Baptism at an Ancient Eastern Roman Catholic Orthodox Easter Vigil – A Rite Of Passage

xir244981_1024x1024[1].jpegby Aidan Kavanagh, OSB

I have always rather liked the gruff robustness of the first rubric for baptism found in a late fourth-century church order which directs that the bishop enter the vestibule of the baptistery and say to the catechumens without commentary or apology only four words: “Take off your clothes.” There is no evidence that the assistants fainted or the catechumens asked what he meant.

Catechesis and much prayer and fasting had led them to understand that the language of their passage this night in Christ from death to life would be the language of the bathhouse and the tomb — not that of the forum and the drawing room.

So they stripped and stood there, probably, faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire. Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinised;  years of hearing the word of God read and expounded at worship; years of being dismissed with prayer before the Faithful went on to celebrate the Eucharist; years of  having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistery building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what was actually done by the Faithful at the breaking of bread and in that closed baptistery …

Tonight all this was about to end as they stood here naked on a cold floor in the gloom
of this eerie room.

Abruptly the bishop demands that they face westward, toward where the sun dies swallowed up in darkness, and denounce the King of shadows and death and things that go bump in the night. Each one of them comes forward to do this loudly under the hooded gaze of the bishop (who is tired from presiding all night at the vigil continuing next door in the church), as deacons shield the nudity of the male catechumens from the women, and deaconesses screen the women in the same manner. This is when each of them finally lets go of the world and of life as they have known it: the umbilical cord is cut, but they have not yet begun to breathe.

Then they must each turn eastwards toward where the sun surges up bathed in a light which just now can be seen stealing into the alabaster windows of the room. They must voice their acceptance of the King of light and life who has trampled down death by his own death. As each one finishes this he or she is fallen upon by a deacon or a deaconess who vigorously rubs olive oil into his or her body, as the bishop perhaps dozes off briefly, leaning on his cane. (He is like an old surgeon waiting for the operation to begin.)

When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistery doors being thrown open. Brilliant golden light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop (who has now regained his composure) the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconesses, and sponsors move into the most glorious room most of them have ever seen. It is a high, arbor-like pavilion of green, gold, purple, and white mosaic from marble floor to domed ceiling sparkling like jewels in the light of innumerable oil lamps that fill the room with a heady warmth. The windows are beginning to blaze with the light of Easter dawn. The walls curl with vines and tendrils that thrust up from the floor, and at their tops apostles gaze down robed in snow-white togas, holding crowns. They stand around a golden chair draped with purple upon which rests only an open book. And above all these, in the highest point of the ballooning dome, a naked Jesus (very much in the flesh) stands up to his waist in the Jordan as an unkempt John pours water on him and God’s disembodied hand points the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ head in the form of a white bird.

Suddenly the catechumens realise that they have unconsciously formed themselves into a mirror-image of this lofty icon on the floor directly beneath it. They are standing around a pool let into the middle of the floor, into which gushes water pouring noisily from the mouth of a stone lion crouching atop a pillar at poolside. The bishop stands beside this, his presbyters on each side: a deacon has entered the pool, and the other assistants are trying to maintain a modicum of decorum among the catechumens who forget their nakedness as they crowd close to see. The room is warm, humid, and it glows. It is a golden paradise in a bathhouse in a mausoleum: an oasis, Eden restored: the navel of the world, where death and life meet, copulate, and become undistinguishable from each other. Jonah peers out from a niche, Noah from another, Moses from a third, and the paralytic carrying his stretcher from a fourth. The windows begin to sweat.

The bishop rumbles a massive prayer — something about the Spirit and the waters of life and death — and then pokes the water a few times with his cane. The catechumens recall Moses doing something like that to a rock from which water flowed, and they are mightily impressed. Then a young male catechumen of about ten, the son of pious parents, is led down into the pool by the deacon. The water is warm (it has been heated in a furnace), and the oil on his body spreads out on the surface in iridescent swirls. The deacon positions the child near the cascade from the lion’s mouth. The bishop leans over on his cane, and in a voice that sounds like something out of the Apocalypse, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in God the Father, who created all of heaven and earth?”

