Saturday, June 27, 2015

Baptismal Sponsorship, Past and Present

When infants are brought to the baptismal font, they not only come with parents and friends, but also their sponsors—traditionally in churches of the Russian tradition, a man and a woman.  These sponsors have liturgical duties to perform during the service, such as holding the child, and making the responses when the priest requires that the child renounce Satan and unite himself to Christ.  But there are other duties as well, which remain after the service is over. 
            In the classic “Priest’s Guide” as quoted by Fr. David Abramtsov, we read the following: The sponsors in Baptism are guarantors pledging to the Church that the baby to be baptized will be brought up in the faith of that Church; therefore they must be members of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church.”   Fr. David also writes, “Among the other duties of sponsors is the duty of seeing that their godchildren receive Holy Communion frequently, that they attend Sunday School and church regularly, that they learn their prayers and fulfill all the other requirements of the Orthodox Faith.”  Sounds good.  The only problem is that given our modern North American nuclear family, it is difficult for anyone to promise that their godchildren will fulfill these duties if the parents do not do their bit.  And rash promises aside, we should be clear:  if the parents do not raise their children in piety and faith, making sure that a living faith is communicated to their offspring, there is precious little that a godparent can do about it.  A sponsor can nag, of course, and encourage, and maybe even plead.  But the overwhelming lion share of responsibility falls with the parents, and especially with the dad. 
            The reality is that children learn what is important by observing what their parents do.  Grandparents can inspire and influence to some degree, but theirs is a subordinate and supportive role.  The parents will model piety for their children (or not), and this will provide the formative effect.  Note:  the children will learn from what their parents actually do, not just what they say.  The parents may say, “Church is very, very important”, but if they do not go to church every week and devoutly receive Holy Communion, and say their private prayers, and pray at meal-times, such exhortations will be recognized by children for the hypocritical clap-trap it is.  That is, the exhortations will have no lasting effect.  In such a house where the parents do not exercise a living faith, the effect of the godparents’ exhortations and offers will be distinctly minimal.  Auntie Sophie and Uncle Walter can be as winning and loving as ever, but their winning love cannot compensate for the poor examples of the parents.
One might be tempted to ask:  this being the case, what’s the point of having sponsors?  One might begin an answer by looking at how sponsorship functioned in the early church.  In those days, all candidates for baptism had sponsors, even the adults.  The pilgrim known to scholars as “Egeria” tells us in her memoirs of her trip to the Holy Land how baptismal sponsorship functioned in Jerusalem in her day.  She writes,

“On the second day of Lent at the start of the eight weeks, the bishop’s chair is placed in the middle of the Great Church, the Martyrium, the presbyters sit in chairs on either side of him, and all the clergy stand.  Then one by one those seeking baptism are brought up, men coming with their fathers and women with their mothers.  As they come in one by one, the bishop asks their neighbours questions about them: ‘Is this person leading a good life? Does he respect his parents? Is he a drunkard or a boaster?’ He asks about all the serious human vices. And if his inquiries show him that someone has not committed any of these misdeeds, he himself puts down his name; but if someone is guilty he is told to go away, and the bishop tells him that he is to amend his ways before he may come to the font.”

            Thus in the early Church the function of the sponsors was to witness to the propriety of the baptism by testifying that the catechumenal candidate was indeed living a Christian life.  (Presumably in cases of infant baptism, the issue was whether or not the parents of the infant candidate were living a Christian life.) 
At very least then, sponsors function as vestigial witnesses to the nature of Christian discipleship.  Baptism is not simply a “get it over with” sort of thing, like a child’s first vaccination.  It is the beginning of a life of commitment to Christ and of striving for holiness.  The presence of sponsors reveals that something is required of the candidate after the service is all over, and that this requirement is life-long.  Baptism is thus like enrollment in school—the process of enrollment is important, but it is essentially meaningless unless one follows it up by actually going to school, attending classes, studying, and taking exams.  Enrollment in school looks forward to the day of graduation; baptism looks forward to the day when we die and step into the Kingdom.  Auntie Sophie and Uncle Walter stand by as sponsors and point the little candidate to that final and glorious day.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Where Have All the Father's Gone?

