A Commentary on the Holy Mysteries – Baptism and Chrismation
The Service of the Word
by Chorbishop Seely Beggiani
In the early Church, whenever the holy mysteries were celebrated, catechumens were permitted to attend the Service of the Word. Since the Service of the Word celebrated the proclaiming of the Word of God among us, catechumens as well as baptized Christians sought to be nourished by divine instruction. Thus, the Service of the Word in the baptismal ceremony is a culmination of all those times during the catechumenate that prospective converts were taught the Scriptures.
In the Syriac and Maronite tradition, the announcing of the Sacred Scriptures was preceded by a service of preparation and purification which included the chanting of a hymn and the hoosoyo or prayer of purification. The hoosoyo is a great example of the principle that the “law of faith is the law of prayer”, since while offering worship it reflects on the meaning of the event being celebrated.
In the Maronite Service of the Word, the opening hymn is Psalm 51, which begins with the verse, “Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness; in the greatness of Your compassion wipe out my offense.” It is one of the oldest elements in the Maronite liturgy. It is a psalm of repentance and a fitting way to purify ourselves in mind and body to be worthy hearers of the Word. In the context of baptism, Psalm 51 takes on the added meaning of the total conversion that the prospective convert is undergoing in order to be born again in Christ.
The proemion, or prayer of salutation to Christ in the hoosoyo, offers several insights. Christ is referred to as “the Holy One, who gives holiness to the sanctifying mysteries”, thus declaring that the mysteries are an extension of the sanctifying power of Christ. Christ is called “the High Priest, who showed us the way of purification by first purifying Himself in the waters of the Jordan”. This theme teaches us that among the various acts of redemption, Christ redeems by example. It also teaches us that water has been endowed with spiritual power to purify us.
The proemion continues by declaring that Christ has “led us on the path of life to redeem us from our sins”. Both the Scriptures and the early Church speak of two paths: the path of life and the path of death; the way of light and the way of darkness. Sin being death is incompatible with life. Every human must, ultimately, choose which path to take. The light of the teaching of Christ and the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit are able to sustain us on the “path to life”.
The sedro, or main body of the hoosoyo, begins by developing the theme that the unbegotten Word of God underwent a second human birth, so that we, who have been born humanly, would undergo a second “godly” birth “through water and the spirit”.
As mentioned in our previous article, for the Syriac and Maronite Church, the emphasis in baptism is on new birth. While seeking a new beginning involves dying to the old self and rising to a new way of life, and while baptism of Christ was a prophetic symbol of His future death and resurrection, the Syriac Church in its baptismal rite does not emphasize this theme. It rather chooses to focus on a recovery of the innocent state that humans once possessed in the garden of Eden.
Thus, the sedro teaches that Christ came to “renew the image of Adam, aged and corrupted by sin”. This idea of humans being in the image and likeness of God is rich in meaning. It means that humans, by their very nature, reflect God himself. Sin distorts and corrupts the image but cannot annihilate it. While God is free in His choices, being in God’s image means that we, humans, are never completely abandoned, no matter how grave our moral betrayals. In His compassion, God will not turn His back on His own image. On the other hand, being in the image of God also means that we have unlimited potential in our pursuit for holiness.
The hoosoyo declares that humans are renewed “by the holy and spiritual fire of the baptismal furnace”. In biblical times, fire was considered to be the most pure substance since it purified all other substances. The angels were considered to be beings of fire and God the most intense fire imaginable. In fact, Syriac writers and the Rabbula Gospels, which represent the earliest Maronite art, depict the Jordan River as turning into a fiery furnace because of the presence and action of God’s Spirit. Certainly, the Scriptures themselves speak of the need to be baptized in fire. The hoosoyo therefore, petitions God to purify, cleanse and forgive the candidate.
Baptism clothes us in the “robe of glory”. Saint Ephrem teaches that Adam and Eve, before their sin, were clothed in a robe of glory, a symbol of their divinization. By sinning, they lost their ability to reflect God in the mirror of their souls and became aware of their nakedness. Baptism enables us to transcend ourselves again and seek the higher things.
According to the hoosoyo, baptism also declares that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. The idea of a “seal” is rich in meaning. In the context of baptism, it could refer to the fact that we now belong to the flock of Christ and bear a divine imprint. We are God’s possession, and as our shepherd, he will protect us, especially from the enemy. This idea is reflected in the mazmooro or antiphonal verse which declares: “Your flock, O Jesus, stands at Your door to receive Your seal. Shield the children who are sealed by You from all harm”.
