A Reflection on Sacramental life Focusing on the Renewal of Baptismal Grace / Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip

When a big dam is inaugurated, people can be benefitted by the flow of water and also by the electricitygenerated out of it.  When a vaccine is developed especially against fatal diseases, it will be a great relief and blessing to mankind.  Almost all scientific inventions, if used properly, can produce a qualitative change in the lives of billions on this planet.  Just take the example of Global Positioning System(GPS) used all over the word today that helps millions of people who drive their vehicles to reach destinations on time without missing the right path.   Likewise,Jesus hasinaugurated an energy source and GPS for making our short journey in this planet joyous and meaningful.  He has opened a power grid for energizing human life so that it could be renewed and lifted to glorious heights.   He is our house to live and grow towards perfection.  When St. John introduces the life and mission of Jesus, he says thus “from his (Jesus’) fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1: 16).   We are getting connected to this divine fullness through the sacraments.The incarnate life of Jesus- His birth, public ministry, death and resurrection-  is the foundation of all sacraments.

Imparting God’s life through visible means and signs is the gist of sacraments.  The ultimate aim of all sacraments is the purification and deification of humans. In other words, the purpose is salvation.  Acts of creation and incarnation are the foundations of sacraments.  This universe with its complexity, connectivity, and beauty is revealing the majesty and magnanimity of God who is otherwise invisible and transcendent. Incarnation was a unique revelation and communication of God’s love through a visible and tangible human life in history. The sacraments can be considered as a continuation of this Christ event.   Sacraments like Baptism, Eucharist, Holy unction etc. give an experience of the Triune God to the recipients for “being partakers of divine nature.”(II Peter 1:5).  Thus invisible grace is imparted through visible means for the fulfillment of believers.

The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin word sacramentum which is equivalent to the Greek mysterion. The English word ‘mystery’ is from mysterion. The Syriac equivalent is rozo which means mystery as well as ‘type’. In Malayalam the east Syriac word Koodasa is used widely to indicate sacrament which means that which is holy or that which sanctifies. According to the ancient Christian tradition the salvation inaugurated by the Christ event, especially the Incarnation,is a Divine mystery.  The scripture has used this concept on many occasions(Col. 1:26-27; Romans. 16:24-26; Mk.4:11). It is noticeable that all major sacraments or koodasakal(plural in Malayalam)are originally connected to the mystery of salvation in Christ and they are aiming at the sanctification and divinization of humans.

Divine institution, visible signs and invisible grace are the constituent elements of a sacrament.  All major sacraments have been instituted by Christ directly or through his disciples.  So we can easily trace the history of the development of all important sacraments to the early Christian community.

Ancient Christians never limited the number of sacraments to seven.  Protestant movement in the sixteenth century  confined the number to two- Baptism and Eucharist.  As a response to this, the Roman Catholic Church in seventeenth century declared seven sacraments as the authentic ones. But the Orthodox Christian Churches follow the ancient tradition of the flexibility regarding the number of sacraments. There are Orthodox teachers who think of  monastic profession, the  blessing of waters at Epiphany, the funeral service,   the consecration of a Church,the writing and blessing of an Icon (which is not only an image of the heavenly world but also itsreal presence), the minor sanctifications of water, bread, oil, fruits, homes, fields, vehicles  etc. as sacraments.  Since there are many occasions when matter is used to mediate or avisible sign is employed to mediate Divine life, it is not easy to limit the number of sacraments.  However Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, Confession, Holy Orders, Holy Matrimony and the Anointing of the Sick have a special and very significant place in the list of sacraments. 

The Orthodox do not think of the sacraments as magic rods to bring about miraculous changes to the spectators.  Prayerful preparation through repentance and participation in the sacraments by the faithful and beneficiaries are important. 

