Thursday, March 22, 2012

Holy Baptism, Part 03, the Stripping

...and the Anointing with Oil

"So they undress my baby completely, and I’m thinking, it’s cold; we’re in a big cathedral; I don’t know if this is the right thing to do... And then they take holy oil…This baby, my baby, they take holy oil and they rub oil all over her. And I turned George and I said, “Are they going to stick a lemon in her butt and some rosemary, and  - I mean, what’s going on? - Ali Wentworth, amusing Jay Leno and atheist Bill Maher

It is a very well-documented fact that for at least the first four hundred years of Christianity, candidates for Holy Baptism, whether, men, women, or children, came to the holy font stark naked.  You even had to remove all cosmetics, ribbons, jewelry, hairpins, etc.  (Jewish baptisms had also been in the nude, so there's no use supposing nude baptism was an innovation of some fallen-away, post-apostolic church.  No, it was so from the beginning.)

In the Mediterranean culture, where people were used to seeing one another naked in the public baths, nudity offended people's sensibilities much less than it would now, and of course the Church made suitable provisions for modesty.  The baptistry (place where Holy Baptism was administered) was set apart from the general assembly, often in a separate little building on the church grounds.  When there were whole groups of people to be baptized (the night beteween Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday being then, as now, the favorite time), the children were baptized first, then men, and women last, each being clothed in a white robe before being taken into the assembly.  Also, there were deaconesses to assist with the women, although they were not permitted to perform the actual baptizing. 

Today, the Church makes exceptions to the rubric for the sake of avoiding scandal; she allows adults to wear swimsuits, usually white.  (You do have to test your white swimsuit in the shower beforehand to see whether it turns transparent when wet, and if it does, you may like to sew in an extra lining.)  Babies and very young children, however, are still baptized completely naked.  The stripping takes place after the candidate has renounced and spat upon satan and has accepted and bowed to Christ (see Part 02 of this series).

The rites of the Church make at least semi-nudity a practical necessity.  You are about to be anointed "with exorcised oil from the topmost hairs of your head to the soles of your feet,"  as one early Church Father put it.  (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, circa 315-386, Catechesis Mystagogica II.3)   After that, you are going to be immersed three times in water.

Again, today, in the case of adults, the Church concedes the point about modesty and departs slightly from the rubric, especially as there are no longer deaconesses to anoint women.  Thus, today you are likely only to be anointed on the forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, chest, hands, and feet. 

(A deaconess, by the way, was not simply a "female deacon".  Deacons and deaconesses each had different, if sometimes parallel, sets of duties in the Church.)

But beyond the practical necessity imposed by the all-over anointing and the total immersion, there are multiple spiritual reasons for the nudity, involving a whole array of rich imagery and powerful symbols.

We come naked and barefoot before Christ because sin has stripped us bare.  Sin has taken away our dignity, our claim to any standing before God, and to some extent, has eroded away our very humanity.  We are naked just as Adam and Eve found themselves naked after they had sinned.

We come naked before Christ in acknowledgment that we are nothing and we have nothing to offer Him (unless He may be pleased with our love, gratitude, and loyal obedience - and He is).  In the words of the old evangelical hymn, "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to His Cross I cling."

Proclus of Constantinople (Archbishop of Constantinople from 434 to 446) writes in his Catechesis Mystagogica:
You appear naked, as one coming from the foe, stripped of your garment by your enemies.  Your bare feet give testimony of your poverty...In this you may know how He enriches your nakedness with His grace, how He puts on you with the chrism the scent of good deeds, how with the oil He makes you to shine to He clothes your body with shining garments...
Nudity is the condition of a slave on the auction block.  We come naked and unshod before Christ in recognition that we have up to now been slaves of satan. 

We come naked before the Cross, upon which the God-man, in utter humility, graciously condescended to allow Himself to be naked for us, who are about to become incorporated into Him.

We come naked to Christ because we are about to die with Him, die to our old lives and our old selves, and to be buried with Him.  Jesus was buried naked, with only a shroud wrapped around Him.