After a nudge from the deacon beside him, the boy murmurs that he does. And just in time, for the deacon, who has been doing this for fifty years and is the boy’s grandfather, wraps him in his arms, lifts him backwards into the rushing water and forces him under the surface. The old deacon smiles through his beard at the wide brown eyes that look up at him is shock and fear from beneath the water (the boy has purposely not been told what to expect).

Then he raises him up coughing and sputtering. The bishop waits until he can speak again, and leaning over a second time, tapping the boy on the shoulder with his cane, says:

“Euphemius! Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who was conceived of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, died, and was buried? Who rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead?”

This time he replies like a shot, “I do,” and then holds his nose…

“Euphemius! Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the master and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be honoured and glorified equally with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the Prophets? And in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which is the communion of God’s holy ones? And in the life that is coming?”

“I do.”

When he comes up the third time, his vast grandfather gathers him in his arms and carries him up the steps leading out of the pool. There another deacon roughly dries Euphemius with a warm towel, and a senior presbyter, who is almost ninety and is regarded by all as a “confessor” because he was imprisoned for the faith as a young man, tremulously pours perfumed oil from a glass pitcher over the boy’s damp head until it soaks his hair and runs down over his upper body. The fragrance of this enormously expensive oil fills the room as the old man mutters: “God’s servant, Euphemius, is anointed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Euphemius is then wrapped in a new linen tunic; the fragrant chrism seeps into it, and he is given a burning terracotta oil lamp and gold to go stand by the door and keep quiet. Meanwhile, the other baptisms have continued.

When all have been done in this same manner (an old deaconess, a widow, replaced Euphemius’s grandfather when it came the women’s time), the clergy strike up the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, he has crushed death by his death and bestowed life on those who lay in the tomb.”

To this constantly repeated melody interspersed with the Psalm verse, “Let God arise and smite his enemies,” the whole baptismal party — tired, damp, thrilled, and oily — walk out into the blaze of Easter morning and go next door to the church led by the bishop. There he bangs on the closed doors with his cane: they are flung open, the endless vigil is halted, and the baptismal party enters as all take up the hymn, “Christ is risen…,” which is all but drowned out by the ovations that greet Christ truly risen in his newly-born ones. As they enter, the fragrance of chrism fills the church: it is the Easter-smell, God’s grace olfactorally incarnate. The pious struggle to get near the newly baptised to touch their chrismed hair and rub its fragrance on their own faces. All is chaos until the baptismal party manages to reach the towering ambo that stands in the middle of the pewless hall. The bishop ascends its lower front steps, turns to face the white-clad neophytes grouped at the bottom with their burning lamps and the boisterous faithful now held back by a phalanx of well -built acolytes and doorkeepers. Euphemius’s mother has fainted and been carried outside for some air.

The bishop opens his arms to the neophytes and once again all burst into “Christ is risen,” Christos aneste …. He then affirms and seals their baptism after prayer, for all the Faithful to see, with an authoritative gesture of paternity — laying his hand on each head, signing each oily forehead once again in the form of a cross, while booming out: “The servant of God is sealed with the Holy Spirit.” To which all reply in a thunderous “Amen.” and for the first time the former catechumens receive and give the kiss of peace. Everyone is in tears. While this continues, bread and wine are laid out on the holy table; the bishop then prays at great length over them after things quiet down, and the neophytes lead all to communion with Euphemius out in front.

While his grandfather holds his lamp, Euphemius dines on the precious Body whose true and undoubted member he has become; drinks the precious Blood of him in whom he himself has now died; and just this once drinks from two other special cups — one containing baptismal water, the other containing milk and honey mixed as a gustatory icon of the promised land into which he and his colleagues have finally entered out of the desert through Jordan’s waters. Then his mother (now recovered and somewhat pale, still insisting she had only stumbled) took him home and put him, fragrantly, to bed.

Euphemius had come a long way. He had passed from death unto a life he lives still.

+ + +

Delivered at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City, Colorado,
Theology Institute, August, 1977
Copyright © 2003 St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. All rights reserved.

