Christmation is administered immediately after Baptism. (photo: Rev. Austin Mohrbacher)
In many Rites the priest uses a spoon to distribute the “Holy Gifts.” (photo: Rev. Austin Mohrbacher)
Marriages are sumptuous coronations. (photo: Rev. Austin Mohrbacher)
In the Sacrament of Anointing, the priest calls upon God, the “physician of souls and bodies.” (photo: Rev. Austin Mohrbacher)
The sacramental theology of the Eastern Catholic Church is generally the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church. The sacraments are understood by both to be outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for mans sanctification.
In the Eastern Rites, however, the sacraments are called mysteries, in order to indicate the mystical effect of the divine grace which they bring us. These mysteries are the means by which men of succeeding ages are incorporated into the unique Mystery of Christ.
Thus, for example, the mystery of Christ forgiving the sins of His contemporaries is repeated in the sacrament of Penance; the mystery of the Last Supper (known in the East as the Mystical Supper), is reenacted in the Divine Liturgy. It is understood that Christ instituted the mysteries to apply His redemptive work to every generation. The seven sacraments are thus the perpetuation of His actions.
The first mention of these seven sacraments in the East was by the monk Job in 1270. Although all were known from the earliest times, the enumeration of the seven was only later made. By the time of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, belief in seven sacraments was universal throughout the Catholic Church.
While both Eastern and Western Churches agree in the number and means of the sacraments, though, the Eastern Church is more comfortable in counting a minimum of seven, thus leaving open the question of the sacramentality of such acts as the blessing of water (intended, in part, to be consumed), and even the funeral rites.
Although the Church Fathers left us surprisingly-few references to some of the sacraments, all seven are mentioned at least once in the Sacred Scriptures, and some (Baptism, for example) are referred to several times.
As a result of this lack of Patristic evidence for some sacraments, the precise rituals for them were, in many cases, not determined until medieval times.
The basic conditions to be satisfied in order that a sacrament be efficacious are that it be administered by a proper celebrant, through the use of outward signs, words and acts, to one who is receptive to the grace to come.
Within the framework of this Universal prescription, there is much diversity in Eastern Rite expressions of sacramental administration. As the Eastern Catholic Church embraces different races, nations and cultures, it recognizes and respects historically and culturally conditioned variations in the administration of the mysteries.
Beyond these differences the variety of customs and ceremonies of all the Rites the essence of sacramental administration remains the same from one Eastern Rite to another. One basic characteristic of all Eastern Sacraments is a true beauty of form and richness of symbolic content.
The present administration of Baptism in the East was formalized in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Baptism, a person is inscribed into the flock of Gods inheritance. As such, the priest places a white linen cloth upon him, in order to wrap him in the robe of justice. For some Eastern churches the outward sign of the actual act of baptizing is immersion.
Immediately following Baptism, the sacrament of Christmation (Confirmation in the Roman Rite) is administered by the Eastern Rite celebrant. The anointing of the newly-baptized Christian with the Holy Chrism a mixture of oils and balsam, blessed on Holy Thursday represents the seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Eucharist is usually distributed during the Divine Liturgy, under both species. In many Rites, the priest uses a spoon to place the Holy Gifts in the mouths of the communicants.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is performed in a way similar to the Penance rite of the Roman Church. The penitent kneels, recites a short prayer of intention, confesses his sins, and receives absolution.
One of the most complicated and impressive administrations is that of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination to the priesthood takes place during the Divine Liturgy. The ordaining bishop sits on a chair in front of the altar, and the Archdeacon introduces the candidate to him. He then leads the man to be ordained around the altar, so that he can kiss each corner. Following the long Ordination ceremony, the new priest concelebrates the Liturgy with his consecrating bishop.
Perhaps the most elaborate and symbolic ritual is the sacrament of Marriage. Weddings are sumptuous coronations (the crowns symbolizing marital dignity and the rewards of chastity). Both bride and groom are crowned he becoming the king of the family, and she, its queen.
In administering the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick, the priest calls upon the physician of souls and bodies, to heal His servant of spiritual and physical ills which inflict him. As he holds the Gospel Book over the head of the sick person, the celebrant asks God the Savior to receive him who has repented for his sins.
The Eastern Catholic Church is a living Church, with sacramental acts performed meaningfully and enthusiastically. The administration of its mysteries, undertaken in all places with a variety of customs and local modifications, manifests the holy joy, as well as the sacred awe, of all nations and peoples entering sacramental communion with God.
Monsignor Basil Shereghy, a former professor of Dogmatic Theology, is presently an Associate Editor of “The Byzantine Catholic World” newspaper and pastor of the Transfiguration Byzantine Catholic Church in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.