Tuesday, November 10, 2009

B&W, W&O Chapter 8: Birth and Baptism

Huh. Perhaps a theme? My last post was about sex, now I'm posting about birth and rebirth (Baptism). :)

The chapter starts with the mention of the tradition of the 'Churching of Women' (I don't know what it's called in Orthodoxy, but that's what I've seen it called in Catholic traditions.)

On or around the fortieth day after a baby is born, the mother and child present themselves at the door of the church. This follows the traditions followed by the Virgin Mary and Christ after His own birth. She is welcomed by the priest (and the congregation if possible). Prayers are said for the mother and child, welcoming her back into the full communion of the Church now that she has completed the holy and life-giving task of childbirth.

"These particular attitudes, which have their roots firmly within Jewish tradition, have as their general foundation a deep and mysterious understanding of the relationship between life and blood.

"The key to understanding and coming to terms with these attitudes lies in the fact that the Jewish tradition made little distinction between things that were unclean because they were dirty or soiled and things that were unclean because they were too holy to touch. Texts of Holy Scripture and dead bodies were both capable of imparting this sense of impurity, but the most significant substance in this regard is almost certainly blood. Even a quick perusal of some of the sections of the Old Testament regarding ritual impurity reveals that blood not only has a very interesting symbolism of its own (which for Orthodox Christians finds its highest expression in the words of Jesus at the Mystical Supper), but also connects some major themes that run through Jewish and Christian tradition: life and death, marriage and birth, sacrifice and redemption, sin and forgiveness.

"The notion of impurity in the Jewish sense, which means that something or someone is barred from participation in temple worship, carries no automatic sense of being morally or physically impure. It has context and meaning in terms of temple worship which has been lost in the modern world.

"The state of a woman after childbirth is that she is impure in a ritual sense, not through being dirty or unclean, but because she is too holy. She has participated in the co-creation of a human life and has thus worked closely with God during the process of childbirth, from early pregnancy until well after the child is born. This places her in a unique and significant spiritual condition."

This isn't a punishment, but a blessing. It allows the new mother to rest after the exertions of childbirth and gives mother and child time to bond. (And, of course, this is not a tradition that is practiced in all parishes in the US). The fortieth day ends this special period for her, and marks the return to 'normal space'. In the Church books there's a prayer on the day of the child's birth, naming the child on the eighth day, and the prayers on the fortieth day. These all remind us that the entire rhythm of birth is sanctified. Included in the prayers on the fortieth day is a mention of the fact that the child will be brought back to the church to take part in the Mystery of Holy Baptism.

Prior to Baptism, the parents must choose a godparent for their child. Unlike in the Protestant traditions, where godparent is something of a honorary, do nothing position (for instance, my mother is godmother to a girl who is Lutheran, while my mother is technically Mennonite - in the 'old days', this wouldn't have been allowed, as the godparent has to raise the child in the faith they're baptised in, should something happen to the parents), the godparent in Orthodoxy has a large roll to play in the baptism (especially of an infant - they make all the required responses for their godchild) and are the ones responsible for the religious upbringing of the child (as opposed to the parents. They are to make certain that the child gets to church frequently and receives Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. The relationship between child and godparent is so important that it is as powerful as a blood relation. "In practice, this means that the various godchildren of a godparent are related to one another, and are therefore not able to marry each other." In parts of the church this is taken so seriously that a person has either godsons or goddaughters, never both, to solve the problem of possible intermarrying later on in life. The godparent, clearly, must be a practicing member of the Orthodox Church, and someone who is able and wiling to take their spiritual role very seriously.

First, the symbolism of water. Look, water, whether we acknowledge it or not, is extremely important for our survival. We can live for longer without food than without water. When scientists are looking at other planets, one of the very first (if not *the* first) things they look for is water. Without water, no life. Ask anybody who's ever been in a desert. We have conflicting reactions to water. It's the source of life, but it can also kill us. It sustains us and cleans us. We live in it for nine months, and are born through it.