Moses had a unique experience of God in a burning bush.  Mediation ofdivine life through the sacraments is like this burning bush experience.   The grace mediated thus purifies, stimulates and fulfills the divine potential deposited by God in human creation itself.  The woman who had been afflicted with a hemorrhage received healing by her touching the fringe of Jesus’ garments. Grace or healing power was flowing from Jesus to that woman who touched him with faith through Jesus’ garments andSacraments are like that garment.   By touching Christ and being touched by Christ the participants of the sacraments receive grace for their renewal and fulfillment.  They grow towards the perfection of love or radical commitment to the will of God as we see in Christ. 

The partakers of the sacraments slowly become sacraments to sanctify the world around them. This is the missiological aspect of the sacraments.    Each sacrament can be considered as a call to work for the salvation, peace and justice of the world.  The Church as a whole is supposed to be a sacrament.  The Church has been obliged to communicate the experience of the Triune God and to serve as an agent of holiness, peace and justice in history.   The world as a whole and everything in creation serve as a burning bush to convey the transcendent. But the fallen world and the secularized mind fail to experience the Invisible in the visible. Purification of the inner eyes through the sacraments will ultimately help us to experience the sacredness of the whole world including humans.  So the sacraments can lead to the restoration of the sacramental nature of the world, lost in modern timesespeciallyafter theEuropean enlightenment movement of 18th and 19th century.

General Introductionto Baptism

Baptism is one of the most ancient Christian sacraments instituted by Jesus himself and practiced by the ancient Christians onwards. His reference to a spiritual birth through water and Spirit and also the commandment to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (St. Matthew 28:19) are very significant. Jesus gave a new meaning to baptism which was in practice in Jewish tradition. For Him it was a call to experience the new life of the Kingdom of God which he inaugurated and also an appointment to continue His mission in history.

When the first generation Christian believers received baptism, they did not keep their children away from that experience. There are a few instances in the New Testament of families getting baptized based on the faith of one of theirmembers(Acts 10:47&48;16:15; 18:8; I Corinthians 1:16).  But in none of those cases children were excluded as per the records.  When the disciples of Jesus prevented the women who brought their little ones, Jesus intervened instructingthem not to block the children.  Even if the children did not know Jesus intellectually, they received blessings from Him based on the faith of their mothers.  Likewise the Orthodox Christian tradition does not block baptism to the children.

Orthodox Baptismal Liturgy

As with Holy Qurbana, Holy baptism also has many orders in the Syrian tradition.  The present baptismal text used in Malankara Orthodox Church was introduced in Malankara by Patriarch Peter III who came to Malankara in 1875.  We can trace its history back to the baptismal liturgy of Severus of Antioch of sixth century which was abridged by Bar Hebraeus in the thirteenth century.  The different parts of this baptismal order that we use are:  Introductory prayers, Promeon Sedro, Bible Readings, the writing of names, breathing on the face, making the sign of the cross on the forehead without oil, exorcism, pledge denying Satan and  accepting Christ, Nicene Creed, anointing the forehead with holy oil, purification of the water(mixing of cold water and warm water, celebration of the sosaffa, breathing over water, making the sign of the cross over the water, pouring Holy Myron in the baptismal font), baptism proper, anointing with Myron, presenting in the white cloth, participating in Holy Qurbana, crowning ceremony, and concluding prayer.

Benefits explained through a few images

  1. Birth

Baptism facilitates a spiritual birth and the baptismal candidate acknowledges God as the ultimate source of life and submits to His parenting.  This is a calling to live as a child of God. Jesus showed us the supreme model of the life of a child of God. Baptismal rebirth is also for a growth towards perfection.   The Orthodox Syrian baptismal liturgy presents the baptistery as a womb or mother who gives birth to children and the Church as the mother who raises thosechildren tothe fullness of Christ.  A family is ensuring the well-being and growth of a child born there.  Likewise, the Church, the household of God, needs to serve as a mother to ensure the   spiritual growth of each person who joins Christ through baptism. Life, witness and teaching of all parishioners and especially that of parents, god -parents andparish priests play a decisive role in this shaping of Christian life in the newly baptized members of the Church.  An authentic Christiandiscipleship of the adult Christians in a Church is very decisive for the positive formation of the young Christians. 

