In today’s sermon, we are moving from what we spoke about last week, which was the beginning of life, the birth of babies, and what we do with children when they come into this world, the blessings that we give them, the prayers that we offer on behalf of the Church, moving up to the blessing of the mother, the eighth-day blessing, the 40-day blessing, and today I wanted to speak a little bit about baptism, because there are many, many misconceptions about baptism: what it is, what its purpose is, and especially what it means for us as Orthodox Christians, how do we become Orthodox Christians.
As I said, I will emphasize more the ecclesiological aspect of it, which means what it means for us to be part of the Church, within the boundaries of the Church and not outside the Church, as opposed to the theology of what baptism actually does. If anybody is interested in that, they can come on Wednesday night; we have a Bible study here, and we’ll be speaking more about the theology of baptism.
However, when we speak about baptism, in essence, beyond what it does for us spiritually about cleansing us from original sin and things like that, which we can talk about another time, a very important aspect to understand is that baptism is the initiation into the Church. It is the entrance into the body of Christ. It is the entrance into the worshiping community. So we’re coming from one part of life and entering into another part of life. It’s not a magical thing that we do so our kids can go to heaven, which many people think that it is. So this understanding is often lacking with many of us who are preparing to baptize our children.
Many people who don’t understand that this is the purpose of baptism, they see it as this either cultural obligation—we do it because we’re Greek Orthodox and we were born and baptized as babies—and we do it because we think that, as soon as we baptize our children, they have that paper and it says they’re Orthodox Christians and that therefore they’re going to go to heaven. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth, because baptism is the beginning step, the entrance into the Church, so that our children, and ourselves as well, because adults get baptized as well, can begin to grow in the faith, because it is within the environment of the Church that we have all the spiritual tools that we can use, whether it be going to church; listening to Scripture, the hymns; the sacramental life; participating in holy Communion, which is our spiritual food; the cleansing of our souls through holy confession; and all the other different sacraments which the Church offers, which we will be talking about in the upcoming weeks. All these things are there to help strengthen us and to make us—what? To make us like Christ, because this is the point of Christian life: to be Christ-like, to become the icon of Christ within ourselves.
So when we look at it this way, all these questions that we have from young families that come to church and want to baptize their children don’t make a lot of sense, so many times I’ll have a lot of people, they’ll come and ask me, “Well, Father, you know, can non-Orthodox people be godparents for my children?” This happens quite often in our church. Not only is it many times that Catholics are asked or other types of Christians, but also Buddhists and Hindus and other people like that, a lot of Greek Orthodox parents bring these types of people and say, “I want this person to be the godparent to my child.” Of course, this comes, again, from a lack of understanding of what the baptism is and also what the role of the godparent is, as being the spiritual guide to that child.
Of course, we cannot do these things, and we try to explain in a very kind way that a person who is going to be a godparent needs to be qualified. What does that mean? It means that a person who is non-Christian or a non-Orthodox Christian is incapable of raising a child in the Orthodox faith. It’s impossible to do it, just like I myself have been asked many times, for example, by Catholic friends to be godparent for their children, and I have to decline, because I know nothing about being a Catholic. I do not have the credentials for it. So this is a logical reason why this cannot be done. That is one of the misconceptions.
Another thing that we face all the time within the Church is that this idea that baptism is a one-time thing. I baptize my child, I’ll commune them a few times, and then Christmas and Easter it is. Of course, this, again, misses the whole point of becoming an Orthodox Christian in the first place. You’ve heard this kind of tradition that we have, that you baptize a baby, and then you have to commune them three times in a row—“Make sure you bring them three times in a row to commune them”—although nowhere does it say in our books to do that, but we have this tradition. I’ll let you in on a little secret, why we have this little tradition. It is because, unfortunately, many priests, and the Church sometimes assumes that they’ll never see these children again, that they’ll never see them again, or they’ll maybe see them at Christmas and at Easter.
So they say, “Make sure you commune your child at least three times.” Why? Because the priest wants to make sure that the child receives its spiritual food immediately after it’s spiritually born. Just like when a baby is born into the world and we give it milk; in the same way, it’s born into the Church, it needs its spiritual food or it will spiritually starve. So I always tell parents when they come into my office and I say, “You know, it’s not three times; it’s forever: all the time, thousands of times.” And they look at me, and they get a little scared. [Laughter] But this is the reality. You don’t want to spiritually starve your children. It’s very, very important for us to commune our children and to keep them within the Faith.
