THE BAPTISM OF CATECHUMENS ON PASCHA was one of the most widespread practices of the early Church. Speaking of baptism, St. Paul had written, “We were buried with [Christ] 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” (Romans 6:4). The connection Paul made between Christ’s burial in the earth and our burial in the water was so powerful in the minds of early believers that Holy Saturday, the eve of Christ’s resurrection, became the most appropriate day for baptism in both East and West. Those baptized on this day would share in the Eucharist for the first time on Pascha, the “Feast of Feasts” and celebrate their new life in the days that followed.
To this day the Scriptures we read at the Divine Liturgy on this Sunday reflect on various aspects of the mystery of baptism. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we saw the jailer and his family baptized after experiencing the power of God and hearing the word of the Lord. In the Gospel we see the Lord approach a blind man at the Pool of Siloam – water again – and healing him. The Lord anoints him and he is able to see for the first time in his life. More than that, he sees with the eyes of his soul and confesses his faith in Christ. Countless people today are familiar with a similar image from the eighteenth-century hymn, Amazing Grace, where the new believer proclaims “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”
These readings taken together suggest a pattern that has been followed throughout the centuries. People have heard the word of God, then been baptized, and anointed (chrismated), when they came to faith in Him.
Sight and Light
In the Middle East Holy Saturday is still the most popular day for baptisms. Christians of all traditions call this day sabt al-noor, the Saturday of Light, from another early image of baptism. Very early in the Church’s life baptism came to be called Holy Illumination. The term is used by St Justin the Philosopher in Rome and St Clement of Alexandria in the second century to say that when we come to know God, then we are able to see clearly. Like the man once blind, we are delivered from darkness and, most particularly, we are able to see the divine plan. Our “spiritual eye becomes full of light” and we can recognize the hand of God at work among us.
At a baptism our radiant new nature is represented by the shining white garments the newly baptized puts on while we sing, “Give me a robe of light, O You who clothe Yourself with light as with a garment, O most merciful Christ our God.” We find the same image described beautifully in Agathangelos’ description of the baptism of the first Armenian Christians in the fourth century: “They went forth in great joy, in white garments, with psalms and blessings and lighted lamps and burning candles and blazing torches, with great rejoicing and happiness, illuminated and become like the angels.”
For the same reason the Church describes the Feast of the Theophany, the remembrance of Christ’s baptism, as the Feast of Light. As we say in Kondakion for the feast, actually the first verse of St. Romanos’ Kondakion on the Life of Christ: Today you have appeared to the inhabited world, and your light, O Lord, has been signed upon us, who, with knowledge, sing your praise, ‘You have come, You have appeared, the unapproachable Light.’
The Gospels say that, at Christ’s baptism, the heavens were opened, which the Fathers assumed to mean that the mystery of the Trinity was revealed. Christ is the Light who enables us to see by revealing the mystery of God and His plan for our regeneration to the world.
Clement of Alexandria also speaks of this light as being “signed” upon us. He describes this sign as a “seal,” a mark of belonging – in this case, to Christ. At our chrismation, the completion of our baptism, we receive this “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” who affirms that we belong to the Lord. We are His, and He is ours, as a pledge of the life that awaits us in glory.
Our Call to Respond
In the passage from Romans quoted above, St Paul makes another connection. As we have seen, he links baptism in water with Christ’s burial; he also relates Christ’s risen life to the way the baptized should live here and now. We can live a ‘resurrection life’ by following the Scriptural precepts that characterize the new life for believers. Later in the epistle St Paul expresses it this way, “…present your bodies a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:1,2).
The first verse concerns our actions. Where in the Old Covenant people would offer animals, grain or other offerings in the temple, we the baptized are told to offer all our faculties as our act of worship. “Turn this body in which you are clothed into a censer…” we read in the letters of St Anthony the Great. There is nothing that we have or that we are which is not meant to be given over to God. We are called to commend “ourselves, one another and our whole life to Christ God.”
Sometimes this “spiritual worship” is a matter of giving things up, as during the Fasts. At other times, such as during this festive season, it may be a matter of sharing the things that we enjoy with others in acts of hospitality. In either case we are called to see all our actions as oblations, like the prosphora, the candles or the incense we give over completely to God in church.
The second verse is concerned with our attitudes. We are urged to avoid thinking like people who do not know God: to avoid thinking that the purpose of life is acquiring more and more of the world’s goods or respect. If our values are formed by the commercials we see on TV or the lifestyles promoted there, then we are conforming to this world. After all, sitcoms or reality shows never feature people who serve others, do they?
If we accept the social engineers’ idea that other people – even our own older relatives or unborn children – are an inconvenience to be put aside, then we are conforming to this world. If we endorse the concerns of special interest groups rather than the values of the Gospel, then we are conforming to this world. We have been given a new life; we need to develop a new mind as well.
I have lost the very eyes of my soul, wherefore I come to You, O Christ, as did the man who had been blind from birth, and I cry out to You with repentance: “To those who stumble in darkness, You are a radiant and resplendent light.”
O Sun of Justice, Christ our God, by Your pure touch You filled completely with light the man held in darkness from his mother’s womb. Enlighten the eyes of our souls as well, making us children of light and of the day, that we may cry out to You with faith: “Great and wondrous is Your mercy toward us, O Lord, Lover of Mankind: glory to You!”
Who can speak of Your sovereign power, O Christ? Who can count the multitude of Your wonders? As You were seen in two natures on earth, so did You grant a double healing to the sick: You healed the eyes of the soul of the man born blind as well as his bodily eyes, so that he could see You. And he confessed that You are a hidden God, granting great mercy to the world!