Monday, February 7, 2011

On Christian Initiation

Due to things I've read around the Internet recently, I want to make a few very short remarks on the rites by which one (normally) becomes an Orthodox Christian. It’s by the mystery we call Holy Baptism, but it includes the mystery of Holy Chrismation (Confirmation) as well.

The proceedings begin with a triple exorcism. Exorcism! Whatever can that mean? Well, if you no longer believe in the devil, of course it has no meaning whatever and one must be invented or the exorcism dropped. But we Orthodox do still believe in satan, for the very good reason that as we attempt to live the Christian life, we bump up against him at every turn, especially (if we are converts) as we prepare to enter the Holy Orthodox Church. Inquirers who decide to become Orthodox Christians often don’t believe you when you tell them they are now going to need a lot of extra prayer and a lot of friends rallying ‘round, because now satan and his demons are going to get very serious with them. The nearer they draw to Holy Baptism (or Holy Chrismation, if they are converts received by this rite alone), the more they believe it. They say, ruefully, “You warned me! You told me this would happen, and it’s happening!”

So the solemn triple exorcism is to drive the forces of evil out of the person. It doesn’t mean he becomes invulnerable to satan but it does mean that henceforth, the devil can only tempt him from outside himself, not from within the safety of his victim’s own heart.

Later comes the blessing of the waters. We invoke the Holy Spirit, asking Him Who fills all things to come down into the waters in a special way and sanctify them so they in turn have the power to sanctify him who is immersed in them, or to speak in imagery, so the waters can wash away more than bodily dirt. We take care that every square centimeter of the person is washed.

To explore all the symbolism and rich meanings of Holy Baptism would require a whole book, but the major point of it is to graft a person into Christ. In Holy Baptism we are all gathered into one Body, Christ’s own glorified body, capable now of being shared by many persons.

To say we are now one body does not mean one organization having certain practices, beliefs, or causes in common. Nor does it mean we are merely an intentional community; that is, that we consider ourselves one. No, this oneness is a communion of being, is an actual, lived experience of being members of a single, living organism; namely, Jesus Christ.

Just before His crucifixion, Jesus prayed (John 17:20-24):

...that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

If we are to be one as Christ and His Father are one, per this prayer, then it will need to be a reciprocal indwelling: “You in me and I in you.” In Holy Baptism we are assimilated into Him. But now there must also be the sharing of the Spirit that animates this Body, the “I in you” part. It’s in Holy Chrismation the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each of us, now that the evil spirit has been cast out. Baptism brings us into Christ in a gathering movement, and Chrismation transmits the Holy Spirit into each person’s inmost core in a diversifying movement that keeps us from losing our own identities even as we acquire Christ’s. (To the contrary, each person’s unique self is affirmed as precious by the Holy Spirit’s consenting to live in him.)

It is not that people who have never been Chrismated don’t know the Holy Spirit; some most certainly do. Some are even on intimate terms with him, the Old Testament prophets being prime examples. But before Chrismation, those who know the Holy Spirit still know Him as external to themselves. Chrismation is when He comes to reside inside each of us, as Heart of our hearts and Life of our life.

You can see why Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation are administered one right after the other. The one completes what the other had begun. Holy Communion, too, is usually offered the new Christian either immediately or the next day. In this way, the new cell in Christ’s Body is made to share with the rest the same Flesh, the same Blood, the same Life/Spirit – Christ’s.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)