Part of the Seven Talks on the Creed
This is the sixth of the seven lectures of the book Niceo-Constantipolitan Creed(Symbol of Faith) and deals with the words on baptism. as with the previous it was printed in "Tradition Alive"
(Translated by Colin Masica with the assistance of Olga Trubetskoy from Seven Talks on the Creed, Oakwood Publications, 1999.)
Today we are approaching the end of the “Symbol of Faith” and next time we shall talk about its last lines. Today I will dwell on the theme, I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. What does this mean? The word “baptism”, in Greek means “ablution.” A holy ablution in deep antiquity signified a turning point in the life of a person, a washing off from his or her soul and body of some dark elements, both physical and spiritual. Water was employed here as a symbol of purity. Meanwhile, today we know that water is the wonder of the universe. Life exists on the Earth only thanks to water. The waterless deserts of the moon or of other planets in the Solar system are correspondingly lifeless. Think about this a little -- that our life is sustained by water, that our organism consists 70% or more of water. Life arose in water; a particular molecule, structured in a particular manner, imparts to the element of water exclusive properties necessary for life. Now we also know that not only did it help in the creation of life, but in some mysterious manner is able to hold information. Water possesses some kind of peculiar memory. So, the intuition of the peoples who employed water in religious rites, in ablutions, was not mistaken.
In the time of the Old Testament the custom arose that when a pagan, a member of a different nationality, converted to faith in the One God, he went through a ritual of ablution, of holy washing. Often this took place in the river Jordan or at Siloam -- a spring or pool that existed near the Jerusalem Temple. Part of it exists even to this day.
Why did the ablution take place in the Jordan? The Jordan from ancient times was considered a sacred river and simultaneously as it were the boundary of the Holy Land, dividing it from the mountains of Moab and the eastern deserts. This holy ablution was a sign of the pagan’s joining the true faith. Later John the Baptist appeared, about whom you all know. He summoned the people to perform a holy ablution -- mikme, or baptizma -- in the River Jordan. It wasn’t heathen that he required this of, but true-believing Israelites, because he emphasized that the coming of a new era of the Spirit, when the Lord Himself would come to earth demanding from the people, even those who had been brought up in the true faith, a turning point in their inner life -- repentance, renewal, and consciousness of themselves as so unworthy that they had to go through the holy ablution just as the heathen did. Holy ablution was also employed by the contemporaries of Jesus Christ, the semi-monastic order of Essenes. They did this several times a day. Finally Christ the Savior Himself used the ritual of water ablution -- “baptism” -- as a sign of the mystery of entry into the Church of Christ.
This entry can take place only once. Therefore we say, “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” That is, an adult person, coming to Baptism, should understand it as reconciliation with God, as entry into the Holy Land of Truth, Good, Purity, and Faithfulness. That is why Baptism is not repeated. It is unique. How is this sacrament performed? Before telling you about this, l should explain to you what the word sacrament signifies. Among the sacred rites of the Church there are some, some particular ones, when the entire Church calls on the Holy Spirit to come to this spot where people are gathered. Out of many sacred rites of this sort the Church in the West in the 14th century selected seven principal ones. What does seven mean? In the Bible this is a symbol of fullness or completeness. It hints at the fact that there are really more than seven sacraments. The seven are the key ones. This was formulated for the first time in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas. Later it was accepted in the Eastern Church as well. Today our church recognizes seven sacraments. The first, as it were the introductory sacrament is Baptism. In any sacrament there are two features, two elements -- one is the divine gift, the power of the Lord, that comes to us, and the other is our response. Therefore a sacrament is Divine-Human phenomenon, an intersection, as it were, of two worlds, the presence of the Deity with us and of us with him. Co-presence, unity.
