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The Holy Mystery of Baptism
By Fr. Paul Lazor
"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death. so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father. we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his. we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."
(Romans 6:3-5; the Epistle section read at the Sacrament of Holy Baptism)
The problem of death bothers everyone, atheist as well as Christian. Death is a mystery with which no one can be reconciled. Science and technology struggle to prolong the closing of its waiting jaws. Atheistic philosophies such as communism attempt to ignore it. Secular society tries to cover over its tragedy. Christianity gives an answer to it.
Christianity replies to the problem of death by proclaiming the Death and Resurrection of Christ. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." (I Corinthians 15:14). Christianity sees death as the ultimate tragedy of human existence. It is a tragedy because more than anything else it demonstrates man's disastrous separation from God, the Source of Life. Humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, filled with His Life and His Spirit, in death disintegrates and becomes dust.
Death is not an isolated event coming at the conclusion of an otherwise blissful life. Death is the result of a distorted life, a life gone astray. It is the result of a life in which the image and likeness of God have been disfigured and dishonored. It is the termination of a long chain of uncontrollable, irrational energies at work in humanity. It is the wages of sin: "Therefore, as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Romans 5:12). St. Paul clearly pointed out the irrationality and uncontrollable character of sin when he wrote:
"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I can will what is right. but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me."
(Romans 7:15, 18-20)
In dealing with the problem of death, therefore, Christianity addresses itself to the whole of human existence. The overcoming of death can be accomplished only by the renewal of all of life. When life is made new, freed from the corrupting, irrational infection of sin, then death will no longer possess any hold over it.
In His own death, Christ has assumed the whole life of fallen man and from within has healed it. He has "trampled down death by death." His Resurrection is the final sign of His defeat of death and renewal of life. He opens to mankind a recapitulated life over which death has no hold.
This new life is communicated to each human being sacramentally - in the Church. The initial Sacraments are those of Baptism and Chrismation. They are the essential, initiatory Sacraments for the Orthodox Christian. They are as fundamental to Christian initiation as birth is to life, as personality is to living.
Baptism is birth to the life made new by Christ in His Death and Resurrection. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3) Baptism, as St. Paul writes, is death and resurrection with Christ. It is the personal Easter of each Orthodox Christian.
The Orthodox Rite of Baptism begins in the vestibule of the church. The priest, having come out of the sanctuary, comes to the vestibule and lays his hand on the one to be baptized. This liturgical action demonstrates that the person will henceforth belong to God. The act is reminiscent of the parable about the wheat being gathered into the Lord's barn (Matthew 13:30). The exorcisms follow. These prayers and exclamations indicate that in order to belong to God, one must be completely separated from Satan. The wheat must clearly be separated from the weeds sown by the enemy (Matt. 13:28). The one being baptized is turned away from the Altar, toward the West, and is asked to reject Satan three times and to breathe and spit upon him. Then, turning toward the East, to the Altar, he is asked to confess his acceptance of Christ three times. The Nicene Creed is read in its entirety. In the case of infant baptism, these responses are made by the sponsor. In this initial rejection and acceptance, death to the old and resurrection to the new in Christ, have already begun.
The one to be baptized and the sponsors are now led in a procession by the priest to the center of the church or to the Baptistry, whichever place is the location of the baptismal font. The procession is another sign of death and resurrection. It is the movement from the world to God's Kingdom, where life reigns. It is the most decisive forward step of one's existence.
Baptism is illumination and healing. Christ is the light of the world. In being united with Christ in baptism, Christians take up His light as well. By unity with His life, their own life is healed. The liturgical signs of these baptismal realities are the giving of lighted candles to the sponsors and the anointing of the infant brought for baptism with specially blessed oil. Oil, in the form of salves and other medical compounds, has long been used as a healing agent. Oil is also used for light in lanterns and oil lamps.
Turning to the baptismal font, the priest reads several long prayers and blesses the baptismal water. The water represents all of creation. The prayers speak of the manner in which the life of God must come to fill all of creation and drive away all evil The blessed water is creation restored to its original condition filled with the presence of God. It is into this new creation that the child will be immersed. He will emerge a new creation himself. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (II Cor. 5:17).
