The only way to get to the core of the Orthodox understanding of Baptism and Communion, is first to get back to the core problem of human life. Unless we have this firmly in mind, then there is no way to see—much less to understand—their importance.
The problem is death. We no longer live with a sense of it anymore. We have anesthetized our society from it. Children don’t go to funerals for fear of hurting them emotionally. It wasn’t too long ago that the departed were laid out in the front parlors of their homes instead of creating a place to distance it from us. Funeral services don’t even mention death, but now it’s all about canonizing the departed a saint. We try to pretend death doesn’t exist. And yet it doesn’t work, because people still live in it. Our trouble is that we don’t understand death.
It is not essentially corporeal, the separation of the soul from the body. It is ontologically deeper. It is only the manifestation of the ancient triad of sin begetting evil which becomes death. It is separation from God himself.
God is love as St. John points out. We all know this, but we often forget our Lord’s words that he is the life. God is life. Sin is not essentially the breaking of a command but rather the breaking of a relationship of love, which is life. When we no longer have this communion, or unity with God, then we no longer have life, and then power and our passions masquerade as love. We are driven by our sinful passions and believe that to fulfill them is to attain our purpose, only to find that we are more empty than before.
This all began in the garden of course. Adam and Eve, innocent, not perfect, stood in the midst of it and enjoyed God’s presence. They had a certain communion with him that was perfect (without flaw), but not yet complete for God desired to give man even more. Our first parents decided to do it themselves and took the fruit, which they though would nourish them and make them like God, and eating it they tasted of alienation from him. They had not become like God, growing into him, but had made themselves gods of their own lives.
Life only comes from God, we know this from the Old Testament and it’s one of the principle reasons the Jews were given laws not to eat the blood, “for life is in it.” Sin separates us from God, which is an evil, and it is a living death.
So how baptism resolve this? The Orthodox understand baptism as our personal participation in the Paschal mystery. It is death, cleansing and new life. I should point out that for the Orthodox, our baptismal service includes three “mysteries,” or “sacraments”: (1) baptism, or immersion in water three times in “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” [we do not accept inclusive languages rites as being true in any sense], (2) chrismation, or confirmation, and (3) holy communion. Our baptismal certificates only say “baptism” on them, but they always include all three. It is just understood. So it was in the New Testament.
Water itself has a profound character. All cultures use it for cleansing. All religions have some sort of cleansing rite or bath with water. It is universal. It also carries in it a darkness which is frightening. This was shown beautifully by the movie, “the perfect storm.” Water became a dark and terrifying personification of death. God used water in this way before in the flood. And he used it in the Exodus against the Egyptians. One of the most joyful hymns of the Old Testament is the song of Moses, “the horse and it’s rider hath he hurled into the sea.” But none of us can live without water either. Water carries in it three distinct signs: cleansing, death and life.
In baptism the Church blesses the water of the font, bringing to mind the baptism of Christ. This image to the Orthodox is not a moralistic one. It has nothing to do with following Christ’s example—how tepid. Rather, it is about Christ cleansing water in his baptism so that it no longer brings death but life. “Make this water like the Jordan,” we say. Make this water a new exodus, a new entry into the Kingdom of God, and entry into life and unity with God himself. Water is charged with the action and love of God through Christ’s baptism, no longer merely the agent of death.
But death is there. We enter the front three times. There is a multiple reality here, like so much of the Church’s life. This three is both for the three persons of the Trinity, and it is also for the three days entombment of Christ. We die with Christ. We voluntarily enter the font and set aside our lives. This was beautifully symbolized in the early Church, by the catechumen facing west and shedding his clothes meaning his old life. We still do this with infants. The old man is “hurled into the sea” and utterly drowned. We literally die in the baptismal font.
We are cleansed, our sins are forgiven. The nature of this cleansing is not simply that God over looks our pasts, or cherishes us in our brokenness. That is hardly being forgiven. Rather, God buries our broken, fallen, death-dealing natures and gives us a new flesh which shall not die but instead be transfigured. The past is completely washed away and no longer exists. That is not to say that we don’t still carry with us the consequences of past sins. For example, we will still be overweight if we have been habitually gluttonous, or we will still have the same bad habits that have gotten into our mess, or if we have killed someone through drunken driving he will still be dead and we will still be in prison. But our relationship to Reality himself itself will be altered.
In baptism we are given life. This stems from the very fact that our relationship with God becomes one of communion and unity. We are joined to him as part of our very being. And just as separation from him is death, so too union with him is life. When our bodies repose, we shall still be alive in Christ—provided that we haven’t estranged ourselves from him by our fall into sin and separation. (For that there is another cure, repentance, or confession which restores the rupture between God and us, and the Christian Church and us. Our sins are all personal and communal.)