The first Scriptural reading from Paul’s Epistle to Titus reinforces the idea that baptism is a new birth. The Gospel reading from John presents the discussion between Christ and Nicodemus. Christ declares that to be saved one must be born a second time from above. For “flesh begets flesh; spirt begets spirit” (John 2:6).
The Service of the Word for Baptism presents a profound catechesis on the meaning of this sacred action. From the beginning of time, God has called us to friendship and union with Him. Being made of flesh and spirit, we are called to transcend ourselves so as to put on the mind of Christ. This new birth and way of life can be engendered only through divine action. Christ is our examplar and shows us the way. The waters of the baptismal font on fire with the power of the Spirit transform us into new beings.
The Rite for the Catechumens
The Service of the Word celebrates the fact that faith comes through hearing and the response to the Word of God among us. The process of faith and conversion also involves renouncing the old self and all evil ways. Therefore, the second stage in the baptismal ceremony consists in the rite for the catechumens, which incorporates exorcisms, renouncing of Satan and professions of faith. This rite begins with a diaconal proclamation which again emphasizes the principal Syriac understanding of baptism, namely, that baptism is like a “mother who brings forth spiritual children unto life eternal”. The deacon further declares another belief of the Syriac tradition that Christ, in sanctifying the waters of the Jordan River, enables all waters of the world to be vehicles of sanctification. This, as we have noted in our previous articles, through the intercessory prayer of the Church, the waters of baptism embody divine power. The diaconal proclamation concludes by declaring that in the baptism of Christ, the Church was betrothed to Christ who is her spouse. Therefore, this marriage imagery teaches us that the gift of baptism is an offer of love by Christ, and that through baptism into the community of believers, we form an intimate bond with Christ, our divine spouse.
When we hear the word exorcism today, we tend to think of extraordinary and dramatic stories of people who are diabolically possessed being cured by an exorcist. We consider such events as rare and often bizarre. We hardly think of ourselves, as living under the influence of Satan. However, the Gospels describe the world as being divided between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Christ came to inaugurate the kingdom of God and declared that His kingdom is not only at war with the kingdom of Satan, but that it will ultimately be victorious. Just as those who do the will of God are members of His kingdom, so those who actively or passively do the will of Satan are outside His kingdom. As Christ Himself declared, we cannot belong to both worlds at the same time. Converts to Christ realize that they must renounce the old thinking and the old way of life. They must forever reject the possibility of doing the will of Satan, or of allowing themselves with those aspects of the world that are contrary to God’s law. It is for these reasons, that the ceremony of baptism incorporates a rite of exorcism.
During the rite of exorcism the celebrant faces west, which represents the region of darkness. The language of the exorcism is very solemn, and stresses the absolute power of God the Father, the Lord of the heavenly armies. The celebrant invokes the Divine name of “I am who am” (Yahweh), the name that no Jew dared utter and which only the Jewish high priest mentioned on the Day of Atonement. The celebrant then invokes the name of God the Son who became man and vanquished Satan’s dominion. He demands that Satan depart “from this creature betrothed to the Living God”, who is going to become a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The celebrant signs the candidate on the forehead, declaring that he is a sheep now branded with the sign of the cross, and therefore protected by the Good Shepherd from the ravening wolves. Rather than being an occasion of fear, the Church’s exorcism offers the baptismal candidate the comfort and security of the divine seal.
Renunciation of Satan
The candidates and their sponsors then face west to renounce Satan, his worldly manifestations and his teachings. The sinful aspects of the world are due to the accumulation of human moral failures throughout time. Each sin injures the human community. Our human history of sin, in which all of us have had a part, has helped to build the sinful world in which we find ourselves. The candidates are now called to reject these distorted values and ways of living, to turn away from the “old man”.
Profession of Faith
Having renounced Satan, the candidates and their sponsors face east, which symbolizes the Light of the World which is Christ, to make their profession of faith in the Trinity, in God’s angels and powers, and in the Church. Faith is a fundamental decision on how to live one’s life, which is ultimately expressed in worship, words and actions. By approaching the celebrant, renouncing the life of darkness, and affirming the path of light, the candidates are expressing their full commitment to walk with Christ. By reciting the Creed they express in words the content and ramifications of their decision of faith. The celebrant concludes the rite for the catechumens by recalling that Christ, by humbling himself in our human flesh, stepped into the waters of the Jordan, so that the same waters now sanctified would become the means of our exaltation.
