by Nathaniel Torrey (@nathanieltorrey)
This past Sunday was the Sunday of the Holy Cross, which signals the midpoint of Great Lent for the Orthodox Church. Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, is fast approaching. For me it is of particular significance; I will be baptized and chrismated (confirmed) on Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha.
Naturally, I’ve become reflective the closer I get to my baptism. Why do Christians believe baptism is necessary? The short answer is because of the sins of Adam & Eve, resulting in the corruption of man and nature called the Fall. Thus my own corrupt nature continues to sin and further compounds the corruption to my soul and to those around me. Baptism is the necessary corrective of the “sickness” of sin that has permeated and distorted all of reality. To desire baptism, to long for it, is to wish to be made pure and remove the stain and corruption from our nature.
The longing for purity has become estranged from our culture. Rather, the desire for purification remains but its natural corrective, baptism, is seen as merely formal and symbolic or archaic and superstitious. Like all of the original desires written on man’s heart as an image of God, the desire for purity attempts to satisfy itself divorced from God in a myriad of ways in the fallen world.
Our culture, while rejecting the need for purification of our souls, the most essential part of us, puts a valuable price on appearing pure. Cosmetics, for example, are seen as nearly essential for any “decent” person. Fads in dieting and exercise machines are manifestations of this desire to be physically “pure.” But apart from God, this elevation of the body at the expense of the spirit can only amount to becoming a white washed tomb.
If inner beauty is ever spoken of in our culture, it almost always is assumed one already has it. Inner purity has regressed into self-esteem. One should simply feel good about themselves “just because.” It only needs to be discovered. One only needs to peel back through reading the latest self-help book, seeking the latest therapy, or pill to recover, be purified and feel whole again.
In principle, baptism is also a corrective to a defect much like any of the above mentioned methods. However, the cause is different. In the biological and mental health understanding, the defect is simply mechanical. There is some part not working in one’s body or mind. To fix the problem one only needs to find the correct shade of makeup, the latest exercise or therapeutic technique, or some form of medication. With sin, the whole person must be thrown out and refashioned. In baptism, we are not fixed; we are put to death. “Or do you not know,” writes St. Paul in Romans 6, “that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
In a very real sense, the man that comes up after the third immersion and is subsequently smeared with holy chrism is a creature brought back to life from the dead. If baptism were merely a symbol of ushering a new era in life or getting a treatment, it would be ontologically synonymous with getting a promotion, graduating college, or getting a checkup from a doctor. If that were true, how could baptism be seen in any as necessary for his restoration into full communion with God?
Moving from the Sunday of the Holy Cross, I will will be sent carrying my cross, my sins, and my entire person through the rest of Lent to my death. On May 4th, 2013 I will die. But as St. Paul also says, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” On the same day as my death I will begin my journey into the newness of life.