Moreover, a sacrament is the blessing or hallowing of man and of nature as a whole. Because man is also nature. Man is the head of nature, its meaning, its spiritual center, the focus of all creation. At the blessing of the water with which the sacrament of Baptism is accomplished, life is blessed. Life itself, the miracle of life. This is after all an astonishing wonder. For some reason it cannot touch people who have been brought up to reject miracles. Just take a look at how the buds on the trees open. How in the spring the petrified branches, seemingly dried up from freezing, suddenly fill with sap, how the grass springs up on the ground, how life arises again. How it matures, how a bird is born from an egg, how man is born, how everything is created. Why does this take place? Why doesn’t simply a helium plasma rage on, the earth to this day, some kind of storm that kills life? What happened? Who set in motion thousands of laws so that they would come together in order to create life on earth, and man? This is a miracle indeed. But there is also a second miracle. Spiritual birth. Christ said, “He has not yet come to faith who has not experienced a new birth.” One time it is necessary to break the husk, the armor, that surrounds our soul, hidden inside, obsessed with itself, coiled up, like the embryo of an infant. When this shroud is opened, the soul also opens, like wings on a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Spiritual birth. Many people have been close to this, but then have become frightened by the shock to their soul and have drawn back into ordinariness, into everyday life, again returning to their [usual] spheres. God knocks on the heart of every person, and this is the most important moment of his or her life. Our task at that moment is to open the door to Him, so that He does not pass us by. Thus, in Baptism we encounter the will of a human being to enter the enclosure of the Church, to receive blessing, forgiveness and the Divine sign, “Come to me.”
Finally, water as a symbol of human life. Baptism is divided into two parts. Usually they are united, and at the time when we are going to baptize those of you who have not been baptized and are coming on Holy Saturday, the 14th, at 5 o’clock, we will perform the baptism. Customarily both the “catechizing” [oglashenie]* and the baptism are done together. But when I baptize one person, separately, I often separate them. The priest asks the person whether he is ready for baptism, whether he desires to unite himself to Christ, whether he renounces Satan and his works, and every demonic evil -- all evil is demonic. Then the one newly being baptized recites the “Symbol of Faith”.
It is namely this “catechizing” that I have separated out, because it should be accompanied by discussions, and by reading of the Holy Scripture. But inasmuch as we have been meeting several times already, for us this has as it were taken the place of this catechizing as a preparation.
Then comes the sacrament of Baptism itself -- the person is received into the bosom of the Church, of the Universal Church of Christ. But you will ask, “But why do they baptize children? Obviously children do not come because of their faith.” Well, that’s how it took shape historically. Christianity, have rejected the pagan custom of the consecration of an infant, of its entry into human society, into life, somehow did not create an analogous, sufficiently important ritual, and mothers began to bring their children to get them baptized. This was approximately in the 5th century.
Just as the State grants an infant citizenship -- accepts him into its bosom, although the infant as this point still has no idea of this, and just as he becomes a beloved member of the family, although he is not conscious of this yet, because he has just been born, so also an infant is received into the family of Christ’s Church. This is as it were a baptism in advance, stored up for the future. At the same time the presence of the godparents signifies that they pledge to bring him up in the Christian faith, that the choice has been made, by his parents even if not by him. For at this age a human being is not yet separate from his parents.
The second important sacrament is the sacrament of Communion. I think that we shall meet several times again after your baptism, and I will tell you about the worship of the church, so that you will have a general idea. Then we shall speak also in detail concerning Communion. Right now I will talk only about its essence. It is a sacrifice, but a sacrifice in a special, mystical sense. It is union with Christ. When in ancient times a man brought a sacrifice, he called on God by this to be a participator in his life. Man called God to a meal, for any sacrifice was at the same time a meal, which united the members of the society and also connected them with the Divinity. Therefore when the ancient Israelites got together for the sacred meal of Passover, the so-called “Seder”, they ate bread together, and drank wine; this was a prayer meal, which united them in the Old Testament Church. Christ took this ritual and made it the sign of His real presence with men. The eternal meal is prolonged, it continues. As Mandelshtam puts it, “The Eucharist is like a prolonged, eternal feast.” So indeed, the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving, is a new Passover. That is, whereas then there was deliverance from slavery, here there is salvation, which is given through the coming of Christ to us. We must feel and experience that He is indeed here, that He is with us, who are eternally unworthy of Him, far from Him, but He is open to us.
