What about the sacraments? How many are there? How does the Orthodox Church understand them?
First of all we must say that traditionally the Orthodox never counted the sacraments. The number of seven was adopted in Orthodoxy very recently under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.
Traditionally the Orthodox understand everything in the Church to be sacramental. All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.
The Orthodox baptize infants as well as adults as the new birth into the new life of Christ. Baptism is understood and celebrated as the person’s participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the person’s Easter as he is born again into life eternal.
Chrismation (or confirmation) is the “sealing” of the new life in Christ by the life-creating Spirit. In Chrismation the person receives the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in order to have the power to live the new life in the new humanity of Christ. In this sense, chrismation is the person’s personal Pentecost just as baptism is his Easter.
Holy Communion is the “sacrament of sacraments” in that it is the banquet of the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of every other sacrament. In Holy Communion we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eternal Passover Lamb, Who makes us alive and holy with Himself. Through Holy Communion we become sons of God the Father, together with Jesus, filled with the “communion of the Holy Spirit.”
Marriage in Christ allows our human love to become divine and unending. There is no “until death do us part”. The point is just the opposite. Christ comes to our human love, frees it from sin and grants it everlasting joy in His Kingdom of love.
By our anointing of the sick in Christ’s name, we consecrate our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ and we are healed by Him; if not for more time in this world, certainly for an eternity in the Kingdom of God. Thus by anointing with oil in Christ’s name, our wounds become the way to Life and not to Death.
In confession, the sacrament of repentance, we come to Christ and receive His divine forgiveness. We are allowed once more to enter into Holy Communion with Him in the Church. We are reinstated into that life which we received in baptism and are renewed with that power which we were given in chrismation.
The one sacrament within the Church which guarantees the identity and continuity of the Church in all times and places is the sacrament of priesthood, the “holy orders,” as they are called. The priesthood exists within the Church as the sign of the certain presence in the community of Christ Himself. Christ is not absent from the Church. He is present as its head and is manifested in the Body through the ministry of the priesthood. Thus the mystical life of the Church is fulfilled.