The moment of baptism has arrived. The priest takes the child and, immersing him in the water three times, says: "The servant (handmaid) of God __(Name)__ is baptized in the Name of the Father Amen. And the Son. Amen. And the Holy Spirit, Amen." Immersion is the method of baptism most adequate to the meaning of the Sacrament The word baptism itself, from the Greek, means to immerse in water. The going under the water is death; the coming out of the water is resurrection. The triple immersion indicates the Trinitarian dimension of the Christian life. The life into which one is born in baptism is none other thon the life of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided. To be a Christian means to be perfectly obedient to the Father, in the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
At the moment of baptism, the person is given a Christian name. This name must be taken from the calendar of Orthodox Saints. The Saint whose name is selected becomes the patron and guide of the newly-baptized. The life of the Saint is a path toward holiness which the newly-baptized can emulate.
Chrismation follows baptism in one continuous service. These two Sacraments are performed together; they are as closely related to each other as life is to living. Baptism is birth to new life. Chrismation is the bestowing of a new power by which this life can be lived. Chrismation attends to the personal appropriation of the Christian life. Everyone shares the same life, but each person lives differently. Chrismation, the granting of the Holy Spirit, attends to that difference.
"Now there are varieties of gifts. but the same Spirit: and there are varieties of service. but the same Lord: and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."
(I Cor. 12:4-7)
The works and teachings of Christ remained external and unclear to the Apostles prior to their receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Without the descent of the Holy Spirit the saving events of Christ's life, His Death and Resurrection would remain without personal effect for anyone. Christ Himself began His mission to the world only after the Holy Spirit descended and remained on Him (John 1:32).
From the Greek, the word Christ literally means the Anointed One - the one on whom the Holy Spirit has been poured. A Christian, then, is one who has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. A Christian is a person who has been chrismated.
Easter and Pentecost are inseparably related in the whole of the Christian message. The same is true of Baptism and Chrismation. Baptism is the personal Easter and Chrismation, the personal Pentecost, of each member of the Church. In the words of St. Paul, the Christian life is the fruit of the Holy Spirit: ". . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22).
Chrismation is preceded by the clothing of the newly-baptized in a white gown, indicative of the purity of the new life given him. Practically speaking, this vesting is greatly facilitated if the child is brought to the church in loose, easily removable clothing. These clothes are removed completely just prior to the baptismal immersion. The white gown is put on immediately after. A small, baptismal cross is also placed around his neck.
The Chrismation is performed by anointing all the members of the body of the child with a special oil called Holy Chrism. Holy Chrism is prepared only by the bishop. The priest anoints each member of the body by making the sign of the cross with the Chrism and saying: "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." It is in the Holy Spirit of God that we are all "sealed for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:30).
After the Chrismation, a second procession, done three times, is made around the baptismal font and adjacent table. On this table the Gospel and Cross have been placed. During the procession, the following passage from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians (3:27) is sung: "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." The procession forms a circle. It has a beginning but no end. This liturgical action is a symbol conveying the reality that baptism is the inauguration of an eternal unity with Christ. The Gospel and the Cross on the table remain at the center of that unity. Faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ and willingness to accept the Cross which follows must stand at the center of the Christian life.
After the reading of the Epistle (Romans 6:3-11) and the Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20), the tonsuring is performed. The priest, by cutting the hair of the newly-baptized in four places. makes a sign of the cross on his head. This hair is the first offering of the newly-baptized to God: an offering of himself. Following a litany for the health of the baptized child, the sponsors and the family, the dismissal is pronounced.
It should be noted that several of the liturgical actions performed at Baptism and Chrismation are the same as those done at ordinations. The laying on of hands, the giving of a vestment and the circling procession are all executed at ordinations to the Orthodox Priesthood. The anointing with oil was a method of ordination used in the Old Testament (Exodus 30:30). It was also used in the consecration of kings and is used to this day for the consecration of certain ecclesiastical objects set apart for the service of God. Tonsuring is carried out in the rite through which a person enters monasticism, a life of total consecration to God.
The use of these liturgical actions in Baptism and Chrismation indicate that these sacraments, too, involve a consecration to royalty, an ordination to priestly service to God. The New Testament sums up all these actions by speaking of the Royal Priesthood of all believers. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . ." (I Peter 2:9).
The liturgical and moral implications of the doctrine of the Royal Priesthood of all believers are tremendous. The entire Church is a priestly race. Therefore, all Services and Sacraments are performed by the whole Church. Under the leadership of the specifically ordained priest and father, the entire holy priesthood offers its spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:5). Every member of the Church bears direct responsibility for and is called upon to participate fully in what happens in the Church.