Every time the Eucharist is celebrated, the cup and the bread remind us of the Mystical Supper. He left it to us as a sign and a rite. He said, “Do this in memory of Me.” On the night before His death on the Cross, He took the cup and the bread and said, “This meal -- this is My body and blood, that is, it is me myself.”
In the old manner of expression “me myself’ meant, “I shall give myself to you and when you are together at this meal, I shall be with you, always.” Therefore the oldest evidence concerning Christians is always inseparable from this sacrament. It is called “Thanksgiving” because prayers of thanksgiving are read there, in Greek “Eucharistia”. Or “The Liturgy”, meaning “common work”. Or Obiednia, a popular expression meaning that which takes place before midday, before “dinner” (obied). At the present time it is customary to come to the Eucharist on an empty stomach, out of reverence. It is celebrated every day in city churches, and every Sunday in village churches. First the Holy Chalice is raised in one place on earth, then the earth rotates. Always, in all countries, everywhere the Chalice is raised. At every moment, at every hour. In it is life.
For this is bread, the flesh of the world. The grain of wheat, the blood of the vine, that material thing, that substance, nature, which nourishes and sustains us. For when a human being is nourished, he is connected to nature, he is in communion with it. The element of nature, the life of the cosmos, enters into us through the process of nourishment, is assimilated, is identified with our organism, and through this the energies of nature, the secret and the manifest powers of nature, enter into our body and it grows, it exists, it acquires these energies from nature. This is why the taking of food has always been a religious act, has always been accompanied by prayer. Down to this day we always try to cross ourselves before taking food, and if we are together, to recite a prayer.
A reverent attitude toward food. Therefore Christ makes a meal his most heartfelt sacrament, when his heart is given to us. The first Christians in fact celebrated this at a table -- a prayer-meal. But when the number of people in the Church grew, this table turned into an altar, which stands in an elevated spot, in the altar-space, and there stand the chalice and the diskos with the bread, the consecration is performed, and then the people partake of the holy Mysteries.
Holy Mysteries -- this is the divine meal of Christ. How astonishing that he did not leave us some kind of philosophical teaching, a doctrine, aphorisms of some sort, but he left us himself through this simple meal, symbolizing life, food, without which man cannot live. And this was not only on the last night before his death on the cross; this was also another time, when he fed the hungry in the wilderness, and then hid himself from them, when they wanted to proclaim him king. When they were looking for him, he said, “I am the bread from heaven, which came to you, in order to nourish you. The one who is nourished by my flesh and blood will have eternal life.” Of course, they did not understand this expression. But the flesh and blood, I repeat, is a man himself. It means, he is our food, by analogy with nature, he sustains our existence, like food, nature, sustains every one of us.
The third sacrament -- the order has no significance, it may be changed -- is the sacrament of repentance or confession. It is a second baptism, as it were, conditionally. Inasmuch as the sacrament of baptism is not repeated, while a person who has received forgiveness through it returns often and by nature to a sinful life, some kind of sign is necessary that he is forgiven anew, that he may approach the Holy Chalice, and the sacrament of repentance is this sign. It is performed also by the whole Church, but in the presence of the priest, who receives the confession of the person privately. You might ask, why the witness, can’t I repent before God by myself, so to speak or somewhere in my soul? But in fact there will be no exploit of overcoming here, because for a person to tell himself how bad he is not so difficult, whereas to say so in the presence of a witness, moreover a witness whom you know, is hard; one has to get over this obstacle, but it is by this that the root of evil is broken. Further, some people are troubled by the idea that by telling a priest about one’s sins and failings, his opinion of them might fall. This is a serious error. I can tell you about myself, that once when I was a boy I thought, “How can a priest associate with people, when he knows everything about them? It’s like in the Tales of Hoffman: if he knows everyone’s thoughts, it is impossible even to live.” But when I became a priest, I saw that God works in a marvelous manner and causes me to forget all the sins which I have heard, and to associate with people as if I haven’t heard anything from them. Some kind of mysterious, authoritative hand washes from my consciousness and memory everything I have heard from them. And this leads us to the next sacrament, that of priesthood.
