Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
“The aim of the Christian life is to return to that perfect grace of the most holy and life-giving Spirit, which was originally conferred upon us through divine baptism.”
—Saint Ignatius Xanthopoulos and Saint Kallistos
Our recent celebration of the Great Feast of Theophany — the Baptism of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ — provides a fitting context in which to to reflect upon the great Mystery of Holy Baptism. We can do this effectively by turning to some of the great saints and theologians of the Church, who consistently and brilliantly speak of the meaning of this Sacrament of Illumination.
At times, what they have to say may seem to be “unrealistic”—as if their rhetorical skills in describing the effect of Baptism outstrip a realistic assessment of Baptism as experienced by the great majority of members of the Church.
However, we should also keep in mind that the Fathers of the Church were “maximalists” when describing and delineating the full effect of the “life in Christ” as it presented itself before them as something to be lived and then shared with others through their example and their writing.
The Fathers always presented us with the fullness of the Gospel so that we, in turn, would not be tempted to reduce that same Gospel to the level of an uninspiring moralism or conventional religious piety.
It is Saint Cyril of Alexandria (+444) who explains how the Lord’s Baptism establishes the “pattern” and sets an “example” for our own baptism. And Saint Cyril links together baptism and “never-ceasing prayer":
It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows, that He Who in everything is first, in this also set the example.
In order, therefore, that we may learn both the power itself of holy baptism, and how much we gain by approaching so great a grace, he commences the work Himself; and having been baptized, prays that you, my beloved, may learn that never-ceasing prayer is a thing most fitting for those who have once been counted worthy of holy baptism.
It is Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) who explained the meaning of a Sacrament as a genuine participation in what we could call the reality of grace that lies hidden within—and is then conferred upon the participant—through the rite of the Sacrament. Through “imitation” of the death and resurrection of Christ through the rite of Baptism, we sacramentally die and rise with Christ “in truth":
O what a strange and inconceivable thing it is! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not crucified and raised again; our imitation of Christ was but in figure, while our salvation is truth. Christ actually was crucified and buried, and truly rose again; and all these things have been transmitted to us, that we might by imitation participate in his suffering, and so gain salvation in truth.
A true Baptism must include the invocation of the Holy Trinity, as Christ taught His disciples [Matthew 28:16-20]. Father George Florovsky makes this point clearly:
The Trinitarian invocation is required because outside the Trinitarian faith it is impossible to know Christ, to recognize in Jesus the Incarnate Lord, ‘One of the Holy Trinity'.
A fine explanation of the meaning of the Trinitarian invocation and its effect upon the person being so baptized is found in a passage from Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (+14th c.):
As the name of the Trinity is invoked, the candidate is immersed three times in the water and then three times rises up from the water once more; and immediately he enters into possession of all that he seeks. He is born and created; he receives the good seal; he is granted all the happiness that he desires; darkness before, he now becomes light; non-existent before, he now receives existence. God claims him for His own and adopts him as a child. From prison and utter enslavement, he is led to a royal throne.
The water of baptism destroys one life and reveals another; it drowns the old man and raises up the new. To be baptized is to be born according to Christ; it is to receive existence, to come into being out of nothing.
And yet, a Sacrament is not some form of “holy magic,” as if conferring a kind of mechanically bestowed grace regardless of a person’s level of commitment to the life in Christ.
The process of salvation—which we often refer to as theosis (deification)—is a synergistic process combining divine grace and human freedom. This also implies an ascetic struggle. We must cooperate with God if we are to experience the transforming grace of Holy Baptism.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (+395) said this well in his Great Catechism:
...If the life after initiation (baptism) is of the same quality as the uninitiated life (before baptism), then, though it may be a bold thing to say, I will say it without flinching; in the case of such people the water is merely water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way shows itself in what takes place….
A child born to any one is entirely akin to his parent. If then you have received God, and have become a child of God, display in the purpose of your life the God that is in you, display in yourself the Father that gave you birth.
A great saint of the more recent past—Seraphim of Sarov (+1833)—places Baptism in the context of one’s whole earthly existence. This is part of God’s providential care for each of His “adopted” children. If life is indeed a period of testing, then the grace of Baptism, which is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us in the Sacrament, gives us the strength to prevail in this “lifelong test of man on earth":
And what in the world can be higher and more precious than the gift of the Holy Spirit sent down to us from on high in the Sacrament of Baptism? This grace of Baptism is so great and indispensable, so vital for man, that it is not taken away even from a heretic until his death. That is, it is not taken away from him until the end of the period of appointment on high by God’s providence as a lifelong test of man on earth—a test to see what a man can accomplish by means of the strength of grace given to him on high in the time allotted to him by God.
Within the life of the Church, all theology is ultimately best expressed through doxology—the living praise of the living God that brings joy and gladness to our spirits through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Doxology—the glorification of God—is a kind of prayerful/poeticized theology that allows us to approach the mystery of God in Christ with humility and praise.
One of the many wonderful hymns of the Feast of Theophany summarizes its theological and spiritual content in a manner befitting the depth of its significance for us:
The true Light has appeared, and grants enlightenment to all. Christ, Who is above all purity, is baptized with us; He sanctifies the water and it becomes a cleansing for our souls. The outward sign is earthly, the inward grace is higher than the heavens; Salvation comes through washing, and through water the Spirit: Descending into the water we ascend to God. Wonderful are Thy works, O Lord: Glory to Thee!
And so, when all is said and done, in the end we approach God and sing “Glory to Thee!”