The Sacraments of the Church as “Arsenal”
In the fifth volume of his masterwork series, Orthodox Christianity (published by St Vladimir’s Seminary [SVS] Press), Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes the sacraments and other rites of the Church as an “arsenal.” He writes, “The sacraments give a person a glimpse of otherworldly reality and facilitate his spiritual rebirth.”
The real arsenal here is the encyclopedic wealth of historical, biblical, and patristic sources and resources that Alfeyev employs to help the reader begin to apprehend that reality.
This volume examines the seven sacraments of baptism, chrismation, the Eucharist, confession, ordination, unction, and marriage. The services of monastic tonsure, Christian burial, the blessing of water, and the consecration of a church building, which were regarded as mysteries by some of the fathers of the Church, are also examined. Finally, the remaining non-sacramental church services or rites that fall outside the daily, weekly, and annual liturgical cycle, such as molebens and akathists, and various blessings for people, objects, and occasions are studied as well.
Surprisingly, it was only in the seventeenth century that the teaching of seven sacraments became generally accepted in the Orthodox East, writes Alfeyev. “And only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with a resurging interest in the works of the Church fathers, did Orthodox theology begin to free itself from the artificial and schematic concept of the sacraments characteristic of the medieval Latin Church,” he writes.
The scholastic approach was replaced by a theological emphasis that synthesized the writings of the Church fathers on the sacraments. Chief among those who championed this patristic rethinking were Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern), Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, and Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, says Alfeyev.
In Orthodox Christianity, nothing less than a complete and thorough examination of each sacrament and rite is offered. Chiefly, Alfeyev provides a thorough explanation of their historical evolution, since “Orthodoxy is historic in its very essence.” He examines possible Old Testament prefigures as well as origins from the life and ministry of Christ and from the Apostolic era.
Alfeyev not only provides relevant commentary by the fathers (Eastern and Western), he integrates their writings by drawing out the basic common themes. And in step-by-step detail, he describes what actually takes place in the sacrament, and, crucially, what it is meant to accomplish in us and what could nullify its effect.
To try and describe in mere words the “otherworldly” effect that a sacred sacrament has on the individual is indeed a challenge. Alfeyev succeeds because he leans heavily into the Church fathers. He quotes Nicholas Cabasilas: “When we do these things [the sacraments], Christ comes to us and dwells in us, He is united to us and grows into one with us. He stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit and makes us to share in His victory.”
The five volumes that make up the Orthodox Christianity series provide a detailed and systematic exposition of the history, canonical structure, doctrine, social and moral teaching, liturgical services, and spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. The purpose of this series is to present Orthodox Christianity as an integrated theological and liturgical system, in which all elements are interconnected. This has been the law of the Church from ancient times: lex orandi, lex credendi, "the law of prayer is the law of faith."
Other works by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev from SVS Press:
- Prayer: Encounter with the Living God
- St Isaac the Syrian and His Spiritual Legacy
- The Divine Liturgy (CD recording)
- Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol. 1 – The Beginning of the Gospel
- Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol. 2 – The Sermon on the Mount
- Christ the Conqueror of Hell
- The Mystery of Faith