Aiden Kavanagh, one of the great liturgical scholars and sacramental theologians of
the twentieth century, delivered this lecture at Holy Cross Abbey, Canon City,
Colorado, Theology Institute, August, 1977. He departed this life in June, 2006.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Catholic Idolatry: “Venerate by your Hands; Worship in your Heart”

00-catholic-christmas-05-vatican-pope-francisco-28-12-14Catholics cop a lot of crap from fundamentalists for having statues in their churches. Even more damnable in the eyes of these heathen Protestants is the fact that Catholics bow down to the statues and some Catholics even go so far as kissing them. This seems like clear and undeniable evidence that Catholics disregard and stand in contradiction to the scriptures; our good God’s infallible words:

Exodus 20:1-6 RSV-CE

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.“You shall have no other gods before me.You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The basic moral principle that both Catholics and Protestants (and Jews and Muslims) agree on is that it is inappropriate to worship anyone but God alone. To worship something that is not God as God is the grave sin of Idolatry.

So, why do Catholics do this? Why do Catholics bow down to statues? There are lots of things to consider.

Veneration versus Worship

A very helpful distinction to keep in mind is that between veneration and worship. Simply stated, veneration is a physical action that someone performs with their body towards some other physical object, whereas worship is an attitude in the heart of a person towards an object that may or may not be physical. In this way, it becomes possible to venerate an object without worshipping it, as well as to worship something without venerating it, and finally to both venerate and worship an object simultaneously.

DQX4wCuW0AAVTqK.jpgSome examples may be helpful. If you were ever to meet someone of royalty, for example a Saudi Arabian prince or the Queen of England, etiquette would require that you make some sign of deep respect towards the monarch, for example by genuflecting or kissing a ring. Now, some fundamentalist Muslims and Christians would get uncomfortable about this and their overclocked idolatry detectors would be pinging deep in the red end of the scale. However the vast majority of both Protestants and Catholics would consider this to be a socially acceptable expression of respect towards the Monarch. Reasonable people would not consider these actions of veneration to be idolatrous, because it is understood that we are not worshipping the monarch, we are merely venerating them.

It is the same with Catholics and their statues. When Catholics kiss, genuflect before and bow down to statues of Saints, Mary or Jesus, they are simply Venerating the depicted figures, but they are definitely not Worshipping them.

Another example may help. When a mystic sits completely still for an extended period and focuses his mind on union with God, his heart may very easily slip into a state of extremely intense and ecstatic worship of the good God on high. In this case, he is sitting completely still and so is not demonstrating any evidence of veneration, however within himself there is occurring extremely strong and delightful waves of love and worship towards God. It is appropriate that there be no act of veneration in this case because acts of veneration always have to be directed towards some physical object or location, however God does not have a physical location; he is simultaneously omnipresent and located nowhere. For this reason even if the mystic wanted to venerate God, he wouldn’t be able to. Instead he must direct his worship towards God in an abstract sense. So in this case, there is worship without veneration.

An interesting example for Muslims is the fact that during their five daily prayers they prostrate towards the Kaabaah in Mecca. Prostration is an extremely profound movement of veneration, so it is rather telling that Muslims pray towards a physical location, despite their intense aversion to idolatry. The explanation in this case is that their action of veneration – the Salat prostrations – are directed towards Mecca, however their attitude of worship is directed towards God alone, who has no physical location.

POS-906_Monstrance_18x24__84910__25046__65923.1452778507__42607.1527101330.jpgA final example is appropriate. When Catholics engage in adoration of the Eucharist, this is an example of a simultaneous veneration and worship, because the Catholic belief is that the bread they are staring at has literally been transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ himself. The Catholics believe they are literally staring at God, and so they may bow down towards the Eucharist as an act of veneration whilst simultaneously confessing the divinity of that towards which they bow in their hearts as an attitude of worship. In this case, there is both veneration and worship.

The crucial point is that veneration and worship are distinct. It is permissible to venerate pretty much anything, but it is only appropriate to worship God. In summary, veneration is an action of the hands, whereas worship is an attitude of the heart.

Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria

The doctrine of theosis declares that God became man so that man might become God. According to theosis, the saints all participate in divinity to different degrees, and therefore it is appropriate to “worship” the saint to the exact degree that they participate in divinity. Of course, Mary participates in Divinity to the maximal possible extent, so it is appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, it is an established principle that worship is to be directed to God alone, and while Mary and all the saints have been truly “divinized”, when push comes to shove they are fundamentally human and not divine. The water is muddied: should we or should we not worship these saints who have attained to a combination of created and divine natures?

hqdefaultIt is helpful to introduce a helpful historical distinction at this point. There are three different kinds of worship: Dulia, Hyperdulia and Latria.

