Saturday, October 18, 2008

Saint Cyril's Baptismal Catechesis

Saint Cyril makes a theme of adoption and sonship through baptism which is very much clear in the Lord’s Prayer. That we pray “Our Father” shows how through Jesus we are reunited in this holy union with God the Father. Jesus does not instruct them to pray to “my father” as if only he could have access to the Father. He invites the disciples and therefore us into a direct communion of prayer with the God the Father – this is Cyril’s point. That we can now call him Father without fear but with assurance in Christ, announces the work that Christ fulfilled on the cross. This most intimate union has reestablished paradise through water, body, blood and word that we might hallow His name. This is Cyril’s simple message which might be seen to be embodied in the Lord’s prayer. Baptism means that we can say Abba Father. He writes, “O boundless liberality! O incomparable gentleness.” This birth is therefore of sonship, as he references John 3:5, “Verily I say unto you, that unless a man be born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

It seems right that baptism be so inextricably combined with the opening of the Lord’s prayer – the verse in which Cyril focuses on. It is through baptism that we can call God our Father. This is the new relationship which is begotten of Christ crucified. Apart from baptism the relationship between God and His creation is alienated, stranger, and sojourners who have long rebelled against his will. In the waters of Baptism this sonship is declared, a complete and new birth – not from the womb of a woman but from water in which the Holy Spirit hovers doing all that Christ promises.

For St. Cyril of Jerusalem there is great importance with the baptismal rite of nakedness. When the catechumen is led into the baptistery or sanctuary he is stripped of all his clothing. Cyril writes, “As soon as you entered you took off your tunic” (88). The catechumen therefore is completely naked which symbolizes taking off the old man and all his works. This “old man” who Luther also continually writes about is the symbol of sin, death, and the devil. These garments are associated with the powers of the corrupt old man in which the devil was embodied in these garments. Cyril writes, “How wonderful! You were naked before the eyes of all without feeling any shame. This is because you truly carry within you the image of he first Adam, who was naked in Paradise without feeling any shame.” This goes back to Adam in paradise who in his shame discovered he was naked, as a consequence of sin. The fig leaf which he covered himself with is the clothing left behind as one approaches the baptismal font. By the stripping of all clothing it shows the disappearance of the shame of sinful man before God.
The catechumen, after being stripped of his garments is anointed with oil. Cyril writes:
Stripped of your garments, you were anointed with oil that had been exorcised, from the top of your head to your feet, and you were made partakers in the true olive tree which is Jesus Christ. Cut off from the wild olive and grafted on the cultivated tree, you have been given a share in the richness of the true oil. For the exorcised oil is a symbol of participation in the richness of Christ. It causes every trace of the enemy’s power to vanish. By the invocation of God and by prayer, the oil has gained the power, not only to purify you from the vestiges of sin by consuming them, but also to put to flight all the invisible powers of the Evil One
This oil finds its meaning in light of the water baptism that is taking place. The language suggests its use as a remedy for sin, also working as a healing agent. It also suggests the preservative power of Christ over the souls of his baptized people. Oil has many functions. Cyril also uses language that suggests baptism is a very real event with certain undeniable aesthetic qualities – that is has supernatural and divine images of beauty, its has a sound, it comes with smells with the sweetness of Christ. Cyril writes on the baptism of Jesus, “He also bathed Himself in the river Jordan, and having imparted of the fragrance of His Godhead to the waters, He came up from them; and the Holy Ghost in substance lighted on Him” (64). There is very much a sense of sights, sounds and smells that Cyril sees as an essential aspect of the baptismal rite for his own catechumens. Olive branches are a sign of God’s covenant and ongoing promise of peace. Early church fathers also mention oil in regards to its use among athletes to strengthen their bodies, or in war to prepare for combat.
Cyril’s understanding of the importance of oil in the baptismal right might not be a fervently supported by Luther. It is important to note however, that Luther retained the use of oil in his 1523 Order of Baptism. This comes before the baptism where the priests anoint the child or catechumen with oil on the beast and between the shoulders, saying, “And I anoint thee with the oil of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Oil on the chest signifies the breastplate whereby the baptized puts on his armor against Satan. In Baptism, every person declares war against the devil and all his minions.
For Cyril’s rite his catechumens are first anointed on the forehead with the oil, so that the mark of Cane might be reversed. The ears are next anointed with oil, “that ye might receive ears quick to hear the Divine Mysteries” (65). It is by the hearing of the word that faith comes to men. The nostrils are then anointed with the “sacred anointment” that the catechumen might say, “We are to God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved. This idea of smell comes from Saint Paul, who writes to the Corinthians, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2:15). Then oil is applied to the breast, to mark the breastplate of righteousness. Cyril certainly believes in employing the senses in various ways in this rite. Cyril’s understanding of the oil is similar to that of the Bread of the Eucharist. As plain ointment it is nothing divine on its own. Yet, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, it “”causes in us the Holy Ghost.” Furthermore he calls it a “preservative of the body” and a “safeguard of the soul.” Luther would likely not read all this divinity into the ointment, though he certainly held it in his 1523 rite. Yet in his revised 1526 rite, the anointing with oil is removed, so as to stress the sufficiency of the water baptism and efficacy of the invocation of the divine name.
Oil is a somewhat minor aspect of the rite, yet sheds light upon the greater reality of what is entailed in baptism for Luther and St. Cyril. As a cleansing agent, it washes that which is impure. As a preparation for war it points to a decisive battle, or more specifically a certain death. In the baptism of every Christian this oil points to the destruction of the old man and the preservation of the new man in Christ’s death and resurrection. Exorcism is the central basis for baptism and central for both of Luther’s baptismal rites. The renunciation of the Devil and all his works was never compromised by Luther. Cyril paints an extremely lucid picture of exorcism as the activity taking place in the baptismal pool:
The dragon Behemoth, according to Job was in the waters, and was taking the Jordan into his gullet. But as the heads of the dragon had to be crushed, Jesus, having descended into the waters, chained fast the strong one, so that we might gain the power to tread upon scorpions and serpents. Life came so that henceforth a curb might be put on death, and so that all who have received salvation might say: O death, where is your victory? For it is by Baptism that the sting of death is drawn. You go down into the waters, bearing your sins; but the invocation of grace, having marked your soul with its seal, will prevent your being devoured by the terrible dragon. Having gone down into the waters dead in sin, you come out brought to life in justice.
This terrible dragon, Satan, into which humanity is born into, is slain in the waters of baptism. The diabolical powers of evil are washed and burned clean by Jesus. The adoption of His baptized people is a grafting into the Vine, Jesus’ death and resurrection. Maybe nobody talked more about the Devil and his defeat than Luther. His renunciation of the Devil, all his works, and all his ways was central in his theology and baptismal rite, “But thou, devil, free; for God’s judgment cometh speedily.”
Exorcism, as the central activity in baptism is no longer stressed in neo-protestant culture because we are too “enlightened” and “rational” to believe in Satan. The absence of the exorcism in today’s baptismal rites is a product of unbelief in God’s word. The greatest trick the devil every played was convincing the world that he did not exist, and such is the trick that he has scrupulously carried out for us today. In a desperate need to feel more comfortable we have denied the existence of Satan, and humans as his natural prey. Yet, the more we ignore the cause of our cursed state, the more our chains rattle. Central to Luther and Cyril’s baptismal rites is the renunciation of Satan and all his ways. Furthermore, water, oil, and the divine name are the agents of death whereby the curse of humanity is nailed and put to a certain death in the body of the Lord Jesus. In this atonement, the baptismal rite for Luther and St. Cyril finds its life with a resurrected Christ.

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