Religiously, we use it to purify ourselves in ritualistic fashion. It may have started as a practicality, but it developed, over millenia, into a very refined process, until it had nothing to do with physical cleanliness, but ritually pure, which is where we are now. (Not saying we don't still wash to be physically clean, because you *better*, but we're dealing with washing oneself in religious purpose.) "The theme of baptism in the early experience of the Christian Church makes one clear distinction from the earlier Jewish practices. For Christians, baptism was almost entirely cut off from any notion of physical cleansing. Rather, it was an action in which God makes an indelible mark in the person being baptized. The cry of the Forerunner links baptism not only with repentance, but also with the proclamation of the Kingdom."

Why do we baptize? The answer is actually contained in the readings towards the end of the baptismal service, when the priest reads the last four verses of St. Matthew's Gospel, which include these words: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28: 19-20). To be a member of the Church is to be a disciple - to have a personal relationship with God that will never be taken away. This relationship begins at baptism.

Baptism follows the example of the Baptism of Jesus by St. John the Forerunner. It's not something that was a 'good idea' that developed into a Mystery. Like all the Mysteries, baptism was given to us by Christ, for our own good. It has been the same since the beginning, even if there have been times and people where the full understanding of them has been absent.

"If, at baptism, the priest or bishop takes the part of St. John the Forerunner, the person being baptized takes the part of Jesus Himself. This is not a mere symbol, nor is it sacrilegious in any way. On the contrary, the whole point of Christian baptism is that the person being baptized should find their identity in the Savior. The process commences when the person identified with Jesus in the Mystery of Baptism, and thus finds his identity as a member of the Body of Christ. Later, this identity grows to become the dominant and eternal part of the person's complete identity. This is the indelible mark of baptism: a person is given a new identity within the Body of Christ and starts a new, eternal life."

Because of this, on older person often takes a new name at baptism in order to mark the transition from one life to another. They are now a child of the Kingdom. From the moment they emerge from the water, a new life begins. This is one of the reasons that the Orthodox Church has never withheld baptism from young children. "In answer to those who ask whether a child is able to understand what is happening to him, most Orthodox would reply that even an adult does not understand what happens when he participates in the Holy Mysteries. Belonging to the Church is not a matter of intellectual choice, but a matter of God gathering His people."

Children, from baptism, are full members of the Orthodox Church, and so are not denied Communion until a later point in their lives.

The Baptismal Service (I'm going to try and be brief, really. The description of the service in the book is eleven pages long, so I'm trying to just hit the highlights.)

The Catechumenate - In the past, it was very important that the Church know that the people being admitted weren't spies from the forces persecuting it. For this reason, there developed a period of preparation for baptism, where the people were not yet baptised, but had shown that they were good people, intent on joining the Church. They were given a certain amount of time to prove by their way of life that they were serious about their intentions. The modern baptismal service begins with a prayer admitting the person to the numbers of the catechumens. In the modern Church people are generally made catechumens a few minutes before they're baptized (we're not being persecuted, and there's no need for spies...), although in congregations with large numbers of adults wanting to join the Church, the status of catechumen has been revived. This is a status that can, technically, last for months or years, depending on the persons level of readiness to become a full member of the Church. The baptismal service starts in the narthex. The priest breathes three times on the face of the candidate (echoing God breathing life into Adam), and makes the sign of the cross on the candidate from forehead to breast. The candidate is to be clothed in a single garment, facing east, unshod. This practice reminds us of God's command to Moses when he approached the burning bush. "This is holy ground." The custom has not been kept in all parts of the church, but in the Oriental churches, they worship without shoes in this custom.

The Exorcisms - There is no head spinning, pea soup spewing. Contain your disappointment. :) These prayers are designed to make the person being baptized aware that there is a certain and definite change going on in their life, and that being delivered from the various evil influences and impulses that, realized or not, may have ruled their life to that point is an important part of that transformation. In the last of the prayers, the powers of evil are described in some detail before the spirits are commanded to leave. They are banished at the word of the priest, a power given by Christ to the apostles, and handed down to the priests. If any power or presence of evil has any interest whatsoever in the life of the person to be baptized (adult or child), that evil is commanded to depart.