But this raising or spiritual growth is not merely a human effort.  The Holy Spirit dwells in us from Baptism to lead us to the fullness of life.  One of the ancient Syriac works describes the motherly protection that the Spirit extends to believers thus:  

  “As the wings of doves over their nestlings,

    And the mouths of their nestlings toward their mouths

   So also are the wings of the Spirit over my heart” (The Odes of Solomon 28, 1 )

It must be noted that the divine life brought by the Messiah is imparted to the baptized through action of the Holy Spirit.  So the most fitting title of the Holy Spirit in the early Syriac tradition is “the Spirit of Life”. The Nicene Creed depicts the Holy Spirit as ‘life giver of all’.  

 Illumination

Ancient Christian wisdom portrays baptism as illumination. St. Clement of Alexandria calls baptism “an illumination by which we behold the holy light of salvation”(Paedagogos 26:1). St. Gregory Nazianzen depicts baptism as “enlightenment because it radiates light”(Oration on Holy Baptism 40:4).   It sets the baptized on the path of light and salvation so that s/he can escape from the illusions of this world.  There is a petition in the second prayer of the Syrian baptismal text thus,  “O Lord…….enlighten the eyes of his/her mind that s/he may understand the vanity of this world and by casting away every deadly service he may offer up glory to You…”.  The wisdom of Jesus Christ is the secret of an enlightened life.  Walking in the light of Christ means to lead a life by practicing His commandments.  Just before the priest breathes on the face of the baptismal candidate, there is a petition thus: “O Merciful Lord……….deliver him /her from all the wickedness of the enemy so that he may flee from the vanities of this world and walk in your commandments”. Just before the signing of cross on the forehead of the candidate with Myron, there is a prayer thus: “O Lord……. Walking in your light let him/her be a son/daughter  of light and following you s/he may come to you”

Misguided by the illusions of this world, how many are offering their lives at the altar of wealth, power and sex.  The most unfortunate thing is that there are many who glorify even evil.  Even the worst criminal acts are uploaded in social media and popularized by some.  When the standards to distinguish the right and wrong are dismantled or trivialized, those who seek truth and would like to walk in light are also confusedand afraid to continue.  But the Spirit received in baptismwhich dwells in us, invites usto walk in the light of Christ with full confidence for the success of life.  “Send your Holy Spirit upon him/herso that s/he may be worthy of the sacramental anointing. Fill him/her with the divine gifts. Make your light rise in the heart of your worshipper, so that he may be free from the slavery of sin.” This prayer in secret right before the signing on the forehead of the baptismal candidate with the oil of anointing informs that the Holy Spirit is the helper who draws our attention to a life according to Gospel of our Lord which frees us from the bondages of dehumanizing passions. It is important to seek the enlightening guidance of the indwelling Holy Spirit unceasingly for a meaningful and joyous life in the midst of various challenges and temptations.

 Recruitment for a war

 Baptism is witnessing the birth of a warrior also and s/he is recruited to an army which is supposed to fight against all evil forces.  This struggle is nothing but the unceasing spiritual unseen warfare against evil passions like hatred, pride, lust, greed etc. Infact at the root of all injustices, violence, and dehumanizingaddictions we can see such passions. Kurukshetra war of the Indian epic Mahabharata and the concept of Jihad in Islam also point to this essential spiritual struggle. But baptism gives us the hope that in this struggle we are aided by the grace received in baptism.  Just before the anointing with holy Myron there is a prayer like this in the sacrament of holy baptism: “being spiritually filled with all the sweet odour by this Myron, s/he may not be seized by the hostile armies. And let him/her not henceforth be afraid of the evil powers and rulers of darkness, but walking in your light let him be a son/daughter of light and following you may s/he come to you.”

