancient music of the Holy Orthodox Church and to know when we sing that our voices mingle with the voices of the Saints in Glory who have sung those very same hymns for almost 2,000 years.