Facing East, Rejecting Satan, and Turning to Christ - The candidate, godparents, and priest turn to the west, to confront and then to defy and reject the powers of darkness. The priest asks, "Do you reject Satan, and all his works, and all his worship, and all his angels and all his pomp?" three times, and the candidate (or in the case of children, godparent) responds three times, "I reject him." The question, "Have you rejected him?" is asked three times, and the response is, "I have rejected him." three times again. The seal is set on this decision by the priest instructing the candidate (or godparent) to "Then blow and spit upon him." At which point you spit at the devil. (Okay, I totally read that and cringed - you know that song, 'you don't tug on Superman's cape'? Yeah. Like that.) Now, it's not like you hock a giant lugie or anything, it's...'polite compliance'. It's more the idea, 'Spitting in the devil's eye!' A final, 'And the horse you road in on!'. After this, in what I view as a continuation of the previous event (think of it as all one action, you're turning from evil and the world, *to* God and goodness), the candidate, godparent and priest turn around and face east. They are then asked three times, "Do you turn to Christ?" and the response is, "I turn to Christ. And then, "Have you turned to Christ?", to which the response is, "I have turned to Him." They are then instructed (in opposition to the spitting before), to submit to God, to bow down and worship Him. The priest then leads the candidate to the font, saying, "Blessed is God, who wills that all men should be saved and come to knowledge of the truth, always, now and forever and to the ages of ages." (Note: 'unto ages of ages' is something I hear at the end of Orthodox prayers a lot.) At the font, a final prayer is prayed, and the preliminary service is ended.

The Baptism Proper - The candidate changes into (? - he specifically talks about babies being changed into towels or some other clothing that can be easily removed, so I'm not certain if adults also change, or if they start out wearing something they can be baptised in) their baptismal clothing and the priest puts on his outer vestment, a phelonion, because this is a central Holy Mystery of the Church. Incense is blessed, and the atmosphere becomes filled with anticipation. Something Important is about to happen.

The priest makes the sign of the cross over the place of baptism with the Book of the Gospels, just as he does at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, therefore allowing the baptismal font to take on some of the characteristics of the holy altar. A place where God is present, and a place of offering. The water is then blessed, and exorcised, in case there is some little presence of evil 'hiding and lurking' in the water.

Next, the oil used to mark the candidate as a catechumen is blessed. Once blessed, the priest pours it three times in the from of a cross on the baptismal water. The candidate is then anointed on several parts of this body, with appropriate verses from Scripture spoken at each anointing. (He speaks of the godparent then covering the child with the remaining oil, but I'm not certain if this carries over to adult converts as well.)

The child is placed in the water three times, and the wording is pronounced, "The servant of God ___, is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." (I *think* that adult converts are also baptized by immersion, but this is the way the author describes it, so it's what I type.)

The Chrismation - Okay, the chrismation is actually a separate Mystery, but it's performed right after Baptism. The Chrism oil is not the same oil as the baptismal oil (which, up until the priest blesses it, can be olive oil from the grocery). The Chrism oil is blessed by (generally) a patriarch or the head of an independent church, and even then only on fairly rare occasions. So it's used carefully, reverently, and (I imagine) sparingly. The catechumen is anointed in the same manner as earlier by the priest, with the intonation, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit is the agent of each and every Mystery. In chrismation, the action of the Holy Spirit is sealing the act of baptism. "The water of baptism will dry up, but the action of the Holy Spirit seals the action of baptism for all time."

The Tonsure and Clothing - A few more ceremonies follow the chrismation. The cutting of the hair, in the form of a cross is so far removed from our daily lives that its not at all obvious as to why it's done. In the past, one way to mark a slave was to cut off all their hair. In Baptism, we transition from one life to the next - from slavery to the world, to enslavement to God. "It is worth bearing in mind that from the moment of baptism onwards, whenever that person comes to the church for anything official or significant, he will be given the title 'the slave of God' followed by his baptismal name. This is the case when he comes for Holy Communion, to be married, to be anointed, and, eventually, when he is carried into church for the last time. Far from being a cause for shame, the title 'slave of God' is one we should carry with great pride, since it is in being a slave of God that we enjoy perfect freedom."

