Monday, May 5, 2008

Baptism from an Orthodox Perspective

My brother is Greek Orthodox. He recently shared this piece he wrote on Baptism, which I'm publishing below. He originally wrote it to teach a fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class about Baptism at his church. I think it does a great job of succinctly expressing an Orthodox understanding of the significance of this sacrament.


by Sterling Owen

Most of us know that baptism marks our entrance into Christ’s Church, but we might not think enough about what baptism really is. Scripture and tradition tell us that baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection in union with Jesus Christ. Here is what St. Paul tells us about this mystery:

... do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus 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. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Romans 6: 3-6)

Here St. Paul tells us two things. First, by being baptized we participate in the death of Christ, and that death sets us free from bondage to sin. Too often, though, Christians stop there. There is much, much more. Christ came to do more than save us from our sin. St. Paul also tells us that baptism allows us to participate in Christ’s resurrection. He says that this will bring us “newness of life,” and by this he does not just mean that we are cleansed of our sins so that we can go to heaven. Newness of life is here and now. Through baptism we have become part of the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ. Here is what Orthodox writer Fr. Anthony Coniaris says about this:

Through baptism we are attached to the body of Christ. We become members of his body. Each baptized Christian becomes an extension of Christ. We become other Christs in the world. We become His eyes, His hands, His feet. Christ has chosen to work in the world through us - the members of his body. It is our special responsibility as baptized Christians to let Christ be present wherever we ourselves are stationed in the world as baptized Christians.

It is an amazing thing to say that we can become “other Christs” in the world. We might even wonder if we are saying something wrong or bad. After all, we aren’t God, right? But there is a special way in which we become what St. Peter calls “partakers of the divine nature.”(2 Peter 1: 4) In the Orthodox Church we call this deification. God fills us with grace, which really is His divine presence. The Fathers say that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature. That means that if we cooperate with God’s grace He can make us much more than plain human beings. Participation in the life of Christ allows a purified Christian to become like Christ. In fact, St. Athanasius said, “God became man that man might become god.”

Once again, we don’t become the one and only God. The Fathers are simply telling us that we can be filled with divine life more fully than we imagine. St. Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”(Galatians 6:20) Also, baptism is not enough to make deification happen. Baptism is a grace that gives us the potential for this life in Christ, but we can cover that grace back up with sin if we choose. Sadly, it is very few who fully live out the potential that Christ has given us. The saints are our great example of human beings who have been like other Christs in the world. If we study their lives we will see that this required a great deal of work on their part to cooperate with the grace that God gave them. We also see that human beings from all backgrounds can bless the world greatly through the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Most of us though, experience rebirth through baptism, and then our Christian life is mostly about the long, difficult struggle to purify ourselves of the desire to bury that grace beneath layer upon layer of sin. That’s ok. Whether we know it or not God is with us, meeting our willingness to change with His grace and slowly reshaping us in his likeness. This is especially true when we take communion, and Christ’s very body and blood become part of our own being. The main point is that newness of life and participation in Christ’s resurrection are part of our life here and now.

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