Dulia is worship reserved for a divinized saint. To the extent that the saint is united to God and has divinity permeating his soul, it is appropriate to worship the saint. The reason why is that you are not actually worshipping the saint as a created being, but are instead worshipping the divinity that is united to that saint. To the extent that the saint is divine, we worship them, to the extent that the saint is created, we do not worship. The technical term for this mixture of worship and non-worship is the word Dulia.

Now, Mary has achieved maximum theosis. She is as closely united to God as it is possible to be. As such, it becomes appropriate to direct maximal worship towards her. However, the fact remains that Mary is essentially human before she is divine, and therefore it would be inappropriate to give her the fullness of worship reserved for God himself. In this way, the worship we give to Mary is also the worship of Dulia, just as with all the other saints. However on account of the fact that Mary has achieved maximum theosis, she also receives maximum Dulia. Theologians invented a new term for this maximal level of worship: Hyperdulia. In essence, it is still just the worship of Dulia, however due to it’s maximal nature, it is called hyperdulia.

Finally, there is the worship reserved for God himself. This is the worship of Latria. To give Latria to anything but God would be the deepest idolatry, for this is the form of worship reserved for him and him alone. Catholics direct their Latria towards the Eucharist during adoration, or towards God in the abstract during deep prayer. To direct Latria towards Mary or a Saint would be gravely sinful, because regardless of how deep their experience of divinity, they are fundamentally human before they are God. Whereas God himself is Divine before he is human, and it is therefore appropriate to give him the infinitely elevated worship of Latria, rather than the lower and lesser worship of Dulia.

In summary, it is appropriate to worship anything that is divine just to the extent that it is divine, however it is important to pay attention to the essential nature of the object you are worshipping: If the object is fundamentally created before it is divine, then we should only give it the worship of Dulia, whereas if the object if fundamentally divine before it is created (ie, God himself) then we should give it the worship of Latria.

But what about the commandment?

Someone might be reading this and think “That’s all well and good, but in scripture doesn’t God explicitly say that it is not permissible to make statues and bow down to them? All the arguments in the world can’t change that brute fact.”

This is true, so it is helpful to examine the status of the law in Christianity. The idea is that there is the Moral law and the Mosaic law. Jesus abolished the Mosaic law when he died and resurrected, however the Moral law is still in force. It can sometimes be hard to tell which commandment belongs to which law. However in this case the church has identified the commandment concerning statues as belonging to the Mosaic law, and as therefore having been abrogated by Christ along with the laws concerning ritual cleanliness, clean and unclean foods, sacrificial rituals and so on. Whereas the moral law against idolatry remains in force in the sense that it is inappropriate for Christians to worship anything that is not divine, and it is inappropriate to give the worship of Latria to anything but God himself.

Seventh_ecumenical_council_(Icon)_big.JPGIt is interesting to revisit the arguments that were put forward at the seventh ecumenical council, which was primarily concerned with this very debate. The fathers of the council claimed that God abrogated the commandment against images when he became incarnate: When God took on the form and image of the man Jesus, he for all time made it permissible to make use of created images as an aid to worship. God represented himself with flesh, and in doing so made it lawful for Christians to represent the divine via other created images. If the commandment against representing God with images were still in effect, it would imply that God had broken his own commandment by becoming incarnate! This is clearly an impossibility, and the only possible conclusion is that God has abrogated the commandment in question by his incarnation.

One final consideration from the seventh ecumenical council is worthwhile touching upon. When a Christian venerates a statue and directs his worship of Dulia towards the depicted saint, they are not actually worshipping the statue; they are instead worshipping the saint whom the statue depicts. In the language of the council fathers, the worship directed towards a statue or image travels through the image to the “prototype”. In this way it is not the statue being worshipped, but the saint that the statue depicts.

Conclusion

An easy to remember way of expressing the principles outlined in this post is the following: Veneration is an action of the hands; Worship is an attitude of the heart. Also, we only worship an object to the extent that it is divine; Saints receive Dulia, Mary receives Hyperdulia, and only God himself receives Latria.