Next, the candidate is given a white garment to wear. In the past, the newly baptized returned in a week, still wearing the white garment, to have it removed. Of course, the difficulties of keeping anyone (especially a baby!) in a white garment for a week are obvious. However, the church maintains the tradition of the giving of the garment, and then the prayers for its removal eight days later, as well as a symbolic removal of the oils of baptism and chrismation.

In some cases, a cross is also given to the newly baptised.

The baptism is concluded with a joyful (though sedate) dance around the font, followed by readings from the Scripture. Prayers for the neophyte, as well as prayers for the godparents, parents, and everyone else present at the ceremony follow, and then the dismissal. (Typically there's a secular party afterwards as well.)


  1. This was very interesting. I keep trying to remind myself to order this book :). I like how it explains viewpoints. I'm also starting to think I was taught by people with a very negative viewpoint LOL.

    Such a lovely explanation of baptism. You forget how beautiful the ceremony is when you don't see them often.

    I love having a Godparent. Its actually one of the things that would make me sad if I became muslim. My child won't have one. Its nice to have though, even if they don't do exactly what they are intended to do. You have a special Aunt and Uncle just for you.

  2. LK,

    Did you read the whole thing? I finished, and I looked at it, and I thought, 'No ones gonna read this whole post, it's *huge*!' :)

    Now, remember that this is a book on Orthodoxy, not Catholicism. While I'd agree you were taught by people who took a very negative look at everything (kind of reminds me of the Muslims I hear so many other Muslims complain about who are always shouting 'haram'! at stuff they don't approve of...), this book is written from an entirely different mindset. As I've been told, it's not just that the answers to the questions are different from the West, but that the *questions* are different...

    I missed out on the whole godparent thing. I mean, I have one, but it was my Uncle in California, so it was basically like not having one...

  3. Wow, really really interesting! I read it all and so much of it's new to me. (I'm sure you are not surprised since I'm one of those Buh, Buh, Buh...well, you know. ;))

    "Slave of God" reminds me of Islam. I'm almost positive Abdullah means that. Abd = slave and of course, Allah = God.

    Interesting stuff re: childbirth and blood. I've often thought it unfair that we were considered unclean simply because of something God makes us go through, but that explanation made me feel better about it. :) Now why is the time of uncleanliness longer for female children than males? Any ideas?

    I enjoyed all this. Some of it reminded me of Islamic Hajj rituals. (Spitting at the devil vs. throwing stones at him.)

    No godparents for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. I know its Orthodox and yes I read the whole thing. I enjoy this book and the Orthodox viewpoint.

  5. Susanne,

    Heh. Not the dreaded 'b' word! *averts eyes* :)
    '"Slave of God" reminds me of Islam. I'm almost positive Abdullah means that. Abd = slave and of course, Allah = God.'

    Yeah, it reminded me of that too. But I think the difference is that there's a relationship needed in Orthodoxy (and Christianity), while I don't see a personal relationship in Islam at all.

    'Now why is the time of uncleanliness longer for female children than males? Any ideas?'

    Well, the only explanation I remember reading for this was that the extended period was because the girl would, eventually also be capable of bringing forth life. So, an acknowledgement of her future 'holier than thou'-ness. :) But I don't know.

    'I enjoyed all this. Some of it reminded me of Islamic Hajj rituals. (Spitting at the devil vs. throwing stones at him.)'

    Yup. I thought of that too, actually. :)

  6. LK,

    I just wanted to remind, since, while Catholicism and Orthodoxy are very similar in a lot of ways, the perspective is different. :) It's an excellent book, and the author's style is very readable.

    Also, very impressed you and Susanne bothered to read this whole thing. I was sure people were gonna look at it and their eyes were gonna cross!

  7. Mine crossed the first time, I had to come back to it later to read the whole thing LOL


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