 Entry in to paradise

The Israelites began their journey to the Promised Land by crossing the Red sea which is highlighted by St. Paul as a foretaste of Christian baptism.  Baptism is a call to live a life in constant communion with God which encourages a balanced loving relationship with all.  Such a life in Divine communion and love is life in paradise and so alienation from its joy and peace is sin. A couple of prayers and hymns of the baptismal liturgy remind us about this joyous experience of light and life. During the crowning of the baptized, there is a blissful saying about him or her thus, “you ascended like an angel, our beloved, from baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit. Behold, an unfading crown is placed on your head, and today you have put on the glory of the heavenly ones; watch, lest the Evil one snatch it from you.”  According to some ancient baptismal rites, there was a tradition of giving milk and honey to the baptized along with Holy Qurbanaindicating the entry to paradise.  The promised land in the Old Testament with the abundance of milk and honey symbolizes the paradise to inherit.  Towards the end of baptism, the baptized one is taken to the Holy altar symbolizing the entry into paradise through baptism.

Baptism is primarily meant to restore and renew the creation to its original beauty and sanctity. Ancient Christian wisdom expressesthis idea by depicting baptism as a re-entry into paradise which was lost to the fallen man.  As the Syriac scholar Dr. Sebastian Brock rightly says, “St. Ephrem and the Syriac fathers, like their Greek contemporaries, have a great deal to say about the significance of baptism, but the essence of it all is that baptism is the re-entry, for each individual Christian who is baptized, into Paradise. It effects for her or for him the transformation, by means of the Holy Spirit, of fallen creation into its pristine paradisiacal state. In other words, the new-born Christian is raised to a plane where, provided he allows the Spirit to do so, the Holy Spirit will bring about the sanctification of the material world around him.”(Studies in Syriac Spirituality. Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore:2008, p.52).

The Christian tradition from the beginning understood baptism as an initiation into Christ. That was why St. Paul taught that those who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).  The same insight is echoed when during the dropping of Holy Myron in the water in the baptistery, it is prayed like this: “make him / her an associate of Christ, being purified by your salvific washing”.  So baptism is not merely a calling for Christocentrism but rather for a Christification by participation in Him.  Since Christ is in union with the Father and the Spirit, this is a participation in the Triune God.  The beginning of paradisiacal life is here in history itself.  Failure to fulfill this inner urge or longing of all souls leads to discontentment.  Consequently there will be temptations to fill this vacuum and solve this dissatisfaction with diverseattractions or enslavement to semi gods.  As a result, such misguided aspirants are falling in to a bottomless pit of bondages and dissatisfaction which is the beginning of hellish life.  In fact the enslaving consumerist culture and ‘stuffocation’ are based on such an experience. 

  1. Coronation

There are many symbolic acts or rituals in baptism such as breathing, laying on of hands, anointing and crowning by which the baptismal candidate is elevated to be a presence of Jesus Christ.  The risen Lord appeared to his disciples and told them to work as heHimself accomplished a transforming missionand then breathed on them for imparting the Holy Spirit for helping to follow his instructions.  Thus the chief celebrant breathes on the baptismal candidate for the reception of the Holy Spirit. A human being is thus renewed and recreated to be appointed as a true disciple of Christ to renew the rest of the creation.  Then the priest lays his hand on the candidate in the baptistery recalling the ordination of missionaries or ministers of the church.  Through this first ordination, all those who join Christ through baptism are appointed to be servants of the Kingdom of God.  Anointing with the Holy Myron(which is also associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit) is another important ritual in baptism.  Only the leaders of the community like kings, priests and prophets were anointed with holy oil in the pre-Christian Jewish tradition. But through baptism, not only leaders but all those who join Christ and His church are anointed to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of forces of darkness.  So through the personal Pentecost of baptism every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit to lead a life witnessing the Lord through one’s thoughts, words and deeds in all areas of one’s life.

