BASIC DOGMATIC TEACHING
An Orthodox Handbook
by Protopresbyter Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos (1931 – 1996)
Dr. of Theology, Dr. of Philosophy
Chapter 14 – Man’s incorporation in the Church
1. The birth from above
In His conversation with Nicodemus, Christ said that for one to become a partaker of God’s Kingdom, he must be “born above” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus was not able to understand Christ’s words, so he asked Him: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus then replied: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born above’.” (John 3:4-7. cmp. also John 1:12-13).
The birth “above” that Christ spoke of is the “washing of regeneration and renewing” (Titus 3:5) – that is, Holy Baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity.“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37), to which He replied:
“Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
The presence, therefore, of the Holy Spirit renders man “born again”. This presence is secured within the Church, with the Sacrament of Baptism and the other Sacraments. These holy Sacraments are visible acts, which are performed by the Church and are witnessed objectively, with external criteria and not with subjective – supposedly spiritual – criteria as some heretics maintain.
Baptism was not an arbitrary act by the Apostles. They had received a special instruction by Christ (Matth.28:19), Who had reassured them that those who would believe and be baptized would be saved, whereas, on the contrary, those who would not believe would be condemned (Mark 16:16).
With Baptism, man is assumed into the body of Christ; he is incorporated in the resurrected Body of the Lord. Thus, when he is submerged three times into the water of the baptismal font, he is participating in the Lord’s 3-day sojourn in Hades. And when he emerges from the water, the old nature of Adam has been mortified inside him and he has embosomed the new nature: Christ’s resurrected nature (Romans 6:3-9). He is no longer a citizen of earth, destined to die. He is thereafter naturalized in heaven, and his name has been added among those of the living (Hebr.12:23). Because of this (and provided we could see that person with a clear, spiritual glance as he emerges from the sacred Font ), we would be able to perceive the change and the metamorphosis he has undergone with that Sacred Sacrament. We would discern that he has shed the “old person” with his Baptism and has put on the resurrected and transformed Body of Christ and has been reborn – spiritually, that is. (John 3:4-7, 1:12-13).
The Apostle Paul describes this fact, as follows: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him…” (Rom. 6:3-8).
2. The prerequisites for Baptism
According to Christ’s words, salvation belongs to the one who will believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16). The prerequisite therefore, for baptism, is to believe in the Person of Christ.
When we say that one must believe, we do not mean any abstract belief in Him – that is, a faith that does not cost us anything, in the precise manner that some claim: “I believe there is a higher power”!
This is about the faith, for whose sake man must be prepared to offer everything – even his very life, if asked of him. That is what the martyrs of our Church did, and that is what we are called upon to do: to regard our faith as the most precious thing in our life, which we do not give up, either in exchange for money or for human friendships – not even for our very life (cmp. Matth.16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John12:25)
This faith mainly includes three points:
a) Renouncing Satan. Distancing oneself from every satanic belief, thought and act (James 4:7).
This of course cannot be successfully achieved by man on his own, because he is under the dominion of Satan (1 John 5:19, John 12:31 and 14:13). For this reason, the Church exorcises the evil spirit prior to the sacrament of holy Baptism in the name of Christ, so that it exit and distance itself from the “newly-conscripted soldier of Christ our Lord” who is sealed with the sign of the Precious Cross, never to return to him, ever again.
With the seal of the Precious Cross, Satan is also exorcised to depart from the water of the holy Baptism, so that it may prove to be “water of redemption, water of sanctification, the cleansing of flesh and spirit, the bath of regeneration, the renovation of the spirit, the gift of adoption, the garment of incorruptibility, the fount of life”, and so that the one being baptized be reborn in it, after having shed the old person of corruptibility and donned the new one – the one being “renovated, according to the image of the One Who created him”, so that he become “congenital” with the death and the resurrection of Christ.
b) Siding with Christ. That is, the about-face of one’s thoughts, actions, love – one’s entire life – towards Christ; one’s complete subordination to Him. (James 4:7)
c) Venerating and worshipping Christ.
3. Infant Baptism
In the ancient Church, when people became Christians individually, they were baptized at an adult age, after being catechized previously and having believed in Christ.
Towards this end, the Church had formed a special order: the Order of Catechumens. We can still discern this order in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy today. Its first section, which includes the “pacific” prayers, the antiphons and the readings and ends with the blessings for the catechumens, is called the “Liturgy of the Catechumens”.
The above of course do not signify that in the ancient Church, young children or even infants were excluded from holy Baptism. That would have signified their exclusion from salvation (John 3:5). Christ Himself had called out to the children, laid His hands upon them, blessed them, imparted the grace of the Holy Spirit, and in fact proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them (Matth.19:14-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17).
