What is a Holy Mystery?

Icon courtesy of Dmitry Shkolnik. This icon embodies the nature of Our Church’s Mysteries- eternal and life giving

The sacraments are referred to as “Holy Mysteries” in order to emphasize the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These mysteries are vessels of the mystical participation in divine grace of mankind. In a general sense, the Church considers everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical.

The mysteries, 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, as God works through ordinary, physical means to give His grace to His followers. 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.

It is in these sacraments that we encounter Christ!  “Through these sacred actions of the Church, Christ grants the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Through these Mysteries the Church sanctifies the faithful on their journey to the fullness of life in Christ.  Through visible signs such as water, Chrism, bread and wine, and laying of hands, Christ builds up His Church in the Holy Mysteries.” (Christ our Pascha pg 138)

“The purpose of the Holy Mysteries is to sanctify people, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God.  Because they are signs they also instruct.  They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called ‘Sacraments of Faith.’  They do indeed impart grace, but in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity”  (Second Vatican council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 59)

The mysteries are personal — they are the means whereby God’s grace is appropriated to each individual Christian. In most of the mysteries, the priest mentions the Christian name of each person as he administers the sacrament.

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 (Reconciliation, Eucharist).

Holy Mysteries of Initiation

Baptism – the first sacrament or Mystery. Baptism is our personal participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Byzantine tradition, Baptism is administered by total immersion into blessed water in order to emphasize the washing of rebirth that takes place.

Chrismation (Confirmation) – Baptism is immediately followed by the second sacrament, “Chrismation” or Confirmation. In Holy Chrismation, we are anointed with the Holy Myron, with the gift of the Holy Spirit being bestowed upon each of us individually. Chrismation is our personal participation in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Eucharist – The Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the sacrament of Christ’s true Body and Blood. Following the command of the Lord to ‘let the little children come to me’ (Mt 19:14), the Church administers the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist to infants on the same day, so that they become full members of the Body of Christ, fully integrated into the Church, and full participants in the gift of New Life in Christ.

Holy Mysteries of Healing

Holy Mystery of Reconciliation (Repentance) –  In the Mystery of Reconciliation, we repent of our sins, and receive forgiveness and absolution, and the grace to persevere in this world to live the New Life in Christ, in spite of our failures and shortcomings. It is a Byzantine tradition to confess our sins in the presence of a priest while facing an icon of Christ.

Mystery of Anointing –  The Sacrament of the Sick is more commonly referred to as the Mystery of Holy Anointing with Oil, where we are anointed with blessed oil for our illnesses, both bodily and spiritually. The entire Church celebrates this Mystery on Holy and Great Wednesday in anticipation of the Holy Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection.

Holy Mysteries of Service 

By the hand of Father Luke Dingman, www.lukedingman.com

Mystery of Crowning (Marriage) – In the Sacrament of Marriage, or the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, a man and a woman are called together to live as one through mutual self-giving and selfless love. In the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, the couple is crowned with the divine grace and strength to grow together in love and holiness, and live the New Life of Christ more abundantly. Christ’s presence at the wedding feast at Cana, elevated marriage into a sacrament and to an icon of His love for the Church.


Calling of the Apostles by Duccio Di Buoninsegna

Mystery of the Holy Orders
–  The Church is a universal priesthood of believers. Yet among this universal priesthood, some are called to serve the Church in a particular way in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. The Mystery of Holy Orders calls men to serve the Body of Christ as deacons, priests and bishops through the laying on of hands, in which Christ Himself gives them the grace and power to perform this service in His name for the sake of His Body.

Adapted with appreciation from: stjosephukr.com/mysteries/