An examination of the sacraments in Eastern Christianity
IN THE HOUSEHOLD OF THE SPIRIT:
A Western Christian's Guide to the Sacraments in the Byzantine Church
by Lawrence Cross & Joseph H.J. Leach
(Freedom Publishing, 2014, 96pp, $19.95, ISBN: 978-0-97756-999-1)
This is one of a trilogy by Archpriest Lawrence Cross, raised and educated as a Latin-rite Catholic, but who loved the liturgy and devotional life of Eastern Christianity so much that he is now an ordained Eastern rite priest and pastor of the Russian Byzantine Catholics in Australia.
His co-author, Dr Joseph Leach, is a scientist and theologian who has studied the spirituality and sacraments of the Eastern Church.
In the Household of the Spirit meets a major deficiency in the religious education of most Western Christians: the sacramental life of the Eastern Churches.
Most Catholics, at least, are aware that the Eastern Christian tradition – best described as the Byzantine tradition – is doctrinally at one with the Catholic Church.
Yet we know little about the Holy Liturgy, the Mass, in the Byzantine tradition, and even less about the sacraments.
Drs Cross and Leach address this deficiency in this short but very readable book. They begin by asking the questions: what is the Church, and what is the role of the sacraments in Christianity?
Beauty and mystery
Far more than the Western Church, Byzantine Christianity is characterised by the combination of great beauty and great mystery. They write, "If the church is a creature of heaven, then this should be evident in its liturgy and even in its buildings.
"Entering a Byzantine church, the believer is surrounded by a crowd of saints (in their icons) and led towards God in the sanctuary. The beauty of the liturgy, the beauty of the church building with its icons, even the smell of the incense, all combine to form a powerful symbol of heaven – a heaven already, though imperfectly, present."
The concept of the sacraments developed only slowly in the first Christian millennium, and took different forms in East and West. In the Eastern tradition, the word for sacrament is mysterion, and is used to describe a source of supernatural graces instituted by Christ for mankind.
Western Christianity, which is rational and analytical rather than mystical, has defined seven sacraments. In the Eastern tradition, the number of sacraments is unimportant: what is important is that they have been given to us by Christ for our salvation.
In the West, the sacraments are given sequentially, beginning with baptism, reconciliation, Holy Communion and Confirmation. In the Eastern tradition, baptism, Chrismation (confirmation) and first Eucharist all take place together in the one act of initiation into the Christian community and spiritual life.
This accords with the earliest recorded accounts of the reception of the sacraments in the early Church, in the second and third centuries. In the Byzantine tradition, the rites of Christian initiation follow the same pattern seen in Christ's baptism in the Jordan: where Jesus was both baptised by John and the Holy Spirit descended on him.
In the Eucharist, the Western tradition focuses on repeating the events of the Last Supper, when Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, turned bread and wine into his Body and Blood, saying, "Do this in memory of me." As the authors note, the Roman liturgy is simple, with relatively frugal use of symbols, and sees beauty in simplicity.
In contrast, the Eastern tradition "makes full use of all the senses, and uses symbols extensively to promote a more holistic understanding which comes from the deepest part of the self. Its focus is on cosmic realities and eschatology. It seems to make heaven present on earth, celebrating with an emphasis on beauty."
In the other sacraments, there are similar differences in emphasis, but all express the same reality. This book gives us not only a deeper understanding of the Byzantine tradition, but a better understanding of the significance of the sacraments in the Western tradition.