Dec 30 2014

Part 17: The First Stage: The Baptizing Christ P.1, 1-The Renewing Baptismal Grace

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Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part seventeen


The first stage: The Baptizing Christ.

The stage of purification and

The beginning of the process of spiritual renewal for man

(Part 1)

Christ commanded His disciples saying:”Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). And the Lord told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) Water has become the sign of salvation. He Himself inaugurated His public ministry by receiving the baptism of John in the Jordan river, which is the principle of the sanctifying action of water in the holy mystery of Baptism. The water was blessed and became the element of purification and renewal since Christ came in the flesh down in the river of Jordan. Eastern Fathers, chiefly St. Ignatius of Antioch, teach that the contact of the Lord’s body with the water of Jordan purified it with His sufferings1. And here we find a relationship between the water and the suffering of Christ on the cross because when Christ went down the Jordan, He was preparing for the final baptism, death on the cross. He said: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). The word “baptism” here, in Luke 12:50, means the same as “dyeing” (from dye = stain). When He said, “I have a baptism to be baptized with”, He meant the dye or baptism of His blood on the cross. When Christ was hanged on the cross and shed His blood, He gave us the power of sanctification so that everyone who believes in Him and goes down the water of baptism in His name, he is buried with Christ, and Christ works in him through the water to sanctify him, forgive his sins, and renew him.

Because the believer is baptized in the water as Christ did in the river of Jordan, therefore the basin for baptism in every church is called the “Jordan”. Thus the river of Jordan became, not just a river running in Palestine, but in every baptismal basin in every church, because everyone who is baptized in it partakes in the baptism of Christ Himself in the Jordan.

The Orthodox Church surrounds the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (Epiphany or Theophany) with a quite special veneration. She also calls Epiphany the “feast of Jordan”. The Coptic church rites require the hanging of Jesus’ icon as He is being baptized by John in the Jordan river in front of the baptismal basin so as to direct the mind of the baptized people to their being baptized in resemblance to Christ’s baptism and that they are partaking in His baptism.

And during the feast of Baptism the church does special prayers invoking the Holy Spirit to make the water holy so it can purify, forgive, and heal; this is called “Lakan of the Epiphany”. It is clear that the church derives a great power of purification by water from the descent of Christ in the water to make it holy by His entrance in it. This power of purification continues in the life of the believer in all ages. And it is definitely the work of the Holy Spirit that the church invokes in the prayers on the water that gives it the power of purification and sanctification that was already completed in the water of Jordan itself by the descent of Jesus Christ into it. Thus, Christ still continues to sanctify the water for those who repent, believe and are baptized asking for purification and forgiveness.

The Feast of Epiphany:

The Orthodox Church associates the mystery of baptism with water with the mysteries of light and illumination. Therefore Epiphany is also called “the feast of lights” because in Christ’s baptism The Holy Trinity appeared, revealing the presence of God on the occasion of baptism: The Father as a voice coming from heaven testifying to the Son being baptized in the water, and the Holy Spirit descending on Him as a dove; this all reveals the proclamation and appearance of the Holy Trinity. Because of what took place in Christ’s Baptism, the same takes place in the believers’ baptism as they come into communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the Heavens are opened to testify that the baptized is the son of God in Christ. Therefore, we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the Divine light enters into the life of the baptized person. The baptized person starts his life in the light and becomes the son of light even as Christ said: “While you have light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (John12:36) Also the apostle Paul says:“Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12). Entering in union with inheritance of light which is also partaking of living as sons of God is fulfilled through accepting the divine life from Christ by faith and baptism.

The emphasis on light and enlightening in baptismal prayers, and especially in prayers for the catechumen as they enter into the Church, averts the danger of a sacramental water-materialism and proclaims that it is the spiritual Christ who is to be appreciated. It is Him that enlightens the heart with His divine light and renews the life and purges it from its darkness. Contact with the Lord Jesus as the Baptizer as well as the very source of the Water of Life is the starting point of our whole spiritual life.

1- The Renewing Baptismal Grace

Baptismal grace is the “first grace”, i.e. the grace that communicates to man life in Christ. This renewing grace is not only given once, although one is baptized once only. Our renewal begins in Baptism but it is continued throughout the whole life of man. It may be lost, if one separates himself from the source of renewal, Christ, and it can be recovered by sincere repentance and true return to the Lord who had previously enlightened our hearts. That is why some Church Fathers describe repentance as a second baptism saying that repentance is the renewal of baptism. Other fathers speak about tears of repentance as renewal of the power of baptism. Actually repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts; it is the fruit of the Spirit Himself who regenerated man initially in baptism.

The Holy spirit works in the baptismal water. Therefore the mystery of Baptism is not only baptism with water, but a baptism with water and the Spirit. However this work of the Spirit in baptism, which gives adoption and starts the new life, should be distinguished from the gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell in the baptized person after coming out of the water, i.e. the “Pentecostal grace”. We will talk about it in the next stage. It is sufficient to say now that the Holy Spirit works in man to draw him to Christ through faith and repentance, and makes him son in baptism. After that, the Holy Spirit dwells in the person that became a son of God, to make him live in the communion of love with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

Baptism of blood or Martyrdom:

During the era of persecution and martyrdom in the church history, some people believed in Christ without having a chance to be baptized in church, and later gave their life for the sake of Christ and shed their blood because of their public confession of their faith in Christ. Those were considered by the church as being baptized in their blood as Christ’s baptism on the cross. Baptism of blood is not any less powerful or effective than regular baptism; it even exceeds it because when we are baptized in water we are symbolically buried with Christ so we can rise with Him again, but the one who sacrificed his blood for Christ has truly participated in Christ’s death and his union with Christ became complete. Such a person actually went through the stages of the spiritual life from faith to union with God in a short time. Undoubtedly, the person who gives up his life by dying for Christ has been filled with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of self-sacrifice for the glory of God.

Baptism of fire:

The Gospel speaks of a “baptism of fire” (Luke 3:16,17). Some Fathers have understood that expression as different from baptism with the Holy Spirit (and water) and considered it as the burning of the chaff, i.e. the roots and remnants of evil in man, “with unquenchable fire” resulting in full sanctification. Origen, St. Hilary the bishop of Poitier, and St. Ambrose see that these words of the Gospel allude to ultimate purification of individual souls and the final destruction of sin.

The fundamental elements in the rite and the grace of baptism:

1- Liberation from yoke of Satan, or Christ forgiving and healing. This is seen in the prayers of exorcism and denouncement of Satan.

2- The creation of the new man, or the beginning of forming the image of Christ in man.

3- Incorporation into Christ that is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in the water of baptism.

As we shall see later on, repentance, unction of the sick, monasticism, and prayers of second matri­mony are, in the mind of the Orthodox Church, extensions of the baptismal grace. Moreover, at any moment, every Christian can renew within himself the grace of baptism if he directs his heart internally and his prayers towards that goal.

(To be continued)

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  1. Ignatius, Ephes., XVII, 2.

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