The notion of the Royal Priesthood is directly bound up with the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
It has been stated that Baptism and Chrismation are essential, initiatory Sacraments for an Orthodox Christian. They are the means by which he enters into the whole of Church life. As such, they are of necessity linked to the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
The Holy Eucharist, the Breaking of the Bread, is the Sacrament by which the Church is concretely realized. "Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf" (I Cor. 10:17). Holy Communion is the feast of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom into which the newly-baptized has been born anew. Holy Communion is the Mystical Supper in which the "illumined," being baptized and chrismated, are now allowed to participate. At its celebration, Christ again and again gives Himself as food to the faithful. Holy Communion can therefore be called the new Food by which the new Life given in Baptism and lived through Chrismation, is sustained and built up.
In view of these considerations, the Early Church performed the initiatory Sacraments in conjunction with the celebration of the Eucharist. The newly-initiated members of the Church, being ordained to the Royal Priesthood, were immediately brought to the Eucharistic gathering to perform their priestly function the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Without delay they were brought to the Lord's Table to eat and drink in the joy of the Kingdom.
As fully initiated members of the Church, therefore, baptized and chrismated infants should be communed immediately and regularly. There is no reason to delay their receiving of Communion until a later age. The participation of infants in the Divine Liturgy is a sign of the wholeness of the Body of Christ. Christ commanded: "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14).
Infant Baptism and the Responsibilities of Parents
Infant baptism is the normal practice of the Orthodox Church. It directly implies a sincere confession of faith and a vibrant Christian life on the part of the parents. While not specifically mentioning infant baptism, the New Testament does establish certain principles operative in this usage. The Book of Acts describes several instances of the baptisms of whole households (Acts 10; Acts 16:25-34). Infants could easily have been a part of these households. In any event, just as in infant baptism, a confession of faith prior to baptism was not required from each member of the household. What was demanded as an absolute necessity was a confession of faith prior to baptism by the head of the household, and the living of the Christian life by the newly-illumined after his baptism. Baptism of others on the basis of the confession of faith of the head implied a family solidarity in the faith.
In reference to the Orthodox infant baptism, parents should be concerned that within their family Christ is confessed as King and Lord. They should be concerned that they themselves are living the new life, and that this life is being nurtured through the Eucharist and the liturgical cycles. Otherwise, on what basis do parents bring an unknowing infant to Baptism? How will a child be nurtured in the Christian life in a home which does not practice it? St. Paul speaks of the children of believers being born holy (I Corinthians 7:14). But by believers he means people who sincerely believe in and practice the Christian faith. Baptism is not an empty ritual or simply the occasion for a party. The initiatory Sacraments cannot be divorced from the totality of family and Church life. Prior to the baptism of their children, parents should seriously consider these matters.
The Christian Life
An essential bond exists between the Christian moral life and the Sacraments. In fact, Christian morality is the direct result of the baptized, chrismated, communing condition. Christian morality is the fruit of the life made wholly new in the Sacraments. The moral law of Christianity is not written on tablets of stone, i.e., it is not a law external to man. Through the Sacraments, God again dwells in man, His law is written by the Holy Spirit on the heart of man (II Cor. 3:3). In Biblical language, the heart means the very center of man's being. Sacramentally, man's being is transformed from its very center. He can therefore live the moral life lived and taught by Christ. Sacramentally experiencing the life of the Kingdom in the Church, he sees the emptiness of the life dominated by the irrationality of sin.
The Orthodox Christian, as the example of the martyrs clearly demonstrates, can lay down his life for his friends and beliefs; he knows that in Baptism he has been given a new life over which death has no hold and which no man can take away. He need not be anxious about anything, because he is aware that the Holy Spirit, the treasury of all blessings, dwells within him through Chrismation. He can give his hungry neighbor the bread from his table and the clothing from his body, for he is conscious of being a partaker of the Holy Eucharist, the ". . . bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and never die" (John 6:50). The Sacraments provide the entire basis for the Christian moral life.
St. Gregory the Theologian was asked by a non-believer to give a reason for his belief in the existence of God. The Saint pointed to the Christian people. Philip was pressed by Nathanael to substantiate his belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah. He said: "Come and see" (John 1:46). Christians living the Christian life, realizing the potential given them in the Sacraments, bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit--these are the greatest proofs of the existence of God.
In Matthew 25 the Lord's parable about the talents is recorded He spoke of the servant who took his one talent and buried it in the ground. Since he bore no fruit with what was given him, this servant was condemned. Such will be the case with those who fail to utilize the potential given them in the Sacraments. Other servants brought forth productive interest with what was given them. They were extremely faithful over the little they received. The Orthodox Christian must likewise be faithful over the token of the Kingdom given him now in the Sacraments. To such faithful the Lord, when He comes in all His glory, will say: "Well done, good and faithful servants; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:23).