The Church is a community of human beings. The Lord Jesus, although He addresses every soul individually, wills that we come to Him together. He wants it that way. He created humanity in such a way that humanity could live only together. The Church is a new kind of relationship, the ideal model for mankind. But the creation of the Church is a difficult thing, as you know. As a great social organism, it needs an allocation of different forms of service. The Apostle Paul explains this to us in a simple manner. He says that man, having a body, simultaneously has in it various organs, which have different functions. That is, an organism is not a monotonous collection of parts of any kind, an aggregate, but rather a polymorphous unity, which has different aspects. He tells us also, “Are all apostles, are all teachers, do all have the gift of healing?” No, of course not. And the mutual connection among people rests on this. Because, when one talent is given to one person, and another talent to another person, we can serve one another. If we were all uniformly gifted with all the gifts, we would not need one another. We need each other precisely because the gifts are distributed unevenly. As it is difficult to glue smooth surfaces together, it is much easier to glue together surfaces which have some kind of pits and bumps. So it is with a human community...
So, there is a form for the service of the Church, which is first of all the celebrant [predstoiatel’], i.e. the one who speaks for the community at the time of the celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist. He is the voice, the hands of the community, giving expression to it in, well, common language, its “fully empowered agent”. At the beginning these were the apostles. Later the apostles came to be called bishops. Why was this? “Bishop” means “overseer”, “steward”. The leader of the community became not only its agent at the sacrament, but also the guide of its life, including even its economic life. So he became the bishop/overseer, while the priest only assisted him in performing all the sacraments, except the sacrament of priesthood. The sacrament of priesthood and the laying-on of hands is performed only by the bishop. Why is it called the laying-on of hands -- khirotonia? This is an ancient Old Testament custom -- the transmission of some spiritual gift or power through the rite of laying on of a hand or hands. You may see this sacrament in those churches in Moscow where we have bishops serving. For example, in the Novodevichy Monastery priests are ordained quite often. This sacrament is also a miracle, because we priests work not by our own power, we are people just as weak and sinful as any of you. But if we are able to do something out of the ordinary, it is only by the power of this gift, namely this khirotonia; this grace of the priesthood. I am extremely aware of how much it is acting more than I myself act.
I was asked an hour ago in the Institute, where I was delivering a lecture, whether I felt a change in my attitude to the world when I became a priest. I thought a bit, and recollected. I remembered the days of my youth, and I understood that I then had ten times less strength even than when I got to be a middle-aged person. Ten times less strength. How come? This difference between a man of 25 and 55? But at 55 my capabilities have increased by several orders of magnitude. The grace of God is responsible for this, not I. At this time I even need to cool down in certain circumstances. I remember the first days when I served in the Church -- I would come back and even have to lie down and rest afterward. Now the thought of this doesn’t enter my head, although I do much more serving. So, this is not something human, but something divine. Our problem as ministers of the Church is to receive all this into ourselves and make it our own.
Again, the question may occur to you (it arose also in the Middle Ages) -- what if the sacrament is performed by an unworthy priest? Well, to begin with, I will tell you that we are all unworthy. Second, when the Church says that the sacrament is real and is really accomplished, if it is celebrated by a priest, independently of his moral level, what does it mean? It is not magic or a conjuring trick, not a mechanical performance of the sacrament, but the great teaching of the Church that this sacrament, in a given case, let us say, the Liturgy or Baptism, is performed by you, by the entire Church. You perform it according to your faith. God responds to the voice of the Church, and not to the -- may we call it -- arbitrary word of the priest. That is why, if he is unworthy, but the community, the faithful, the Church, is worthy, and it is it, the community, that performs this sacrament, although indeed by his hands. Well, to be sure it is pleasanter when those hands, are, so to speak, clean. But we must remember this all the same -- because some people say that this doesn’t suit me, it just doesn’t suit me. This is all incorrect. He who is thirsty will drink even from a tin can if water is poured into it.