          I seem to remember reading somewhere that at least one factor in the question of why young people join gangs was the absence of a father figure in their home.  There are other factors, of course, but this one stood out for me, for it highlighted the importance of fatherhood.   If a child is to grow up with spiritual and emotional health, the child needs both a strong mother and a strong father, part of whose respective tasks it is to teach their children, through word and example, what it means to be a woman and a man and how these two genders should relate to one another and to the world.  It is a daunting task, and the stakes are very high.  The task is complicated by failure (or, if one prefers, by “incomplete success”), in that if a father fails in his task of teaching his children well, it becomes harder for those children to teach their own children in turn.  Failure thus can beget failure and so pass down through the generations.  But there is a happy flip side to this, and it is that success begets success, so that if our fathers did their task well we can also transmit those lessons on to our children.  Thus a father’s success can find beneficiaries in his children’s children’s children.
            Part of a father’s task is that of a protector for his family.  This is well stated in a brilliant article by Brook Herbert, entitled (provocatively), “Towards a Recovery of the Theology of Patriarchy”, published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly in 1996.  In her article Ms. Herbert writes that the father’s bond with his children “is not a lesser bond than the mother’s, nor does it express a less dynamic love…the father welcomes and loves the child in the particularity of its own uniqueness…The role of the father implies not only the legitimization of the child, providing a visible and secure community, but also a commitment to the process of individuation that the child will undergo”.  In other words, the father’s job is to provide a lasting and safe environment to grow, and also to love the child in such a way that it feels that it belongs there and is valued for itself, apart from any of its accomplishments. 
            It should go without saying that providing that lasting and safe environment involves keeping the family intact and unbroken by divorce.  Yes, divorces happen, and after the family unity has been shattered, fathers must still do their best.  But it is the easier task to preserve that unity and wholeness by avoiding divorce in the first place.  Even apart from our Lord’s prohibition of divorce for His disciples (Mark 10:2-9) one should shun this path for the destructiveness it brings to the children.  The first thing therefore that a father can do for his children is to love their mother. 
            Daddy also has another task in the home, which is to combine tenderness with strength, and to model the combination so consistently that the children regard the combination as natural.  Here we get little help from our North American culture, which equates strength with hardness, and tenderness with weakness.  Strong people are muscular guys like the protagonist in the movie “Die Hard”; loving people are quiet and sensitive, and never hurt anyone’s feelings or make them feel ashamed—even when they act shamefully and should feel ashamed.   And since one gets more strokes for giving warm fuzzy affirmation than one does for exhibiting muscle-bond machismo, not surprisingly dads often opt for the former, and err on the warm fuzzy side of our culture’s unhealthy dichotomy.   In so doing they opt out of their calling to be strong, immovable pillars, and are afraid of offending their children.  They fear being “too authoritarian” and “too insensitive”, and therefore sometimes refuse to call sin by its true name or to declare that certain forms of behaviour are simply not allowed by anyone in the family.   
            If we would see an example of true fatherhood and how to combine strength with tenderness, and immovable standards and requirements with unconditional love, we need look no further than our heavenly Father.  And since, as the Scriptures teach, that invisible God has become visible in His Son (John 14:9, Col. 1:15), we see the same expression and example of fatherhood in the Lord Jesus.  The Lord Jesus is strong and His commands are clear:  certain ways of living are required by Him from His children, and certain actions and life-styles absolutely forbidden.  Yet for all this strength and immovability, He is tender and loving. 
We fathers, if we would truly answer the call and not go AWOL from our divine duty, must strive to exhibit the same combination of strength and love as does our Lord.  We must be clear about what we expect from our children and hold them to standards of righteousness, justice, fairness, kindness, and truthfulness.  We must also make clear to them that we love them and value them for who they are, and that there is nothing they could do which could stop us from loving them—no failure that they could embody, no sin that they could commit, no error or stupidity that they could make that could possibly interrupt the flow of our love.  The world equates love with approval, and in this equation, as usual the world is wrong.  The Lord’s example makes this clear:  when I sin, He does not approve, but He never stops loving me.  Even in His reproof I can feel His love (Rev. 3:19).  That is why I can repent, and return to sanity and health and safety.
Our kids must come to know naturally both that dad’s standards protect them, and that his love makes them strong.  Our culture has put asunder things which God has joined together—things such as tenderness and strength.  It is the job of the father to put them back together again.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

