St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On Baptism

Sermon preached by Melissa Nassiff on Sunday, March 13, 2011

This is the second in a series of homilies on Christian Initiation. This is especially relevant today, since this is the first Sunday of Lent, and Lent is traditionally the time when new catechumens prepare for their initiation into the church, into the body of Christ. Last week Tiffany talked about preparation. Today I’ll be talking about the Sacrament of Baptism, which is the culmination of that preparation.

We are basing these talks on the Mystagogical Orations of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Cyril was Bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, and during Lent he spent a lot of time with the catechumens, teaching them the doctrines of the Christian faith and preparing them for baptism. On Holy Saturday they were baptized and chrismated, just as we do today, and received the Eucharist for the first time. Then during Bright Week, in a series of five more talks,  Cyril  explained to the newly baptized what they had just experienced – the mysteries of the faith. (I learned a new word preparing for this. Literally, mystagogical orations are talks leading those who have been initiated into a mystery  into its deeper meaning and significance for their lives.)

Baptism is one of the rites of initiation into the Christian life, along with Chrismation and Eucharist.  As we participate in the ritual, we are acting out the truth that the symbolic actions represent. We spend the rest of our lives growing into that truth, and growing in our understanding of  it. And as Alex pointed out last week in reference to forgiveness Vespers, we learn by doing. We deeply imbibe theology by doing it.

The rite of Baptism begins outside the doors, in the Narthex, where we face toward the west, toward  the place of darkness, and formally renounce the devil and all his works. After that we turn toward the east, toward the light, and affirm our belief in Christ as King and God, saying the Creed before we then move to the front of the church. 

The sacrament actually begins with removing our clothes. When babies are baptized this is done literally; with adults these days it is more symbolic, but in the early church even adults stripped off their clothes, and as Cyril points out, they were not ashamed. We’re like Adam and Eve in the garden before meeting the serpent – pure and innocent, naked and unashamed. This is how we all enter the world at our birth, and this is how we begin our new life in Christ. 

This stripping off our clothes symbolizes putting off our old nature with its practices.  In doing this we are following Christ, who was stripped of his garments, and who “put off from himself the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the cross,” as St. Paul says.

Next we are anointed with olive oil, from head to feet. This oil is richly symbolic. For one thing, it recalls grafting a branch from a wild olive tree onto a healthy, cultivated olive tree. Wild olives do  not produce much fruit, but if a branch is cut off from a wild tree and grafted onto a cultivated tree, it draws strength from the new tree and bears lots of olives. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Each of us, grafted into Christ, becomes a partaker of his life, drawing our strength from him. And also, of course, each branch is connected to every other branch; we all share the same life. “As many as have  been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Together we are the body of Christ. So the person being baptized is being initiated into the community, the body of Christ.

The oil has other symbolic meanings, too. When the priest prays over it before using it, he speaks of how the twig of an olive tree was the “token of reconciliation and of salvation from the flood,” when the dove finally brought it back to Noah in the ark as the waters receded, and how that was a “foreshadowing of the mystery of grace.”  Then he asks that it be “an anointing unto incorruption, an armor of righteousness,” … for “the  averting of every assault of the devil, and deliverance from all evil.” So the anointing oil symbolically becomes protective armor for your lifelong battle against the evil one, “cleansing away the traces of sins, and chasing away all the invisible powers of the evil one,” as Cyril puts it.

After we are anointed, we are taken to the pool of water, as Christ’s body was taken from the cross to the tomb. We are symbolically following Him every step of the way. Just as he was buried in the tomb, we are “buried” in the water.  He was in the tomb for three days; we are immersed in the water three times. This triple immersion also represents an incorporation into the Trinity: we are baptized in the name first of the Father, and then of the Son, and finally of the Holy Spirit.

After three days in the tomb Christ rose from the dead and was alive again, and after being immersed in the water three times we rise from the pool to a new life. Being submerged in the water was like dying; rising from it is like being born. As Cyril says, “that water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother.”

So in these three parts of the Sacrament of Baptism we take part ritually in what Christ went through  in actuality. We are stripped of our clothes and our old nature; we are grafted into Christ, becoming part of his body, and are anointed with armor for spiritual battle; and in the water we imitate his death, and burial, and resurrection.  “Our imitation was in a figure,” Cyril tells us, “and our salvation in reality. Christ was actually crucified, and actually buried, and truly rose again; and all these things He has freely bestowed upon us that we, sharing His sufferings by imitation, might gain salvation in reality.”

Cyril teaches us, as St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans, that “as many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which is also the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This is when we commemorate the teaching of the Church  that it is right and good to display and venerate icons, because they are images of people who reveal God to us, and by doing so, invite us to draw closer to God. In today’s gospel, Jesus said to Philip, “Follow me.” Then Philip said to Nathaniel, “Come and see.”  As we live the Christian life which we began at baptism, we have the opportunity to reveal God to those around us, and invite them into the relationship. Our lives will say, as Philip said, “Come and see.”