But more than that, perhaps the most obvious symbolism of the nakedness is that we are about to be born.  The baptismal font is both tomb and womb, the Church's womb, from which emerge the naked, infant children of God and co-heirs with Christ.  We are about to die with Christ and then be re-born, that is, born  into our new life, which is Christ's own glorious, resurrected, immortal Life.

"Do you not know," asks St. Paul, "that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?"

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, just so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.  For whoever has died has been freed from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,  knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.  For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.  Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 6:3-11 
A symbol less obvious today is that we come to baptism naked because we are about to beome athletes for Christ.  In the ancient world, athletes competed in the nude. (The Greek word for naked is gymnos, from which we get our English words gymnasium and gymnastics.)  We are committing ourselves, in baptism, to a life-long contest against satan, against every manner of vice, sin, and shortcoming we encounter in ourselves. This is all-out war!

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run this way: not with uncertainty. I fight this way: not as one who boxes the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (St. Paul, I Corinthians 9:24-28)
Again, in Hebrews (12:1), we read:  "... let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily besets [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."

There is some bridal imagery going on here, too, reminiscent of Prophet Hosea.  It is the unfaithful, unlovely, disgraced and naked bride whom Christ is espousing and making holy and beautiful.  St. Paul writes, "I espoused you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:2)

And we come naked to the baptismal font because we are about to be clothed with Christ. As the holy Apostle Paul says, "For all of you are the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Gal. 3:26, 27

St. Cyril of Jerusalem sums it up (Cat. Myst. II.2): 
Immediately upon entering, you took off your tunic.  And this was the icon of the old man which you put off with his deeds.  Having stripped, you were naked, imitating in this the nakedness of Christ upon the Cross.  And in His nakedness, He stripped the principalities and authorities [St. Cyril means demons] and afterwards paraded them publicly in his triumphal procession.

Oh, the wondrous thing!  You were naked in the sight of all and not ashamed.  Truly you bore the image of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden and not ashamed.
St. John Chrysostom (347-407) has his own summary (in Sermons upon the Epistle to the Colossians, II.2):

Then [in the Old Testament days] it was slave toward master, but now, friend toward friend...Then there was nakedness, now there is nakedness.  But then the nakedness was a consequence of sin; now there is no sin.  Rather, now we strip to become freed from sin.  Then, he [Adam] put off the glory that had been his; now he [man] puts off the old man, and before he descends into the water, he puts it off just like a garment.
Immediately after the candidate is undressed, he or she is anointed with oil.  St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains the meaning of this anointing:

Then, when you were stripped, you were anointed with exorcised oil, from the very hairs of your head to the soles of your feet, and were made partakers of the good olive tree, Jesus Christ.  For you were cut off from the wild olive tree and grafted into the good one, and were made to share the fatness of the true olive tree.  The exorcized oil therefore was a symbol of the participation in the fatness of Christ....   (Cat. Myst. II.3)
The image of the athlete has already been mentioned; besides competing in the games naked, the ancient athlete rubbed himself all over with olive oil.  It made him shine and it made him too slippery for, say, a wrestling opponent to hold onto easily.  St. Ambrose of Milan says, "You are anointed an athlete of Christ."  (De sacramentis 11.2.4)

St. John Chrysostom adds: "He [the priest] causes your whole body to be anointed with that olive oil of the spirit, so that all your limbs may be fortified and unconquered by the darts which the adversary aims at you."  (Sermon on the Epistle to the Colossians, 2.3)

And in another place, he tells his catechumens:
So then, in your case these thirty days [before you are to be baptized] are like some wrestling school, both for exercise and practice: let us learn from now already to get the better of that evil demon. For it is to contend with him that we have to strip ourselves, with him after baptism we are to box and fight. Let us learn from now already his grip, on what side he is aggressive, on what side he can easily threaten us, in order that, when the contest comes on, we may not feel strange, nor become confused, as seeing new forms of wrestling; but having already practiced them among ourselves, and having learned all his methods, may engage in these forms of wrestling against him with courage. (St. John Chrysostom, First Instruction 4)

* * *

All this, dear Ali Alexandra, is what is going on.  Rather, this is a small hint of the many-splendored significance of the preliminary rites you have seen.  It's a great pity (especially given who your father-in-law is) that you were not more carefully instructed in the marvelous things in which you participated.


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