One of the biggest and last thing that I’m going to speak about today is the role of the godparents, because it’s an extremely important role, and it’s a dangerous role, I think I would say. I use the word “dangerous,” because, in our tradition, many of us may not know, when we take on the role of being a godparent, whether we are alone doing it or we have another person helping us for a child, we take on this great responsibility of helping the parents raise that child in the faith. What does that mean? That means that we connect ourselves to that child. When we touch that child and we put the oil on that child and we help the priest baptize that child, we are connecting our souls with that child’s soul. The Fathers of the Church tell us that on Judgment Day, when we have to give account for what we have done, we will also have to give account for the things we have done for our godchildren, because our examples and the things that we do directly affect or do not affect our godchildren. Very, very important, and a very, very heavy responsibility.
I think that many of us perhaps do not understand that, so we take this on lightly or many parents do not choose their [children’s] godparents carefully. It’s a sad thing to say that I’ve been a priest for about seven years now—when I became a deacon it was nine years ago—and in the hundreds and hundreds of baptisms that I have done, I can only remember only three godparents who knew the Creed off by heart. Three. All the rest had never seen it before. When you think about this, it’s a scary thought, because the Creed is what we read every Sunday. The Creed—“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty”—what we recite every Sunday, this is everything that we believe as Orthodox Christians. This is the basics. It’s not even the high theology of the Church. If the godparents do not even know the Creed, to even read it, then I think we have a problem. So this state of affairs that we have within the Church arises from lack of education, that we don’t understand what the sacraments are and what we are doing within the Church.
So it’s very, very important for our godparents to understand what the role is, for parents to choose appropriate people who are involved in the faith, who are at least going to church on a somewhat regular basis and communing in the sacraments and taking confession and participating in the sacramental life, and who will be examples to their children, not to buy them gifts at Christmas and Easter and their birthdays, but rather to guide them and to go to church with them and to take holy Communion with them and to show them the example, and by their own Christian life and their own personal example. This is why there are restrictions on who can be godparents.
For those of you who have been to the church website, you will see there is a whole section on baptism and what it means and preparation, and you will see that there are rules and regulations of the Church on who is able to be a godparent and who is not able, and it doesn’t only restrict those who are non-Orthodox Christians, but even within the Orthodox Church, there are restrictions to those people who have left the faith, people who are married outside of the Church, people basically who have rejected some of the sacraments of the Church. This is not the Church judging these people, but rather it’s just saying that, if you want to be a godparent, you have to be living the Christian example. Not to be a perfect person, but to be at least somewhat struggling to live a Christian life and not to be completely rejecting some of the fundamental beliefs of the Church.
All these things seem complex, but if we keep in mind the basics, that baptism is the entrance into the Church… I use this example, and I’ll close with this. Many people come to me, the young families, and they ask me, “What is baptism?” And I tell them, “Baptism is like buying a gym membership.” When you buy the gym membership, what does it do? You have the card, and it allows you to go to the gym and enter in and use the facilities, use the equipment and use the weights, use the exercise classes and all these kind of things so that we can exercise our bodies and become strong. The Church is exactly the same thing for our spirit. When we receive baptism, we are receiving that membership into the Church. But if we never use it, then we’re not healthy; it doesn’t mean anything.
I have a gym membership, but obviously I haven’t gone in a long time. So I’m not a healthy person because of that. So spiritually speaking, we may have our little baptismal certificate, and we may tuck it away somewhere or we may lose it or it’s somewhere in the attic, and we forget about it and we think that with baptism we have a lifelong membership to Christianity and we definitely have the passport to heaven. But really, none of those things make any sense, because if we don’t actually use it to cultivate our faith and to make ourselves strong so that we can deal with the problems that life will throw our way eventually, then it doesn’t make a difference whether we have the paper or not. It is not a magical thing, in or out.
This is how we have to begin to see the Church, to see the sacrament of baptism as the initiation rite into the worshiping body of Christ, where we can become Christians, where we can begin to live the holy life, where we can become like Christ. If we don’t bother to do any of those things, then we have to start beginning and asking the question to ourselves, “What is the point in the beginning of baptizing our children in the first place?” Amen.