Anaphora for the Consecration of the Baptismal Water
As we have noted previously, we believe that God is not only to be found in material creation, but that the seven Christian Mysteries represent the continuation of Christ’s presence and power on earth. Just as we affirm that through the words of institution and the epiclesis (invocation) of the Holy Spirit, Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, so through word and epiclesis the power of Christ is present in the baptismal water. This is why our baptismal ritual speaks of the “Anaphora for the Consecration of the Baptismal Water”.
The Anaphora opens with a diaconal proclamation which reviews the meaning of the baptismal event. It recalls that through Christ’s purifying hyssop we put aside the “old man” and are clothed in the “new man”. Therefore, baptism brings about the forgiveness of sins. Similar to the Eucharistic Anaphora, there is a recalling of God’s plan of salvation and a hymn of praise and thanksgiving followed by “Holy, Holy, Holy”.
Consecration of the Baptismal Waters
In the prayer of consecration of the baptismal waters, the celebrant recalls the mysterious truth that, while God by his very being is necessarily hidden and beyond us, He becomes manifest in His works. The celebrant petitions that God work His wonders on those approaching baptism and that He renew life within them. The celebrant goes on to meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation, where God’s Son remains always with the divinity and yet is born in human flesh. Echoing a favorite Syriac theme, the celebrant concludes that Christ dwelt in three places to bring about our salvation: the womb of Mary, the womb of baptism, and the depths of Sheol (the region of death). He petitions God that we be raised from the earthly abyss to the dwelling place of the Trinity.
Invocation of the Holy Spirit
Just as Christ breathed on the Apostles to signify the coming of the Spirit, the celebrant breathes on the baptismal water. In calling down the Holy Spirit on the water, the celebrant first exorcises the water praying that God will drive away all evil and will implant the power of the Holy Spirit.
The epiclesis gives us a beautiful catechesis on baptism. It contrasts the mortal bodies we have received from our mother Eve with the heavenly and incorruptible bodies that are engendered from the baptismal font. It expands on the work of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of creation the Spirit hovered over the waters and gave birth to a heavenly Adam.
The prayer goes on to teach that the baptized are permanently changed, that they receive, in actuality, a second, spiritual nature instead of their bodily nature. They now participate in spiritual realities, and their human spirit is energized by the Holy Spirit.
The celebrant concludes the epiclesis prayer by calling on the Holy Spirit to enkindle the waters with an invincible strength. He prays that the waters become like the waters which flowed from the side of Christ on the Cross. The Syriac Fathers see in the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ, symbols of the Eucharist and baptism. Since these two Mysteries are directed to the forming of the Church, the Fathers believed that the Church was born from the side of Christ, the second Adam, just as Eve was born from the side of the first Adam. The Syriac writers also taught that Adam before his sin was vested in a robe of glory. Our prayer declares that those purified by baptism are clothed in the robe of justice, and that this robe becomes a shield against the attacks of the evil one.
Mixing with Myron
Catholics believe that Myron (or Chrism) oil, consecrated by the Patriarch or Bishop on Holy Thursday, signifies Christ and the presence of the Spirit. The name Christ means “Anointed One”. In the ceremony, Myron is mixed with water to signify the mingling of the Spirit causing divine power to reside in the water. As in the Eucharistic Anaphora, this stage of the Baptismal service concludes with the Lord’s Prayer. Having renounced Satan and professed the faith, the catechumen now approaches the rite of Baptism itself. It opens with a blessing on the candidate. The candidate is portrayed as a lamb being gathered into the flock of Christ. This theme reminds us that we are called to seek our salvation in communion with other Christians. Salvation is not a private affair, but is achieved through our being responsible for our brothers and sisters. Being signed with the cross, the candidate is described as branded with the seal of Christ. As mentioned in previous articles, in this context the cross is seen as an instrument of protection from evil. The blessing also recalls that baptism brings about a second birth.
Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens
Oil has always been seen as a sign of strength and even used for healing. As we also have noted, the name Christ means “anointed one”. The candidate is anointed with the oil of catechumens to strengthen and protect him in his or her lifelong battle against the powers of evil.