When entire families came to the faith, the Apostles baptized all the members of those families, without exception (Acts 16:15, 1 Cor.1:15).
We could also characteristically mention that in the Holy Bible, circumcision is presented as a form of Baptism (Col. 2:11-12). Furthermore, it is a known fact that circumcision took place on the eighth day after the birth of the child. (Gen.17:12, Lev.12:3). This is why it appears that infant baptism was the customary practice in the ancient Church, whereas the postponement of baptism is a later practice. Irenaeus (150 A.D.) witnessed this practice of the Church, while Saint Cyprian (250 A.D.) notes: “If adults – who, prior to their Baptism had fallen into serious crimes – are made worthy of the grace of Baptism, then how much more should children be made worthy of the grace of Baptism, when they voluntarily did not sin, but only partake of the original sin which was foreign to their will?“
Saint Gregory the Theologian also adds that children should be baptized when they are still infants, so that “they be sanctified and dedicated from their infancy”.
4. The importance of personally participating during Holy Baptism
Of course one may well ask: Can a child understand the holy Sacrament?
On this question, we need to point out that understanding the sacrament is not dependent on the intellectual capacity of a person, but on God’s love.
“We did not seek Him; He sought us” says Nicholas Kavasilas (*), and adds that the sheep did not seek out the shepherd, but rather, the shepherd sought out the sheep. Nor did the coin look for the master of the house; the master of the house went looking for the coin. Everything originates from God. Man is merely the recipient of the energies of God’s grace, without any conscious reaction of his own.
This however applies to a young child also, and in fact, in a much better way, because the child is not in a position to extend any conscious reaction to God’s grace. Naturally a child’s conscious participation and perceptive ability is lesser, but this is not significant, because even in an adult, the perceptive ability is by far not analogous, with regard to the incomprehensible and ineffable result of the holy sacrament.
These are the reasons the Orthodox Church baptizes infants and believes that it is the correct praxis and is the will of Christ (Matth.19:14-15).
5. The huge responsibility of the parents and the godparents
It is obvious that in the case of infant baptism, the responsibility for the catechizing and the incrementing of the faith in a new member of the Church is borne by the Christian parents and the godparent.
What does that responsibility consist of? What does the godparent or the catechumen promise, in the event that Baptism takes place at an advanced age, as is the case in Missionary lands? The answer to this question is provided by the sacred service for the Catechumen, which takes places prior to Holy Baptism. The priest turns the catechumen to face the West and asks him/her if he/she renounces Satan; if he/she renounces everything that has to do with Satan, with his works and his worship.
The catechumen publicly certifies three times that he/she renounces Satan. In this way, he/she enters a sacred contract with God and the Church, that he/she has renounced everything related to Satan and his works.
«I have renounced!» he/she repeats three more times.
The priest then prompts the catechumen or the godparent to an act replete with symbolism:
«And blow and spit upon him!».
The catechumen then puffs and spits three times towards the West. In this way, he/she proclaims that not only has he/she renounced everything to do with Satan’s evil works, but also feels disgust and abhorrence for everything that has to do with Satan – in fact, to such a degree that he/she spits him in the face!
The priest then turns the catechumen towards the East and again asks him/her three times:
«Do you stand with Christ?», – are you on Christ’s side?
The catechumen then gives his/her official assurance three times that he/she is willing to be enumerated among the members of Christ’s Body – the Church:
«I do stand by!»
“Have you stood by Christ?” the priest again asks him/her three times. And he/she again gives the same assurance three times: “I have stood by!”
And this beautiful and moving dialogue between the priest and catechumen or the godparent continues. Now the Priest must ascertain whether the catechumen has become rooted in the Orthodox Faith. So he asks:
«And do you believe in Him?».
Then the catechumen declares: «I believe in Him as King and God». I believe Him to be my king and my God! (cmp.John 20:28).
However, details are required of the catechumen on the matter of faith. He/she must provide more guarantees that his/her faith is specific, and that it includes all the dogmas of the Orthodox Church, as formulated by the Ecumenical Councils. For this reason, he/she must then recite the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) and in fact, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire congregation in the Church, with whom he/she is “signing” that holy contract. In this way he/she proves in the presence of God’s people that his/her faith is the faith of the Orthodox Church; in other words, the faith in the one, Triune God and in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, which includes the confession of “one baptism, for the absolution of sins”, the anticipation of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.
So, one renounces Satan, then confesses to stand by Christ and confesses the Orthodox faith. Afterwards follows the worship of the Triune God, the complete submission to His will, and the full dependence on His mercy:
«Then submit to Him!».
