Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Holy Baptism, Part 02: Renouncing satan

...and other rites preliminary to Holy Baptism

In her interview with Jay Leno, Ali Wentworth (the American wife of George Stephanopoulos) quipped, "...and I renounced satan, which I was on the fence about before, but I did."

Of course that was meant to be funny. Sure, if satan is some comic book personification of evil, who wouldn't renounce him? Nobody is on the fence about that; well, almost nobody. Yet the wisecrack shows very little understanding of what it means to "renounce satan". In fact, most people don't do it. Most people are at best dimly aware of any need to do it. Most people think of satan as just a piece of antiquated mythology.

The truth is, we simply cannot get around satan (with a small “s” to avoid showing any respect) and maintain any intellectual or moral integrity, since he is not merely an item of Christian belief, but of the experience of millions of people over thousands of years. Both the Old and the New Testaments bear witness to this experience (otherwise known as God’s revelation in history), and so do all the Fathers of the Church, and the saints and ascetics down to the present day. The witness is unanimous, of prophets, patriarchs, apostles, martyrs, and saints, and of Christ Himself.

But if anyone cannot bring himself to believe in satan, let him go forth to wage spiritual warfare himself. Struggle to learn never to judge anyone. Try weaning yourself from enslavement to all the various bodily pleasures and comforts. Strive for sexual purity. Learn to forgive and deeply love your enemies. Try taming your tongue. Try praying with full attention, or even really praying at all. Do these things (or even just one of them) not for a few days or a few weeks, but for months, stretching into years. Do this and you find that your enemy is not at all abstract, that you are fighting against intelligence, enormous cunning, and huge subtlety. You will find out there is purpose in your adversary, and that purpose is to destroy you; first your character and then your whole self. Do this and then come back and tell us whether there is any better description of what you have found yourself up against than “satan”. The more you struggle to cultivate your spirit, the more accurate you will find “satan” as a portrayal of your opponent in the fight

Put another way, if there is no satan (and if there are no demons), there may as well be! In effect, there are. The experience is the same.  Only those without experience in spiritual struggle have not learned this.

So what does it mean to renounce satan? It involves giving up your former way of life, the kind of life Ms. Wentworth's book so gleefully details. More specifically, to renounce satan means to stop living for ourselves, stop doing (and thinking and feeling and saying) everything for the sake of own little selves and to start living for - and with - God, to start living the Life He lives, the life of Love. Renouncing satan involves having at last - and usually with horrible clarity - understood how destructive to ourselves and others were certain of our behaviors (such as drunkenness, promiscuous sex, greed, etc.) that before had seemed so harmless. Renouncing satan means no longer aligning our lives with evil, no longer siding with it, but turning away from all this and declaring total war upon it. But worse than our past behaviors even - far worse - is the sort of person we now recognize ourselves to be, to have indulged in such things. The most profound aspect of "renouncing satan" is to reject being that sort of person, his pawn, any longer.

Now it is impossible to turn away from your life unless you have the prospect of a better life to turn toward, or to repudiate the person you have been up to now unless you have before you the solid and realistic hope of becoming a new person. And that is why, in the Orthodox baptismal rites, the formal and public reunciation of satan is followed immediately by the formal, public acceptance and bowing before Christ (both of which, informally and privately, have usually taken place months earlier).  Christ gives you a new life; Christ makes you a new person.

Both of these, the renouncing of satan and the embracing of Christ, are part of the ceremonies preceding the actual baptism. These ceremonies first make you a catechumen, which is a long, fancy Greek word for "hearer", or as we would say, an inquirer into the faith. You are enrolled in the Church, not as a member, but as a seeker.

Sometimes, this part of the initiation is performed not immediately before Holy Baptism, but when a person first expresses his desire to become an Orthodox Christian. In my case, the priest brought me to Vespers the same evening, announced that I was to be made a catechumen, and gathered all the church folk around me to sing the responses. I was baptized nine months later.

The Priest divests the one who comes to be illuminated of robes and shoes and faces him (her) eastward, barefoot and dressed in a single garment, hands down. Then, breathing thrice on his (her) face and signing him (her) thrice on the forehead and breast, the Priest prays for blessings, protection, and illumination for the catechumen, whom he names for the first time with the person's new, Christian name.

Second among the preliminaries to Baptism, after you have been made a catechumen, comes the triple exorcism, three long and somber addresses to the devil, solemnly and sternly commanding him to depart, plus prayers to God.  (Just about everything in this part of the ceremonies is done three times, a reference to the Holy Trinity.)  The point is that the forces of evil, after being driven out of us, can no longer influence us from inside ourselves, but only from outside, from which position their influence is much, much weaker.

The exorcisms are often a source of much relief for the inquirer, whose struggles have intensified since his or her decision to become an Orthodox Christian.  Inquirers 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 around, 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!"

After the Third Exorcism, the Church prays for the catechumen to be assigned a guardian angel. 

Then comes the renouncing of satan we have been discussing, together with the embracing of Christ.
The Priest turns him (her) that is to be baptized to face westward, unclothed except for one garment, barefoot, hands upraised. The Priest then says thrice: Do you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his worship, and all his angels, and all his pomp?

Each time the Catechumen (or the Sponsor if the person to be baptized is a child or a foreigner) answers and says: I do renounce him.

Again the Priest asks him (her) that is to be baptized: (3 times)  Have you renounced Satan?

And the Catechumen or the Sponsor answers (3 times): I have renounced him.

After the third time, the Priest says: Then spit upon him.

And this being done, [yes, we do!] the Priest turns the Catechumen to the East with lowered hands, and repeats the following three times: Do you join Christ?

The question is answered three times: I do join Him.

Again the Priest asks three times: Have you joined Christ?

Catechumen (or Sponsor):  I have joined Him.

Again the Priest asks: And do you believe in Him?

Catechumen (or Sponsor): I believe in Him as King and as God.

Here the catechumen or godparent recites aloud the symbol of faith, the Nicene Creed. After the completion of the Creed, the Priest asks thrice: Have you joined Christ?

Catechumen (or Sponsor): I have joined Him.

Then the Priest says: Then bow before Him and worship Him

Catechumen (or Sponsor) bows down, saying: I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Trinity One in Essence and Undivided.

Priest: Blessed is God Who desires that all people should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the Truth; both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen. Let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

So far, then,
* The person has been enrolled in Christ's holy Church as a catechumen (seeker).
* The catechuman has been named with a Christian name.
* The  catechumen has been freed from the indwelling of the devil.
* The catechumen has been formally entrusted to the care of his guardian angel.
* The catechumen has publicly and formally renounced the devil.
* The catechumen has publicly and formally accepted and professed his faith in Christ.

Does it really seem too much rigamarole, considering how many wonderful and holy things have already taken place just in the first few minutes of these rites?  But these are only the preliminaries; there is a whole wealth of spiritual treasures yet to come.