Orthodox America


by Archimandrite Victor (Mamontov)

You must be born again (John 3:7)

You have a child? Do not allow time to work harm; let him be illumined in infancy, and dedicated from his youth to the Spirit. - St. Gregory the Theologian

A man is born three times. In the flesh-when he comes into this world; spiritually (born again)-when he is baptized; and in eternity-when the soul departs from the body.

Everyone is born twice, but not all are born three times, for not everyone desires to be baptized and to live as a Christian.

It is in man's nature to lead a spiritual life; a life void of spirituality is unnatural. Everything is created by God and connected to its Creator. In and of itself the created world has no power; the source of life lies outside of it. It is natural for a man to be in constant communion, in union with God. Man cannot trust in himself, in his own powers; we don't possess such powers. Man cannot pray to himself: "Give me the strength to live." There is much that man can ascribe to himself, many achievements that can feed his pride, but actual experience only serves to demonstrate his insignificance and weakness.

With the Fall, man at once learned how fearful it was to be deprived of God; when he was driven out of Paradise he no longer experienced the blessed life; instead, he was tormented, and his life was marked by toil, sickness and death. But God did not turn away from His creature, and He provided opportunity for the restoration of communion with Him, through His Son Jesus Christ.

Through Jesus Christ man comes to know that God is Love. The Son of God takes upon Himself the sin of Adam, the sins of the entire human race, and dies for us on the Cross, redeeming through His Blood our ancestral sin and granting us new life in the Kingdom of God.

Each and every person living on earth must meet Christ. He came for the sake of all, and outside of Christ there cannot be any true life. Take the Gospels and read them attentively. If with all your heart and all your soul you come to love Christ, you will understand that there is nothing in the world greater than Him, than His teachings-nor will there ever be; you will want to be with Him always; you will thirst after Christ. The decision to unite ourselves with Christ, to dedicate our whole life to Him-this is our most important choice. Having made it, we are ready to approach the baptismal font.

When a man and woman fall in love, they do not immediately get married. They become friends, they develop a kinship, and only then when they feel that they cannot live without one another, do they get married. Two become one; she recognizes herself in him; he recognizes himself in her; they are transparent one to another. They have no secrets from one another; they hold everything in common. A new life begins.

So it is with a man who desires to be a Christian. He must first test his feelings: does he love Christ with all his being, is he ready to deny his ego and say, "Lord, abide in me, speak and act in me"?

In the early days of Christianity baptism was preceded by great and careful preparation. People understood that the gift of grace given in this Mystery is granted only once and that one must guard it. The Orthodox Symbol of Faith declares, "I believe in one baptism for the remission of sins..." At that time those baptized were for the most part adults. A person was baptized and became a member of the Church only after he had become well acquainted with the fundamentals of the Faith.

The Christian community chose the sponsors (the godparents), and they, together with the candidates for baptism, attended classes where they were grounded in the basic truths of Christianity. Those preparing for baptism, the catechumens (those receiving catechetical instruction), lived the life of the community; they prayed together with everyone and attended the Divine Liturgy. They were, however, permitted to be present only for the first part which, to this day, is called the Liturgy of the Catechumens. At this time the Epistle and Gospel were read and then special prayers were read on behalf of the catechumens, entreating the Lord that they be granted the laver of regeneration (i.e., baptism), and that they be "joined to the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." Then the bishop blessed the catechumens and they left the church. The course of catechetical instruction lasted from one to three years. When the catechuman could say, like the Psalmist, Ready is my heart, O God (Ps. 56:8), there came the most important day in his life-his baptism, i.e., his spiritual birth.

Baptism usually took place on Pascha night, in a baptistry before the eyes of the entire community. Then, dressed in white garments and holding burning candles, the newly illumined would enter the church together with the rest of the community. The birth of a new Christian was a celebration for the whole spiritual family-the Christian community. Having become members of the Church, the newly-baptized would for the first time attend the Liturgy of the Faithful and partake for the first time of the Holy Mysteries. Of great value was the fact that the preparation for baptism was not merely a theoretical study of the basics of Christianity, but a "gradual familiarization with and entry into the liturgical life of the Church, into her spirit."

Today, by the mighty Will of God, we are called to spiritual rebirth. The world is spiritually ailing, and only Christ can deliver man from his dead-end situation. This is incontestable and proven by the life of humanity. Life itself has today placed this task in a position of primary concern. In the words of the theologian A.V. Kartashov, we are seeing the beginning of "the baptism of 'un-baptized' Rus". Daily many people are baptized in various churches around the country. Rejoice... One wants to very much, but... There is much that hinders the heart from being filled with this holy joy.

