Friday, January 13, 2012

St Gregory of Nyssa On Baptism: 'Make It Clear Who Your Father Is!'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

We are drawing near to the Leavetaking of Theophany on Saturday. While we remain in this festal season, perhaps we can “meditate” on the meaning and purpose of our own baptism – regardless of when that occurred – through the challenging insights of one of the great Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa (+395). St. Gregory wrote the most comprehensive theological work of the fourth century, entitled The Great Catechism. Within this work, St. Gregory discusses baptism and how baptism is meant to be a an act of true regeneration in which our lives are changed to reflect and manifest this “new birth” from above. Yet, St. Gregory makes it perfectly clear that the sacramental life of the Church is not a kind of sanctified magic. The baptized person needs to co-operate with God by consciously struggling to lead a God-pleasing life that is only possible through the grace received in the baptismal font. When that conscious struggle is abandoned, the spiritual consequences are costly indeed.

In the words of St. Gregory, extracted from The Great Catechism:

Baptism is a spiritual birth, but he who is born by spiritual birth must recognize by whom he is born and what kind of creature he must become. In physical birth, those who are born owe their life and existence to the impulse of their parents, but the spiritual birth is in control of the one who is being born. It is the only birth where we can choose and determine what kind of beings we are to become.

Now it is evident to everyone that we must receive the saving birth of baptism for the purpose of growth and renewal and changing in our nature …

If the essential faculties of our nature are not changed, what then is the change that the grace of baptism must bring about? It is clear that the sinful characteristics of our nature must be changed, and the evil in our life done away with. Undergoing the washing of baptism, we must become purified in our wills and wash away the iniquities of our souls. We must be changed for the better and become different.

If, however, the baptism has only washed the body, and the life after initiation is identical with that life before, then despite the boldness of my assertion, I will say without shrinking that the baptismal water is merely water, and the gift of the Spirit in nowhere in action. This is true not only when anger and hatred deforms and dishonors the image of God in us, but also when covetousness, passion, greed, evil thoughts, pride, envy, jealousy, injustice, lusts of the flesh and adultery continue to operate in us.

If this sort of sinful life characterizes a man’s life as much after baptism as before, then I cannot see that he has undergone any change in accordance with God’s nature, and he is really of the same corrupt nature as before. Such a man then, who does not change and yet prattles about birth and resurrection … is deceiving himself. He is not what he has not become!

Now the physically born child shares his parents’ nature. If you have been born of God and have become his child, then let your way of life testify to the presence of God within you. Make it clear who your Father is! For the very attributes by which we recognize God are the very marks by which a child of His must reveal his relationship with God. ‘God is goodness and there is no unrighteousness in Him.’ ‘The Lord is gracious to all … He loves His enemies.’ ‘He is merciful and forgives transgressions.’ These and many other characteristics revealed by the Scripture are what make a Godly life.

If you are like this and you embody the Spirit of God, then you have genuinely become a child of God, but if you persist in displaying evil, then it is useless to prattle to yourself and to others about your birth from above. You are still merely a son of man, not a son of the Most High God! You love lies and vanity, and you are still immersed in the corruptible things of this world. Don’t you know in what way a man becomes a child of God? Why in no other way than by becoming holy!