Friday, March 18, 2011

Mystery of Mysteries

When the earliest Fathers of the Church first considered the means that brought them closer to God – the mysteries of the Church – they did not find it necessary to enumerate or systematize them. They were committed to living, rather than simply explaining, the mystery of the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. Nonetheless, from the sixth century on, it became increasingly necessary to offer some kind of reflection on the nature of the mysteries of the Church. Various members of the Church began to propose lists of sacraments. These lists varied to a surprising degree in number and content. According to Kallistos Ware, in his book The Orthodox Church:
Before [the seventeenth century], Orthodox writers vary considerably as to the number of sacraments: John of Damascus speaks of two; Dionysius the Areopagite of six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), of ten; and those Byzantine theologians who in fact speak of seven sacraments differ as to the items which they include in their list (275).
Perhaps reflecting the fluidity of the prevalent understanding of sacrament, these lists were not at first intended as exhaustive, but only as informative and spiritually nourishing. Eventually, first in the West, many members of the Church came to believe that there are seven, and only seven, sacraments. Even among those who accepted this number, however, there was not always agreement on which sacraments were included in the list. There are a number of rites that were once frequently included among the mysteries of the Church that few now think of in those terms. There are both uses and limitations of dogmatically enumerating the sacraments.

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