We might think that Adam and Eve lived on this level, for they were once alive and had communion with God without sin. But the Christian is given more. We are ontologically greater. In fact, a Christian is higher than the Angels, for we are the priests of all creation and members of the Body of Christ. We become, through adoption, what Jesus Christ is by nature. This is not just some sort of a generic expression, it is fundamental because it changes who we are at our deepest core. Ecclesiology is not a secondary issue, it is right up front and center because it flows from Baptism itself.
God is called the “only lover of mankind” by the Orthodox, his is the philanthropos par excellence. He cannot cease to give himself to man. So he pours out his Holy Spirit, (pneuma, his breath) on man, recreating him into a living soul, just as he did when we created Adam. The new man is thus sealed by the Holy Spirit. He is ordained into the new priesthood, he is a part of a holy nation, whose life is God. Therefore the Christian is the only human being that is alive, for he is united to Life himself.
When a child is born, they are immediately given to mother to nurse. In baptism the new born (or born again) Christian is fed by Mother Church with food that no longer brings death. As once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and they experienced death, now we eat the immaculate Body and drink the precious Blood of Jesus Christ and we have life. We no longer eat food that sustains a living death, but rather we eat food that brings us eternal life.
This Mystical Supper, this unbloody-sacrifice, is the height of Christian experience and worship in this life. In the Eucharist the heavenly banquet is spread for us. It is the marriage feast of the Lamb that is referred to in the Book of Revelation. And it is here right now.
The Church continues this mysterium tremendum as its continual anamnesis of the Paschal mystery. It is the constant un-forgetting of Christ, the constant re-membering or re-constituting the Body of Christ in our midst. It is therefore a solemn banquet of state, the Kingdom of Heaven. And our Lord desires that all mankind should participate in this sacrifice and meal.
Here we need to point out that this does not mean that everyone who comes to the Church on Sunday morning may receive Holy Communion. There are many who may not, and the Church still loves them. Communion really does mean unity with God and the Church. We must truly know that the Sacrament is genuinely the Body and Blood of Christ. It is no mere symbol. Christ said, “This is my Body,” This is my Blood,” not “This is like my Body,” “This is a symbol of my Blood.” The Greek language (in which the New Testament was written) can easily show metaphors and give incredibly subtle images. But the institution narrative is not one of those occasions. Christ makes this abundantly clear when he says, “I am the Bread of life… This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:35 passim)
There are some who will have quibbles about the Eucharist being a sacrifice, or as we Orthodox call it, the unbloody-sacrifice. We are experience the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ on the altar. Christ here again makes this clear, “this is my Body which is broken,” “this is my Blood which is shed.” The Body and Blood are the broken and crucified Christ. The sacrifice is the sacrifice of Christ himself in which we participate. It is not a new sacrifice, or a recapitulation, but it is the exact same sacrifice.
Christ being God and man exists fully in time, eternity and in “ever-existing,” that realm of “now” that God lives in that is beyond time and eternity and was not created. All of his actions were temporal and eternal springing from ever-existing. In Christian liturgy we are brought into eternity and become participants and contemporaries with the Apostles in the upper room. We are there at Golgotha, for Christ makes it present by his own power. Here is the sacrifice of the priest, to make the eternal sacrifice present in the Eucharistic assembly and join us to that sacrifice which redeems mankind.
But if the Eucharist is truly sacrifice, truly eternal, then we must be extremely careful not to participate in that mystery unworthily. Preparation is required. So we must pray, fast and repent of all things which have injured our relationship with Christ and with each other. Though our Lord wants all to be able to participate in the marriage feast, it will also bring condemnation upon those who approach unworthily (without genuine and specific repentance). The truth must also be held, dogmatic agreement with all that the Church teaches is essential too. John writes in his second epistle, “Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine (didache) of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work.” (2 John 9-11)
In Orthodoxy the terms “open communion” or “closed communion” have no meaning. Reception of the Eucharist is not a subject of hospitality, like a meal. I would not offer my wife to someone in an attempt to be hospitable, remember it is a marriage banquet. Either a state of communion exists, or it doesn’t. It goes without saying, that for the Orthodox, one must be a baptized Orthodox Christian to receive holy communion. The fact that other Christians cannot receive communion with us is painful and uncomfortable—even to us and it should be. It is the pain of schism borne, the scandal of disunity. In this way we are no different than the Roman Catholic Church who also holds that communion is only for those who are united to her.
Baptism, chrismation (confirmation), and eucharist are only the beginnings of God pouring his life into us. We shall go from glory to glory throughout all eternity. His life shall be so ontologically made ours, that we can dare to speak of deification which is the purpose of human life. That is another topic, so I’ll stop there.