Baptism with Water
Water is a powerful and multifaceted symbol. Water is the basis of life in our universe. All of creation is born, lives and grows because of water. Water is a universal solvent. Many things in nature dissolve and lose their original identity when combined with water. Water is also used to cleanse. Such phenomena as Niagara Falls and giant hydroelectric plants remind us of the awesome power contained in water. We Christians believe that Christ our God has incarnated His divine power into these characteristics of water through the action of the Spirit.
Therefore, by being baptized in water, the candidate dissolves the “old man”. Our former selves are left behind. Our old ways and old thinking are no longer relevant. In moving away from our past, we trust that the power of baptism will cleanse us of our sins, so that we indeed receive a fresh start.
The waters of baptism, being a source of divine life, bring about a new birth. Our human spirits are now divinized in a new way. the world and ourselves in a new way. According to the Syriac spiritual writers, we are inaugurated into divine wisdom and knowledge and are called to a life of contemplation of God’s presence and providence in creation. We live in hope of the world to come. Our faith and hope should be translated into acts of charity. Through the power of the baptismal waters we are able to achieve godly things.
Vesting with the White Garment
Ancient Syriac writers believed that Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden were called to a special friendship and relationship with God. This relationship was grace-filled and is symbolized by the image of a “robe of glory” that Adam and Eve possessed. When Adam and Eve sinned, this robe of glory was lost and they became aware of their nakedness. Rather than communicating with heavenly realities, they became absorbed with earthly things.
The Syriac writers see in the robe that Christ brought with Him to the Jordan River the return of the “robe of glory” to all who are baptized. In a deeper sense, the robe of glory is the very mystical Body of Christ to which we are “grafted” in Baptism.
In the baptismal ceremony, this teaching is symbolized in the clothing of the newly baptized in a white robe. This vestment is a challenge to us to “unite our humanity with the divinity of Christ” and to “unite our mortality with the immortal life”.
The prayer of vesting calls upon the candidate to live a life of innocence and purity, indicating a new birth and a new way of acting. Being born again from God, he or she now calls God “Our Father”. As part of the divine family, they are truly brothers and sisters of Christ.
The implication of this teaching is that through baptism we embark on a new vocation. We must live by new values and be directed by new priorities and goals. We must be living examples befitting those who are part of the household of Christ.
The Mystery of Chrismation
At His baptism, Christ was confirmed in the mission of salvation by God the Father and through the indwelling of the Spirit. The Antiochene writer Theodore of Mopsuestia relates the anointing with Myron to the anointing of Christ by the Spirit in the waters of the Jordan. In his fourteenth homily he states: “When Jesus came out of the water He received the grace of the Holy Spirit who descended like a dove and lighted on Him, and this is the reason why He is said to have been anointed: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’ (Lk. 4:18) and Jesus of Nazareth, whom God has anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power’ (Acts 10: 38), texts which show that the Holy Spirit is never separated from Him, like the anointment with oil which has a durable effect on men who are anointed, and is not separated from them. It is right, therefore, that you also should receive the signing on your forehead.” The Scriptures also tell us that through baptism we are called to be a priestly people. Therefore, Christmation symbolizes our commission and call to discipleship. Through the anointing with Myron, we receive the fullness of the Spirit. Just as the apostles were told to “go and make disciples of all nations”, so under the direction of our bishops and pastors we are called to fulfill our roles of priest and prophet.
In the early church, Baptism and Chrismation took place outside the church proper. This was because the catechumens were not yet fully members of the Christian community. While these mysteries were being conferred, the Christian community was in church praying for the candidates. Having received these mysteries, the new Christians would process into the church to the great joy of the members and were embraced into the community. The climax of their Christian initiation was celebrating and receiving the Eucharist, thereby sharing in the divine life and solidifing their unity.
The Baptizing of Infants
The spiritual father now known as Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite (c. 500 A.D.) provides some valuable insights into why infants should be baptized. He teaches ” Children raised up in accordance with holy precepts will acquire the habits of holiness. They will avoid all the errors and all the temptations of an unholy life…. When the bishop admits the child to a share in the sacred mysteries it is so that he may derive nourishment from this, so that he may spend his entire life in the unceasing contemplation of divine things, may progress in his communion with them, may therefore acquire a holy and enduring way of life and may be brought up in sanctity by the guidance of a holy sponsor who himself lives in conformity with God”.
reprinted with permission