«I submit to Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity – of one and inseparable essence!!» (cmp. James 4:7).
All of the above are proof of the immense responsibility of the parents and the godparents, when they entrust their children to the Church and receive them from the Sacred Baptismal Font. As mentioned, they sign a sacred contract and they promise that they will catechize their children in the Orthodox faith and will gradually introduce them into the full life of the Church. How immense indeed is this responsibility!
After having signed this contract with the Church, and prior to proceeding to the performance of the holy Sacrament of Baptism, the priest glorifies the name of God for this important event:
«Blessed is God, Who desires everyone to be saved and to be acquainted with the Truth, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages!».
The service closes with the beautiful blessing by the priest, in which he beseeches God to invite the catechumen “towards holy illumination” and make him worthy of the great gift of the Holy Spirit:
«Remove from him the oldness and make him new in the eternal life, filling him with the strength of Your Holy Spirit that he may be joined to Your Christ, so that he will no longer be a child of sin but a child of Your Kingdom».
6. The support of the Church
However, the parents and the godparents are not left alone in their upholding of their sacred promise. To their aid comes the Orthodox parish in which they belong, with its liturgical life and its catechistic and other opportunities that it provides for its new members. Then there is the Orthodox school, which provides the children with a systematic catechesis. Finally, we have the Orthodox children’s book and the Orthodox magazine, both of which are valuable assistants in the opus of catechesis and the introduction of youngsters into the life of the Church.
All of these, and especially the support of the Church, do not constitute an interference in the duties of the parents; on the contrary, parents who guide their children to baptism are declaring with this act of theirs that they desire to introduce their children into the life of the Church, which is the life of the in-Christ community and not a piety that is private to each person separately. For this reason, if they should keep them away from the liturgical and catechistic life of the Church, they will be transgressing the Sacred promise that they gave God and the Church, when they led their children to Holy Baptism.
Parents and godparents have thus become – as we have seen – guarantors, so that an infant will be embraced by the Church with its baptism. Consequently, they are obliged to make sure in every possible way to introduce the new member of the Church into the whole life of the Church. If they do not prompt it to participate in the catechist activity of the parish, or lead it themselves to the Church, they perjure themselves before God and before the Church. This is the conclusion that the beautiful and touching Service of the Catechumen leads to.
7. The armor of the Holy Spirit
With Holy Baptism, man enters into the body of Christ – that is, into the Church – and he becomes a participant in the new creation. But, as Christ mentioned to Nicodemus, man must be born “of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Elsewhere, he said that “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Then the Evangelist added: “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, Whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37-39; Isaiah 55:1).
We know that this was fulfilled, on the Day of the Pentecost, during which the Apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Act 2:4).
However the Spirit comes separately to each person, through the sacred mystery of Chrismation and animates him.
The Holy Bible testifies that baptism is not enough for a person to be “filled” with the Holy Spirit. For example, we see the Apostles Peter and John going to Samaria in order to place their hands upon the heads of the Christians to impart the Holy Spirit to them (Acts 8:15-17). The same is done by the Apostle Paul with the Christians of Ephesus (Acts 19:5-7). “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance…” (Eph.1:13-14., cmp 1 John 2:20).
With Baptism, therefore, man is joined to Christ; he participates in the death of Christ and in the resurrection of Christ. But the sacred chrismation – the seal of the Holy Spirit as the Apostle says – is what constitutes the “promise” (Eph.1:14, 2 Cor.1:22) and the beginning of the Kingdom of God. This participation of man in the divine way of life is complete, with the Divine Eucharist.
The Orthodox Church always regards these three sacred Mysteries as an inner unity, which is why She doesn’t deprive anyone, not even infants, of them.
«You, Who now also has deigned to regenerate Your neophyte servant with water and with spirit, and Who has granted him forgiveness of the sins he has committed, voluntarily or involuntarily», mentions the blessing of holy chrismation, «You, therefore, o Lord and merciful King of all, grant to this one the seal of the gift of the Holy and omnipotent and venerated Spirit as well as the communion of the Holy Body and the precious Blood of Your Christ. Preserve him within Your sanctification, secure him within the Orthodox faith. Redeem him from the wily one and all his tricks; preserve his soul in purity and righteousness through his salvific fear of You, so that he may please You with his every word and work, and become a son and an inheritor of Your heavenly Kingdom».
The «Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit» therefore creates the prerequisites of the faithful’s struggle against the powers of the evil one. Man needs to feel that “salvific fear” of God and preserve himself within “purity and righteousness” in order to please God “with his every work and word” and thus be rendered a “son and inheritor of the heavenly Kingdom”. This is why we said that holy chrismation is a “betrothal” to this Kingdom.
