Standing at the Precipice


I had been enrolled in the local diocesan late-vocations education program … but dropped out for the next cycle because I’ve been a little too busy. Anyhow, the last assignment (which I didn’t go to class to deliver) had as part of the homework an assignment to delivery a short 5 minute homily on Baptism. This is intended to be given to the parents, god-parents/sponsors, family and witnesses  just after a Baptism. Orthodox Christians practice infant Baptism, so this talk is geared in that regard (below the fold). 

So. Are you sweating? Is your heart racing? Are your knees weak? If not, they probably should be. Why, you ask? Well, you’ve just done one of the most  awful, dreadful things that a Christian might do, that is participated in a Baptism of a human. You scoff? Well, let’s take a moment to consider the things we’ve just done. Remember when I said Baptism is awful and dreadful? That means you should be filled with awe and dread. Recall the words of Scripture, “Fear (or awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Why is this the case? Well, consider the following notions.

First we’ve taken your precious young baby child and exorcised her. Look out the window (or at least in your minds eye) and notice that in the wide world out there that Satan and his demons have no small influence. That exorcism that we did is akin to walking our baby into to the bears den and kicking that old bear in the teeth, banging on a drum and making a loud clamor.

Secondly right after doing that, as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve gone ahead and Baptized the child with Water and the Spirit, marking her as Christ’s own. So minutes after getting the adversary’s attention we’ve painted a big fat target on her back, marking her out for them as their enemy. Just to make sure they don’t mistake who their opponent might be.

And then finally, as if that wasn’t enough we’ve anointed her with Chrism. Marking her as not just any ordinary run of the mill worshiper of God, but a princess of the Kingdom, anointed into the service of God in a princely way, just as Samuel anointed Saul and David as Kings of the Chosen of God.

And is she ready for that attention? She’s a baby, for heaven’s sake (literally). She’s going to need help. Remember the words of Elijah, who sought the word of God in the tempest and didn’t hear it. He sought it in the roaring inferno and forest fires and didn’t hear it. He looked far and wide in the awesome works of the nature and man and didn’t find it. He found it in a quiet cave, in a very small voice. Look again at that tempest, that fire, and the world. You will find the word of the enemy there.

There’s a wonderful little book, about a priest in the Soviet Gulag, Father Arseny. In that book a vision Fr Arseny had is recounted in which he is granted to see, in each of the people of the camp, that flame within them. In some strong, in others it was weak. This flame he saw was the Spirit of God within burning within those around him. It is our task to nurture this Spirit in everyone around us. You might consider that this task, this nurturing of God in us and our neighbors, is really in essence the only task we have from God to do on this green earth. That spirit of God is a hard thing to nurture in this world. It is however, what we need to concentrate on doing for this little one. So that she can grow up with that flame as a fire raging within to withstand and to live up to the promise made to day marking her as a princess of that Kingdom riding out to oppose that bear we kicked today.

Now, lest you go out thinking that you’ve just made a terrible mistake and you want to run from here (and me) as fast as you possibly can. Remember there are a few things in our favor, chief among them is that Christ is Risen!  (this, btw, is the Paschal declamation. The response is “Indeed He is risen!”)

So. Whaddya think?


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  1. First we’ve taken your precious young baby child and exorcised her. Look out the window (or at least in your minds eye) and notice that in the wide world out there that Satan and his demons have no small influence.

    Uh, yes. This reads as “crazy” to me.

  2. Mark says:

    Well, that puts Bachmann-as-crazy into context.

  3. As it should, I guess.

  4. I mean, how is this different from using a magic potion and a book of spells over a baby? I just don’t get how educated adults can believe this stuff.

  5. Else says:

    Wonderful post, Mark. Thanks!

  6. Clark says:

    Mark, it’s a good homily, according to my notions.

    First, it offers a new, engaging viewpoint on a familiar part of church life, familiar enough that everybody mentally yawns about it, and it does this by highlighting the real spiritual meanings (not by bringing in some external, alien metaphor). Second, it calls the listeners to action, and does so using the first person plural (this is *our* task as Christians) and not the second person plural (*you* need to do X or change yourself to Y).

    I liked the inversion of viewpoint: looking at the event from outside, from the Enemy’s point of view.

    If there was a direction I’d like to see the homily go, it’s something like this: In Baptism we become members of the Body of Christ. I don’t have in mind a precise way to go down this path. Partly it undermines your image because if the parish is doing what it is supposed to, then from the outside, in the Enemy’s viewpoint, this baptism happens not as an isolated flash of light but as a flash of light against a background of intense light, one more rocket in a series of fireworks. Another thing is that because she is in the Body of Christ the newly baptized is not so isolated or powerless as appears at first glance. This is an awkward thing to try to explain in a few words, and my metaphors keep collapsing as I frame them. At one point in The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis has the demons see the Church as something blazingly bright, stretching through time and space. And we Orthodox have the notion of the angels and the communion of saints. In a more trivial image, being part of the Body of Christ means we can always call for backup. My metaphors keep failing to show *both* the fragility and vulnerability of the individual Christian *and* the fact of integration into the vast and powerful Body of Christ.

    Well, that’s the best feedback I can give quickly. I think the images in your homily will stick in my mind for a long time. Thank you for that.