Mount Athos, Greece Source
The Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church are the very center of the Orthodox life, beginning with Holy Baptism and Chrismation and culminating in Holy Communion. In the Mysteries we meet God Himself and thus we are called to believe and prepare for participation in them, to the salvation of our souls.
In the summer of 2013, Elder Joseph, abbot of Xeropotamou Monastery on Mt. Athos, offered a lecture to a group of American seminarians gathered in the Greek village of Petrokerasa, outside Thessaloniki concerning the "presuppositions" that ought to met in order to participate in the Sacraments of the Church. His words come from his deep experience on Mt. Athos and throughout Greece, addressing contemporary issues in Church practice:
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As all of us should know, and hopefully do know, that just because we are formally Orthodox does not mean we have the right to participate in the Sacraments, or Mysteries, of the Church, but rather, there are preconditions to participation—that is, we are called to prepare ourselves to receive grace and meet the Lord through these Mysteries.
When we say “Mysteries” in the plural, it typically refers to all the other Sacraments except for the Eucharist, which holds a place of distinction of its own, being the very summit of the Christian life. Unfortunately we have many secularized Christians who do not ascend this height, but rather go to church but to light a candle, or to services such as Weddings and Baptisms and funerals, and perhaps even Nativity and Pascha, but this remains the extent of their life in the Church, especially among the cradles. This tends to be more common among the cradle Orthodox. I think that this issue is more prevalent in the Greek Church—this is a common conversation among Greek priests—but the way in which we confront and solve this problem could have wider spiritual implications for Orthodox worldwide, for better or worse.
The issue here is the general problem of secularization, where the Mysteries tend to become more or less social events. Even priests, given the way that the Mysteries are celebrated, are unable to pray, because no one else is praying or paying attention. Even the priest is affected. One issue here is that the Mysteries were formerly celebrated during the Divine Liturgy, but with their separation came a degradation of proper piety and approach. If the Sacraments would return to the Liturgy, which would mean tremendous liturgical changes, then they could once again properly serve as boundaries of the Church.
Of course the Church does have its boundaries which are not confused or blurred: the Orthodox faith and indeed the Mysteries, firstly Holy Baptism. That which confuses the boundaries is that there are those faithful who commune and those who remain outside of communion—the ex-communicants. A lack of faith, lack of catechizing, and general worldliness are the causes of these lukewarm Christians staying away from the Eucharist, coming only for the other Mysteries. They don’t know how to pray; they don’t have or understand proper piety. These are people outside the Church, of the phenomenon of worldliness.
That the Holy Mysteries might not degrade into secularized empty forms, but that the faithful might be truly prepared that the Mysteries might truly impart the grace of the Holy Spirit, there are certain conditions to be met:
- Celebrants and participants must dispose themselves in a prayerful state of mind;
- They must understand and believe what they pray—they must have faith;
- They must adhere to Christian morals and the Patristic and canonical Tradition of the Church—Christ says If you love Me you will keep My commandments, and Divine worship is an expression of love for Christ;
- Participants must not be ex-communicants (that is, not separated from Christ by grave sin) and must comply with the rules of reverent behavior and apparel in Church
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