For man to succeed in overcoming Satan – who comes and assaults him after his baptism – it is imperative that he makes all his strengths available (physical and spiritual) for that struggle. The whole person needs to be sanctified and be sealed, as property hereafter of God, and as a domicile, a Temple, of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor.3:16-17, 6:19, Ezek.32:26-27).
This is the reason that the Orthodox Church seals all the members of our body by anointing them with Holy Myrrh: so that it imparts to the whole person the gifts of the Holy Spirit and render him fully a “charismatic being”, ready for his new life “in Christ”. It is the holy armor with which the Church enrobes Her every new member (cmp.Ephes.6:10-18).
8. The assaults of the enemy after Baptism
Through baptism, therefore, man is reborn completely and – as the blessings of the holy mystery say – Christ takes shape inside him. The person is “edified” and is “grafted” into the Church, and is clothed with the “garment of incorruptibility” and a “radiant cloak”.
But the question is posed: If Satan has departed from the heart of a man, never to return to him again – given that the person has been reborn and Christ Himself dwells in side him – then how is it possible for him to sin after his baptism?
The Fathers of the Church say that the devil departs from a person during Baptism, but continues to assault him externally, through his senses which give birth to passions.
That is why the Church prays during the sacred Mystery of Baptism that the Lord will reassure the neophyte in the Orthodox faith, protect him from the evil one and from all the tricks of the devil, and to render him an “invincible warrior” in the face of the powers of evil.
9. Christ’s warrior
These assaults of Satan testify that after Baptism, the person enters a spiritual arena and is called upon for the rest of his life to fight against the powers of darkness, which use man’s senses in order to give birth to various passions inside him and in that way, find their way back into that person’s heart and murder him spiritually.
“ Finally, my brethren” says the Apostle, “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Ephes.6:10-13). “Child, if you come to be subject to the Lord, prepare your soul for testing” says the Holy Bible (Wisdom of Sirach 2:1).
Salvation is, of course, a “gift of God” (Ephes.2:8, 1 Cor.3:7), and is dependent on God’s mercy (Rom.9:16); however, man must “open the door” (Rev.3:20), we must become God’s collaborators (cmp. 1 Cor.3:8) and toil for our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philip.2:12).
That which man is therefore called upon to offer is his volition, his sweat and his labour, as well as his fear and trembling. “For without the presence of one’s volition, not even God will do anything“, Saint Macarius the Egyptian had characteristically said. And Abba Isaiah added that although God may grant vvirtues, man is nevertheless called upon to offer on his part the sweat of his every virtue. “Woe to timid hearts and to slack hands… woe to you, who have lost endurance” says the wise Sirach (Wisdom of Sirach 2:12 and14). “For also, without pains the soul cannot attain praxis and theory”, says a hymn of the Great Canon characteristically.
The volition therefore of a person who yearns for his salvation must be translated as a spiritual struggle for vanquishing his passions and his personal volition, for the purpose of subjugating himself completely to God’s will and opening wide the portal of his soul so that the Saviour Christ might enter it. (Rev.3:20)
This is the reason the Orthodox Church underlines the immense importance that ascesis has in the life of every person. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him!….” says the Apostle Peter (1 Pet.5:8-9; cmp. Ephes.6:10-13).
Danger therefore exists, even after holy Baptism, and every Christian is called upon to prove himself an “invincible warrior” opposite the offenses and the machinations of the adversary and always keep in mind the words of the Lord: “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” (Matth.12:43-45).
We must therefore take care, in case this happens to all of us.
(*) Nicholas Cabasilas (Greek: Νικόλαος Καβάσιλας; born 1319/1323 in Thessalonica;died after 1391) was a Byzantine mystic and theological writer. Cabasilas is a saint within the Orthodox Church. His feast day is June 20. He was on intimate terms with the emperor John VI Cantacuzene, whom he accompanied in his retirement to a monastery. In 1355 he succeeded his uncle Nilus Cabasilas, like himself a determined opponent of the union of the Orthodox and Latin churches, as archbishop of Thessalonica. In the Hesychast controversy he took the side of the monks of Mount Athos and Saint Gregory Palamas. His chief work is his , “On the Life in Christ” (Περὶ τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ ζωῆς). in which he lays down the principle that union with Christ is effected by the three great mysteries of baptism, chrismation, and the eucharist. He also wrote homilies on various subjects, and a speech against usurers, printed with other works in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, c. i. A large number of his works is still extant in manuscript. Cabasilas’ major works are Life in Christ and Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. These works display a profound understanding of the sacramental and liturgical life of the Eastern Orthodox Church and are accessible to and instructive for any Christian today worshiping in either the East or West.