This is another sacrament that we call Unction; this is the sacrament of oil, or anointing with oil. It demands, as with any other sacrament, faith, but in this case a particular, specific faith, for this is the sacrament of healing, the sacrament of the body. It should be performed over a sick person so that he either gets well or dies. Sometimes death is healing. I have known people who were really open to the action of the sacrament and it lifted them straight out of the grave. Or, on the contrary, they died. That is, it is like a litmus test, like some kind of linch-pin. But the subjective side of it is very important, because the person himself participates here. It is called the sacrament of oil, because from Apostolic times there has been the custom of anointing a .sick person with sanctified oils, with olive oil.
One must only not confuse the sacrament of oil, unction, with anointing with chrism, Chrismation. Why is it called [in Russian and Slavonic] soborovanie? Because in accordance with ancient custom, several priests gather -- a sobor -- and pray over the sick person. Remember in the film “War and Peace” when Pierre’s father is dying, priests are standing there with candles. They are administering unction [Russian: soboruiut] to him before his death. Why have I referred to a film? Because nowadays such an anointing by a sobor of priests never takes place. It happens just the other way around. There is a mass of sick people and a priest. One, or two of them. We have changed places. So that the sobor, the “assembly”, is not ours, but yours. An assembly of sick people. Yes, each one may be healed. Really be healed. In the simply physical sense. If this does not happen, it is simply because of our lack of faith. Whoever is ready for it receives healing in the sacrament of unction. And by prayer in general.
Chrismation is a sacrament which unfortunately it turns out that we have somehow let be moved to the rear of the list. It is the sacrament of the joining of the baptized person to the real life of the Church. Through the summoning and descent of the power of the Holy Spirit. In the West, and in world church practice in general this s acrament is performed over adults, teenagers, and children, who consciously, after baptism in childhood, enter the community and the Holy Spirit comes to them. With us, it is performed right at the baptism of an infant, with no transition, and this sacrament as it were merges with baptism. Out of a hundred persons hardly one knows what we are talking about here -- that after baptism there was also chrismation. I think that with time this will come back into the Church. I knew one priest, a well -known theologian abroad, who when he baptized his own daughter said, “When you grow up, then you will go to Russia and they will chrismate you there.” Indeed she came to me when she had already become a young woman. Some of us got together, prayed, and performed the sacrament of Chrismation on her. Her father was a specialist in liturgics, a scholar with a famous name. He was one of the few who knew how important this sacrament is in its own right. It is due to the disregard of it that our brother the Protestant Pentecostals have put some kind of extreme emphasis on this receiving of the Holy Spirit and think that this mystery should be accompanied by certain phenomena, that a person should feel it simply as a shaking, that he should “speak in tongues”, that is, pray in a certain strange manner. Really this is not obligatory. It depends on the person, on his emotional make-up. Sometimes it is possible to experience everything very deeply, but with a great inner restraint. In any case, such a reaction on the part of the Pentecostals came about because of the fact that the mystery of the Holy Spirit got hidden somewhere in the background, without anybody noticing that this had happened. That’s in fact the way it turned out historically.
Finally, I conclude with the last of the sacraments, which is really the first -- the sacrament of marriage. As the Russian Orthodox theologian Troitsky emphasizes, this is the only one of the seven sacraments that was established not by Christ the Savior, but in the Old Testament, from the beginning. When God created love between a man and a woman, He also created this sacrament. It consists of the fact that the human spirit is structured in such a manner that a certain mysterious, one might even risk saying, mystical, union of two beings is possible, who become immanent to one another. I ask you to forgive me the use of the philosophical term. The Bible expresses this in simple words, “Let the two become one flesh.” One flesh, that is, not only spirit. but the whole being is somehow a kind of striking unity.