Christ commanded His disciples, the Apostles: Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19).

And so: teach, and then baptize, for according to St. Gregory the Theologian, "to understand the power of this Mystery is already to be enlightened."

The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote sadly about the fact that "the ultimate meaning of baptism is absent in our life," and that "herein is rooted the tragedy of the Church in our time."

Baptism has today dropped out of the cycle of divine services; it is no longer connected with the Divine Liturgy, it no longer takes place in the presence of the entire community; it has turned into a private service, a family affair. After Liturgy, when parishioners have already left, in a corner of the church or in the church hall, in the presence of only a few people, the priest performs the Mystery of Baptism. Without an examination of faith, without any preparatory spiritual discussions concerning the way of life of the candidate for baptism or their sponsors, people are permitted to enter the font. One can say that the Baptism is performed without the participation of the very people being baptized. Without preparation, a man who comes out of the font, having no concept of what happened to him, can commit a serious sin that very day, immediately soiling his pristine baptismal garment, and then live like a pagan, without the sacrament of confession or communion, without going to church. The baptized pagan is considered to be an apostate from the Faith, not merely one who is a stranger to God: he gave a vow (a promise) to live as a Christian. The gift of grace received at baptism is unique, and if we tear, if we soil our baptismal garments, vigorous repentance is needed if they are to be restored.

The sponsors must regard the newly baptized as their child; after the baptism they must help him to grow spiritually. Today, their role is formal; they perform certain ritual acts during the baptismal service: they hold the child in their arms, they answer for him the questions that are posed, they read the Creed, and they receive the child from the font.

The family, rather than the parish community, now chooses the sponsors, often basing this choice not on spiritual considerations but on personal ones. For this reason it is essential to reestablish the institution of sponsors.

Desiring to worthily celebrate the Mystery of Baptism, we cannot begin with catechization: there aren't enough spiritual teachers. We must begin with the community-the Christian family. Today we have parishes-people come, they leave; but real communities are almost non-existent. A person comes for the first time to a church; he is not greeted with love; no one asks where he's from, what he needs, unless he himself makes a move to strike up an acquaintanceship with someone.

Without children, without a family, a man is not a father. A priest is called "father" because he gives birth to spiritual children, he creates a spiritual family-a Christian community. And if it exists, it will naturally give spiritual birth to other members and in time will bear spiritual fruit, as it occurs in natural life.

A Christian is a warrior, conducting unseen warfare. In the Mystery of Baptism he receives grace-filled strength to carry on this warfare. After the priest has expelled the dark power from the person being baptized, he utters four powerful prayers of exorcism; he asks the person to turn facing west-where Satan resides, and to blow and spit in that direction, as a sign that he despises Satan and desires no longer to serve him. People who are baptized without preparation begin at this moment to laugh, not believing in the actual existence of Satan. This serves only to summon Satan, and to his dying day the Christian will be engaged with him in an invisible struggle. Here a Christian must be vigilant so as not to cross into visible warfare, for then it becomes a warfare of one man against another, of one nation against another.

Today many have grown blind and are engaged in endless quarrels and fights with their neighbor, within their family; nations war against nations to the point of bloodshed. When two people fight, Satan invisibly stands nearby and rejoices: "Bite each other, harder! but don't touch me. How well I've deceived you." All over the world small and large wars are being constantly being fought on account of people's spiritual blindness.

But the world is renewed not through the shedding of blood but through conscience, and to every debasement of morality the spritually vigilant Christian responds only with lifting it up again.

Teach... This means that within the Church we must spiritually educate Christians, capable of being true warriors of Christ, to carry the cross of spiritual warfare. As one priest-theologian justifiably observed, we suffer from a prevailing therapeutic attitude towards spiritual life: we all want to be sick people, whom the Merciful Physican-Jesus Christ-heals; we don't want to be soldiers.

But only the conqueror is crowned. Let us not therefore decline from the grace-filled gift of Baptism, the "forerunner of that which is good," but let us undertake two spiritual exploits: let us prepare ourselves for baptism, and after baptism let us preserve Its grace-giving gift in all purity.

(Translated from the newspaper, Ludzas Zeme, Latvia, August 29, 1991.)

The author is a widely respected father-confessor and rector of the Church of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk in Karsava, Latvia