Rituals and Practices
The Sacraments (Mysteria)
The main set of rituals practised in Eastern is the Seven Holy Sacraments. The Eastern tradition refers to these rituals as ‘mysteria’, reflecting the belief that all sacraments are sacred mysteries that cannot be rationalised. The Sacraments are categorised into the Mysteries of Initiation (baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist), the Mysteries of Healing (penance and anointing of the sick) and the Mysteries of Vocational Consecration (matrimony and holy orders).
The Eastern tradition emphasises the experiential component of the Sacraments through the use of physical ingredients (such as oils, incense, etc.) to activate bodily senses. It is believed that the use of physical elements during sacramental ritual give them divine, transformative properties (for example, wine is seen as the blood of Christ). Specific details and practices of the Sacraments vary from church to church due to linguistic and cultural differences.
The ritual of baptism is seen as an admission to the faith, bringing holy grace to the baptised person. In the Eastern tradition, baptism most commonly occurs when the individual is an infant. In the ritual, a person is fully immersed in holy water three times by a clergy member who simultaneously invokes the Holy Trinity. It is believed that the old self dies in the waters and a new self emerges, mirroring the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Chrismation (also known as Confirmation) immediately follows an individual's baptism. The ritual is performed by a priest who anoints the person with holy oil (Chrism) on different parts of the body with the sign of the cross while saying the declaration, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. The purpose of Chrismation is to confirm one’s faith in God and the Church. Once a person has undertaken both the baptism and Chrismation ritual, they are a full member of the lay community.
The Eucharist, also known as the Holy Communion or the Divine Liturgy, is another Sacrament of Initiation. Every aspect of the ritual is symbolic, particularly the leavened bread and red wine. During the ceremony, the congregation shares the sacred meal of the bread and wine as a way to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper and his crucifixion. Eastern followers usually believe that the substances of bread and wine have actually and truly been transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, meaning that the substances are holy. The first Eucharist of a baptised person is considered to be an extremely important event in an individual's life. The Eucharist also occurs on a weekly basis or as part of a more significant ceremony after an individual's baptism.
Penance (also known as Confession or Reconciliation) is seen as an opportunity for one to heal their spiritual well-being. It can be performed as often as one wishes. During the ritual, sins are recounted in an open area of the Church to a member of the clergy (typically a priest), who acts as a witness of the person seeking a reunion with God. The Sacrament of Penance is undertaken to bring the sinner back into communion with God and the Church. It is also an opportunity for self-reflection and to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Anointing of the Sick
The Anointing of the Sick (sometimes known as ) is a sacrament administered to give strength and comfort to the ill. In Greek Eastern churches, the Sacrament is typically performed annually for the whole congregation during Holy Week. Everyone is encouraged to come forward and receive an anointing regardless of their physical health status. The Anointing of the Sick can also be performed on an individual basis. The ritual can be performed in a home, a church or a hospital by a priest, who usually prays over the person and anoints their head and hands with holy oil.
In the Eastern tradition, the Sacrament of Matrimony (i.e. marriage) is the union of a baptised man and woman sanctified by God. Unlike the Catholic tradition where the Sacrament is seen as an indissoluble union, the Eastern tradition insists on its sacramental eternity. This means that the remarriage of divorcees or widows is permissible. One of the most important components of the sacrament of marriage is the ‘crowning’ of the couple. Each wedding is seen as a form of coronation wherein the bride and groom become part of the ‘royal family’ of God. The crowns act as symbols of victory over adversities to maintain faith.
The Sacrament of the Holy Orders is available only to men who wish to become part of the clergy. For those becoming bishops or priests, the ritual of ordination confers the sacramental power to baptise, confirm, witness marriages and reconciliation, and consecrate the Eucharist.
refers to the Christian practice of charity whereby a Christian offers a set proportion of their wealth. The act of is usually voluntary, with some exceptional cases depending on the country requiring a set amount of wealth usually as part of their taxation.
There is a general distinction between liturgical (‘high church’) and non-liturgical (‘low church’) churches. This is often based on the degree to which a church’s worship is elaborate, standardised and whether it contains formalised rituals. Typical practices in liturgical churches include special attire for the clergy, religious symbols, recitation of prayers, observance of a yearly liturgical calendar and performing sacraments (especially communion).
Eastern is known as a liturgical faith, meaning that Eastern services use carefully prescribed rituals. Some of the major characteristics of Eastern liturgical practice include a formal structure to religious ceremonies, specific prayers and spoken texts, iconography, a variety of hymns and the use of physical materials (such as holy oil and incense). Eastern liturgical practice helps in fostering a total experience that appeals to one’s emotions, intellect and senses.
Worship (Latria) and Veneration (Hyperdulia and Dulia)
The term ‘latria’ refers to worship, which is understood as the highest level of adoration and reverence directed towards only God and the Holy Trinity. On the other hand, hyperdulia and dulia refer to a deep veneration towards the Virgin Mary and to the saints respectively. Veneration occurs through the prayers and gestures exhibited towards icons. Icons are seen as sacred or sacramental objects that can evoke the energies (grace) of God (as Jesus Christ), the presence of the Virgin Mary or the saint that it depicts. In other words, when Eastern Christians venerate (not ‘worship’) an icon, they bow down to Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saint represented in the image, never the image itself. To venerate an icon, the person will usually first bow then kiss the hand of the person depicted in the icon.
Eastern followers may venerate and worship through several gestures and postures. When attending formal worship services, people tend to stand at all times with the occasional bow. Some may do full prostrations, which is the act of kneeling on the knees and feet while touching the forehead on the ground. Such postures are usually done out of respect and submission, often when venerating an icon or when approaching a priest for his blessing. People may also greet a bishop or priest by kissing his hand.
It is also common for Eastern followers to make the ‘Sign of the Cross’ on one’s body with a hand accompanied by evoking the Holy Trinity with the words ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. In the Eastern tradition, one starts by touching their forehead along with the word ‘Father,’ the lower chest at the mention of the ‘Son’, and the right shoulder on the word ‘Holy’ and the left shoulder with the word ‘Spirit’. The Sign of the Cross is usually performed before and after prayers, entering or leaving a church, and at the start of a religious service. Sometimes the Sign of the Cross is followed by a bow from the waist.
Prayer refers to the solemn expression of gratitude, worship, praise, or a request for help by an individual to God. Prayers are often done in private and are usually brief. Some may have a set time of the day to pray (known as a ‘prayer rule’) or may recite a brief prayer verse throughout the day – often the Lord’s Prayer. Some Eastern followers pray before or after partaking in a meal as a way to show gratitude.
The weekly ceremony or sacred rite of Eastern traditions is known as the Divine Liturgy. This weekly ceremony takes place each Sunday morning, but is also celebrated on special feast days. It can only occur through the exercised authority of a priest or bishop. Thus, the weekly service is nearly always held in a church. Members of the church gather together to participate in congregational worship and other rituals.
The first part of the Divine Liturgy is called the Liturgy of the Word, during which the Scripture (the Bible) is spoken or sung. The second part, known as the Liturgy of the Faith, is reserved for the ritual of the Eucharist. During this time, the congregation shares in a sacred meal of consecrated bread and wine.
The language used in the service depends on the church. Some churches use the local vernacular whereas other churches may use liturgical languages such as a special kind of Slavic or Greek used only in a church context. Some churches may hold two separate ceremonies in different languages.
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