Life in Christ
The sacraments of Christian initiation in the East
The famous treatise Life in Christ by the Byzantine theologian Nicolas Cabasilas is based on the mystagogy of the sacraments of Christian initiation, with the addition of the consecration of the altar. In the liturgical tradition of the Eastern Churches the sacraments of Christian initiation indicate Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, administered together and through which the human being — just born or at an adult age — is fully configured to Christ and inserted in the life of grace of the Church.
Baptism and Confirmation are conferred only once because they constitute Christian being and acting; the Eucharist, given the first as time crowning the other two sacraments — and at the same time their source — is repeated, as a sacrament of life for every Christian and for the Church. In accordance with Tradition, the three sacraments are conferred during a single celebration in the following order: Baptism, which gives Christian being, Confirmation, which gives the grace for Christian action, and the Eucharist, which is full insertion in the New Covenant through grace. The three sacraments are so closely bound that it would be impossible to give a catechesis on the one without addressing the two others.
In the different rites of Baptism the different parts of the celebration of the sacraments of initiation are preserved in their entirety: Baptism itself, the gift of the Holy Spirit and communion with the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ, a prerogative of God's children. The three sacraments express and actuate the one event of salvation. Through them the human being, cleansed and set free from sin, is reborn as a child of God, is configured to Christ and is filled by the Holy Spirit.
Baptism incorporates the Christian in the death and Resurrection of Christ and through this vital union the human person is impelled by God's grace to be configured to him and to live to the full the life that comes from him. The culmination of this journey is participation in the Eucharist, the Holy Gifts through which the human being is mysteriously likened to Christ himself. Between Baptism and the Eucharist the Christian receives Confirmation, the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
In the East these sacraments are seen and welcomed as a gift of divine grace; in receiving them the catechumen is in turn received and welcomed by Christ into his divine life. In Baptism the member of the faithful, through the triple immersion in the holy water and through the invocation of the Blessed Trinity, is reborn and made a new creature in Christ, a member of his Body which is the Christian community, the Church. With a triple total immersion that symbolizes death and the total burial in Christ of the person being baptized: in the water the former self is buried to bring forth the new.
Baptism as a door to sacramental life — life in Christ — is emphasized by the very fact of the conjunction, which is close unity, between Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. In his commentary on John's Gospel Cyril of Alexandria says that catechumens do not participate in the Eucharistic banquet because the Holy Spirit does not yet dwell in them, even if as such they have already professed the divinity of Christ; after having received the Holy Spirit, they will be able to touch the Lord.
Confirmation, the anointing with the consecrated myron immediately after Baptism, indicates the power of the Holy Spirit on the newly baptized person: a gift of the Spirit and armour for the fight of the Christian life, a sacrament linked to Baptism and which completes and strengthens in the faithful the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Reborn in Christ, strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, received into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, the newly baptized person naturally approaches — a newborn baby is carried — to the table of life in Communion with the Holy Gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ, of which the Church is steward in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
Today, in continuity with the great Tradition, the Christian initiation in the Eastern Churches takes place through the indissoluble unity of the three sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, independently of the age of the catechumen, whether he or she be a newborn infant or an adult.
In the case of the Baptism of adults, this Christian initiation is received after they have received a catechesis, a preparation that implies knowledge of the mysteries of the Christian faith and a disposition for conversion, while on behalf of newborn babies or those who have not yet reached the age of reason, these requirements are incumbent on the parents, on the godparents and on the Church herself, fully involved in the journey of the new faithful, nourished through Eucharistic communion in their life in Christ.
Thus, in immersing new born children into life in Christ, in anointing them with the seal of the Holy Spirit, in admitting them straight away to the table of the Holy Gifts, it is the Church herself which is involved in the Christian journey of neophytes.
Weekly Edition in English
29 September 2010, page 4
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