Towards the end of baptism there is a crowning ceremony during which a crown is placed on the head of the candidate.  Crown symbolizes authority over enemies and also the authority to ensure the well-being of all.  According to ancient Christian wisdom, crown of life will be given to those who are faithful to their calling till the end (Revelations 2:10, I Peter 5:4). So baptism is an appointment to be a disciple of Christ and to be faithful to Him till the last breath.

There are different professions like that of a  journalist, teacher, priest, doctor, nurse,  engineer, farmer and sweeper and various positions we hold like  minister, CEO, bishop, and party leader.  The excitement of being promoted to higher positions is enormous.  But the more fascinating thing is that irrespective of our profession or position, we are called to be the children of God through baptism to be like Jesus Christ and to reflect the light of Him around us through whatever we do. The life of God has been given to us through the Holy Spirit, the greatest gift we received in baptism for fulfilling this calling and mission.

Responsible response to baptismal grace

Salvation begins at baptism and in an ideal Christian perspective an unceasing spiritual growth follows it. If a small child is baptized, as it grows, the Church and especially the parents and the god-parents must help the child to realize the importance of baptism.  During baptism a pledge istaken by the god-father or god-mother where s/herenouncesSatan and accepts Jesus Christ and  all the teachings which were divinely delivered by God through the prophets, apostles and holy fathers.  As the child grows up, the parents can celebrate the baptismal birthday, renewing the memories through photos and videos and parents can also make an  attempt to help the child to understand the meaning of this pledge and to practice it in daily life. This renewing of commitment and dedication to Jesus Christ is worth considering in all families.

Unclean passions, impure thoughts and activities diminish and suppress the light of the baptismal grace.  All spiritual activities are meant to purify our inner being so that the baptismal grace is rejuvenated. As St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain rightly suggests, we have to “recover that original baptismal grace which is found deeply buried underneath our passions, like an ember in the ashes and fan the spark back in to the flames of theosis (deification).” All other sacraments are for renewing this grace and to build up on it.      Heartfelt repentance and prayers like Jesus prayer will also be very helpful to eliminate the passions from our hearts like ashes from a fireplace.

Keen observation when attending baptism of others will be beneficial to renew the grace and calling we have received through baptism. Not only the baptismal candidate, but all those who participate in baptism with sincerity and a pure mind will also be receiving blessings though the sacrament. Looking at the baptistery every time when we come to the church/chapel and renewing our baptismal dedication to the Lord is a desirable spiritual exercise. 

e="text-align: justify;">Almost every day we take a shower which can be used as an opportunity to reflect on our baptism.  When water was poured on our body during baptism, divine grace of the Spirit was being poured on our soul.  So whenever our body is washed, we can pray for the renewal of baptismal grace for our further cleansing and soul fulfillment. As Fr. K. M. George rightly observes “even a simple washing of the face with water can take on a sacramental meaning if we do it with joyful remembrance of the gift of baptism.”  (Baptism, STOTS p. 17)

Reflection on Baptism is a soft reminder to lead a life in loving relationship with Jesus Christ.  It reminds to give priority to His teachings at any cost and follow it and thus walk in His light by the help of the Holy Spirit.  The world may be throwing at us many hardships, insults, temptations, diseases, painful losses but the success of life depends on how we respond to these and transform themasopportunities to make our lives and our world a blessed experience. We are not alone in this hard task. We belong to the Lord and He is faithful to us andBaptism gives us the assurance that the most glorious Holy Trinity is with us to help, guide and strengthen us.  ‘Being sealed by the sign of baptism’ is the guarantee of it.   The joy and satisfaction of heaven starts with this and grows corresponding to our dedication to renew the baptismal grace, leading us to be agents of heaven on earth. As Jesus says ‘a person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet’ (St. John 13:10). Those who have received the bath of baptism are in need of further cleansing through the sacrament of confession.    All other sacraments and spiritual exercises are for the renewal of this baptismal grace towards human fulfilment and consequently the transformation of the world.