Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Holy Baptism, Part 01

The central meaning of Holy Baptism is that it, together with Holy Chrismation, brings us into the Church.  Therefore, to have any understanding of this Mystery, it is necessary first to understand something of what the Church is  (and, ideally, what she is not, but that would take another whole series of posts).

And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23)
Most heterodox definitions of the church seem to begin with words similar to these: “The church is the assembly of those who…” An Orthodox definition of the church (insofar as she can be defined) begins and ends, as does everything in Orthodoxy, with Jesus Christ. The Church is Christ – and all who have been incorporated into Him. More specifically, if we compare the Church with a body, Christ is its Head, the rest of us are the other parts. The Church herself is the whole body, Head and members. The principle “Member” is the head, is Christ himself; the rest of us are included as part of Him.

The Apostle writes that the Church is "the fulness" of Christ. How can this be? Is there anything lacking in the God-man? Isn't that very idea blasphemous?

This diagram, which I hope will be helpful, is nevertheless flawed.
In reality, Christ cannot be circumscribed, and neither can the Church
and neither can any human being, since each possesses a soul. 
Still, I hope it illustrates how the Church can be "the fulness" of Christ,
although Christ is never lacking in anything whatsoever. 

The Church is Christ’s “fullness” in the same sense that any body is the “fullness” of its head, the extension of it, by which it operates in the world. Christ is “filled out” by us the way a tree is filled out when all its leaves have appeared and none is missing. He is “filled up” as a sheepfold is filled up when all of its sheep have come home and none is lost. The sheepfold itself lacks nothing to be a perfect sheepfold; but its purpose is completed when it is containing the sheep.

Other metaphors the Church uses to describe her relationship with Christ include the bride and the Bridegroom, who become “one flesh”. The Church is the unspotted bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:27) Jesus Himself uses the simile of a vine: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5) There really is no way to tell where a “vine” ends and its “branches” begin.

The fact that Head and Body, Bride and Groom, Vine and Branches are all metaphors should not be construed to mean they refer to something unreal. On the contrary, like every Christian metaphor, they refer to something infinitely more real than any words can express. The intimacy bwetween Christ and Christians is infinitely more real than any of the Church's metaphors are able to convey, immeasurably closer than the intimacy between husband and wife or vine and branch or head and the rest of the body.

This communion is to be understood in an absolutely realistic sense. We mean it so realistically that we cannot quite say such things as that the Church is created by the Word, or subject to the Word, for the Church is nothing other than the Living Word. The members indeed are subject to their Head, but the Church as a whole, being Christ’s body, Head and members, is subject to no text. For the same reason, we do not say such things as that the Church is always in need of reform. Christ is never in need of reform! His members are, but they are Church only secondarily, in a derivative fashion, because of being joined to Christ. It is not us, but Christ Himself who constitutes the Church. The Church’s institutions are usually if not always in need of reform, but the Church herself is not an institution. She is the Body of Christ, animated by the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and nourished by His Flesh and Blood. She is Christ’s continuing incarnation on earth.

The communion we share with one another and with Christ is not, however, to be understood in any secular sense. That is, it is not a unity the way an earthly club is, working for common values or goals, although the Church does that, too. It is not a mere unity of intention, as when a group of people such as Boy Scouts decides to consider its members all one and proclaims that they are.  Neither is it an emotional unity, as in a platoon of soldiers.  It is not a body the way the student body of a high school is, merely by virtue of constituting an organization. It is not mere esprit de corps as shared by supporters of a football team and it is not merely a moral unity, as in the pro-life movement. It is not even the unity a family may feel, based upon common heritage, genes, and upbringing. Christian communion is infinitely more than any of these or all of these combined. It is a communion of being. It is a communion in the image of the Holy Trinity, in which there are multiple persons but only one essence. It is a communion constituted by Christ Himself, the same Christ dwelling in each of us. It is the unity He prayed God to give us:

…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. (John 17:21-23)
The unity of the Church is the communion of a single life shared amongst all, that is, Christ's Life. Christ is wholly present in each member and is being lived out (with varying degrees of success!) by and in each. In this communion, each Christian, to me, is myself with a different face. (And so is even each non-Christian, in some less full sense.)  It is a communion which grows as we grow in Christ’s life, all of us more and more recognizing in ourselves and in others the very same Life, the very same Christ, although manifested uniquely in each of us.

Yet this intense communion we share with one another is by no means anything that swallows up our own personhood. Rather, we Christians share the same kind of communion we encounter in the Holy Trinity, in which the Persons remain distinct and unique, while being fully one and inseparable in their being (their essence). In the Church, as in the Holy Trinity, unity and multiplicity are mysteriously combined and transcended.

Such supernatural unity with Christ and with one another is not just a road to salvation but already is salvation itself, or at least the beginnings of it. If you are united with Christ, this miracle is indeed salvation!  One is saved, in the first place, from living any other life but Christ’s. One is saved from living a life separate from God’s life or the lives of other individual people.
It is therefore redundant, a tautology, to say Holy Baptism is necessary for salvation.  Jesus told Nicodemos, "Most assuredly, I tell you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."  (John 3:5)  Does this mean no unbaptized person will ever be saved?  We cannot say for certain, because God's judgments are ultimately unsearchable.  We always remember the thief on the cross, who through his faith was saved without water Baptism.  (We also bear in mind that not everyone baptized by water and the Spirit will necessarily be saved.  In John 15:2, Jesus says, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away..." )  But normally, at least, Holy Baptism is the entrance into salvation.  This Mystery is the normal way ordained by Jesus by which He grafts us into Himself and thereby into His Church.  Holy Baptism is the beginning of the Christian life, a fruitful life, a life of faith, lived both for Him and in communion with Him. 

Of course all this raises numerous questions (such as, "What about infant baptism?"), answers to which will have to await future posts in this series. 


More Scripture passages about what the Church is:

Guarantor of Truth:  I Tim.. 3:15  but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Even the angels in heaven learn from the Church:  Eph. 3: 10  that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

See also Fr. Stephen's excellent post about the Church in her weakness.