Satan is the power of destruction, disintegration, annihilation. God is the power of unification, creation, harmony. Therefore it is even said that God is unification. The greatest miracle. The Apostle Paul in fact writes thus: “This mystery is great.” The ancient prophets, and after them the Apostle, compared this amazing merger of souls with the merger of man with the Divine mystery, with the relationship between Divinity and humanity. In the Bible nothing is said concerning the begetting of children as a part of this m mystery. The commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply” is addressed to living creatures -- to animals and to man in the same degree. They have this in common. Reproduction is possible without love. But love is possible without reproduction. Vladimir Solov’iov emphasized this: a very strong love between two persons does not necessarily have to be crowned by the begetting of a human being or even by the begetting of some sort of genius. No, these, in general, are different things. You might ask, but isn’t this not something ideal, does this exist in real life? God created this, but we have corrupted it, I am talking about what exist in reality and what has been given to us as a beckoning ideal. It is easy to be a cynic and say that nothing of the sort exists. Very easy. But a cynic is a cynic. He sees only what is on the surface. But in the final analysis just think a little about the fact that the greatest products of the human genius in music, poetry, prose, painting, and sculpture have been connected in one way or another with this great experience of love. Not at all with reproduction. You think about this; I even hesitate to cite examples, because in reality this encompasses everything that has been created by humanity.
From Homer and Shakespeare down to our day. Yes, and the Bible itself, in which there is the Song of Songs, a hymn of love.If we have trampled and sullied this and made it vulgar, this is our fault, and not the fault of love. If we are unable to love, then we depart from the commandment. True, others say, well, is an eternal love, so to speak, possible? Of course it is possible. But one and the same person, in the end doesn’t one get bored with him, tired of him? Only eyes without love can say that there is one person before you. Every year there is another person before you. If you love, you are always discovering in him or her ever new features. Your wife is the way you relate to her, and vice-versa. The physiognomies of our loved ones, our husbands and wives, is a mirror of our attitudes to them. That is the reason that Christ placed this ideal before us, for it is the source of fullness of life, of happiness, it is the norm, no matter how we have trampled it down. Finally, there is one last thing that may be added to this. A certain doctor, again a cynic, used to tell me, “Look my friend, this is nothing but hormones, hormones.” Well , I suppose that hormones are also not something extraneous to us, they work in us. But are hormones the only thing? I cite you only one example, the clearest one, from my point of view.
Recall the epilogue of Gogol’s old-fashioned landlords: Afanasii Ivanovich, a withered little old man -- what kind of hormones were there any longer? -- long since a widower, and as soon as he thinks of the name of his Pulcheria Ivanovna he bursts into tears. But she has been dead a long time. What is it that connects them -- after all they both lived a semi-animal life, they ate and drank and slept. But there was love. And it proves to be something that can remain after all the boiling of hormones dries up in a person. On the other hand, a person may be full of physical life, but all of a sudden love disappears. Everything about his hormones is in good working order, but there is no love. So then, the mystery is in something else here. We have to look for the cause of why we can’t make it. Of course, this is difficult to do from one side; here it is necessary that the two be considered together. But there is one important thing. Man is egotistical by nature. God created love as the first and strongest natural remedy for egocentricity. When a person stops considering his own ego as the only absolute point of reference in the universe, and when he finds this point of reference in another ego, there is here the beginning of this miracle and of this mystery.
Thus we see that the system of church sacraments encompasses life in all its manifestations. And the connection with nature, and food, and love, and correspondingly, toil. If we have nature, if we have the grapevine -- then wine and bread -- this involves toil. Bread after all does not grow simply in that form. Nor does wine gush out by itself. They are the result of human toil. Everything is united here. Community, brotherhood, mutual aid, the Church. Therefore, when we say, “I confess one baptism for the remission of sins” by this we remember the other sacraments also, which constitute, together with baptism, the one life of the Church. One mystery, into which we may enter and abide. Thank you.
Well, the next time we shall talk about the concluding words, I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. After that we shall meet at 5 p.m. on the 14th of April in the church -- whoever is not baptized. So, that’s it. But are there are many of you? If so, you won’t fit in, because I have a small church.