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The holy mysteries or sacraments in the Orthodox Church are vessels of the mystical participation in divine grace of mankind. In a general sense, the Orthodox Church considers everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical.
The sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible. In every sacrament there is a combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that they are called mysteries because what we believe is not the same as what we see; instead, we see one thing and believe another.
The sacraments are personal — they are the means whereby God’s grace is appropriated to each individual Christian. In most of the sacraments, the priest mentions the Christian name of each person as he administers the sacrament.
Generally, the Church recognizes and counts seven (though not only seven) mysteries:
The Latin influence of the seventeenth century is the reason that the Church fixed these seven as only official sacraments. Earlier, Orthodox writers varied as to the number of sacraments: John of Damascus lists only two; Dionysius the Areopagite lists six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), ten; and some Byzantine theologians who list seven sacraments differ on the items in their list.
The more ancient and traditional practice is not to isolate these seven from the many other actions in the Church which also possess a sacramental character. Some of these sacramental activities are:
- the service for the burial of the dead
- the rites for a monastic profession
- the blessing of waters at Epiphany
- the anointing of a monarch.
These also contain a combination of outward, visible signs and inward, spiritual grace. Even the blessings of homes, fields, fruits, cars, and pets have a sacramental nature.
In a broader sense, the whole life of a Christian must be seen as a single mystery or one great sacrament. The different aspects are expressed in a great variety of acts, some performed only once in a lifetime (Baptism, Marriage), others perhaps almost daily (Confession, Eucharist).
The term sacrament is derived from the Latin sacramentum, meaning "a consecrated thing or act," i.e., "something holy," "to consecrate;" which itself was a Church Latin translation of the Greek mysterion, meaning "mystery."