All Kinds of Everything

          The last few weeks of my life have been spent writing a commentary on the Book of Daniel, which of course includes pouring over the so-called “Benedicite” (to give its western name), the long hymn found in chapter three and put on the lips of the three young men as they sang to God in the midst of the fiery furnace.  In the Greek version of Daniel chapter 3 it is found in verses 52-90.  It is absent from the versions of Daniel based on the Hebrew/ Aramaic Masoretic text, since it was added to the original narrative later.  As the reader can quickly discern from a perusal of the hymn, it has little to do with the story into which it has been inserted, and along with the “Prayer of Azariah” (also inserted) rather spoils the dramatic flow and climax of the narrative.  It originally circulated independently of the narrative of the three youths and the furnace, and deserves study all on its own.
            The hymn surveys all of creation, addressing each element and power in the wide world in turn with an exhortation to sing to God and to exalt Him beyond measure unto the ages.  (The constant repetition of this exhortation suggests that the hymn was meant to be sung antiphonally, with the repeated bit used as a congregational refrain.)  The hymn begins by blessing the God of Israel, the Lord God of our fathers, seated in sovereignty on the throne of His majesty in the heavenly temple of His glory.  Blessed is Your Name and the temple of Your glory!  Blessed are You in the holy temple of Your glory!  Blessed are You who behold the depths and sit upon the cherubim!  Blessed are You in the firmament of heaven!
            Our own puny praises are deemed insufficient to fitly sing the praises of One so exalted, and so the singer turns to everything in the world around him to help him declare the excellencies of our God.  Angels, heavens, waters above the heavens, sun and moon and stars in the sky—all must take their part.  Rain and winds, summer heat and winter cold, night and day, lightning and clouds—each one is called into the cosmic chorus.  The whole of nature finds its destiny, unity, fulfillment, and joy in singing to the Lord.  By making the extensive list of all the elements of creation culminate not just with the children of men, but also with Israel and its priests, the author of the hymn declares that all mankind find its unity and its destiny in joining with the people of God. 
            Poring over the Benedicite reminds me of the teaching of the saints that pondering the glories of creation can lead one deeper into communion with God.  The forces of nature may not be divine (as the pagans imagined), but they can provide a path to the divine as we listen to their true voices.  The leaves of the forest, blowing in the wind, can be heard clapping their hands to God; the lion roaring after his prey seeks his food from God, and the seas also roar out their praises to their Maker (Pss. 104:21, 96:11).                                                                                                   
          One of my favourite songs is the old ballad by the Irish singer Dana, All Kinds of Everything.  Dana’s young and crystalline clear voice has haunted and inspired me since I first heard it as a young boy in 1970.  Dana (a devout Christian, by the way) declared that all kinds of everything reminded her of her true love.  The Benedicite takes the sentiment and carries it further:  all kinds of everything remind us of God.  He is every soul’s first and true love; He is the Bridegroom of the Church.  The whistling wind speaks His Name, and the terrible thunder crashes for His pleasure. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Magic of Childhood

“The magic of childhood” is a phrase which has become so proverbial that there is a Pinterest selection dedicated to it.  Childhood is wistfully hailed and enthusiastically applauded as a magical time, golden with innocence and purity.  We view children with dewy eyes because of a special magical quality they somehow possess which enables them to look upon the commonplace with wonder.   The phrase is not quite accurate, however.  Children are not magical; the world is.  Children do not view the world with special lenses.  They just see the world for what it is.  It is not that their eyes are magical; it is just that our eyes are blind.  Children see the world as God made it, as sacrament and miracle.  Our adult vision has become clouded by sin and cynicism, by weariness and materialism.  A child looks up at the sun and sees a mystical promise, a pledge of warmth and joy and happy endings.  He looks blinkingly upon its blinding brilliance and sees a bridegroom coming out his chamber, a strong man running his course with joy, racing across the heavens, and nothing is hidden from the heat thereof (Psalm 19:5).  We look briefly at the sun, check our smart phones to discover the UV index, and reach for the sunscreen.  The child sees the sun with sanity; we are the ones who are insane.
            The clear eyes of children open very early.  Many people will have seen a young baby lying on its back in its crib, staring with obsessed fascination at its feet at the end of its legs.  The baby rightly regards this as a miracle.  Feet are fascinating, and they are just the first of many discoveries to be made upon emerging from the womb.  In the womb, the world contained no feet—just watery darkness and warmth and security.  In a sense, it was like the world before creation—formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the waters (Genesis 1:2).  Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light—and mother and father and doctor or midwife, and a whole bewildering multitude of other as of yet nameless mysteries.  And feet.  No wonder the baby stares at them.  They are only the first of many bewildering discoveries in the vast cosmos of the nursery.  What could they be used for?  Why are there two of them?  Will they stay attached?  Perhaps if I stare at them long enough I will get some sort of answer.
            The child begins life with this recognition of the sacramentality of the world.  Everything the child encounters is a gift, and speaks the Name of its Giver.  Being a gift, everything in the world is received by the child with surprise and gratitude.  It is as G.K. Chesterton observed long ago (in this book Orthodoxy):  “When we were very young children we do not need fairy tales; we only need tales.  Mere life is interesting enough.  A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.  Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic.”   Young children find the whole world crammed with miracles and magic, because of course it is.
But life’s suffering grinds us down soon enough, and we begin to accept the lie that the world is just the world, and the sun is just a ball of gas burning in space (despite C.S. Lewis’ reminder that that is not what the sun is, but simply what it is made of).   We read up on science and causality and the laws of physics and these strong chemicals soon wash the wonder from our hearts.  We then rush through life at break-neck speed, slowing down only when we suspect a police speed-trap, and scarcely see the world we live in.   We miss the beauty, we are blind to the miracles.  All we are interested in is our next appointment.
Wisdom’s voice therefore bids us to slow down and open our senses and heart to the world around us and see it once again for what it is.  The path to sanctity leads through the garden of childhood, so that if we will not receive the Kingdom of God like children, we will never enter it at all (Mark 10:15).  God calls us not to simply “slow down and smell the flowers”, but to stop our mad and heedless rush through life and receive His world as gift and give thanks for it.  As Schmemann told us, Man is not homo sapiens, but homo adorans, and we find and fulfil our true human nature through thanksgiving and doxology.   God has crammed His creation full of His wonders—the stars in the sky and the moon in the clouds, wine in the glass and chocolate in the mouth, blossoms bursting from branches and birds singing for joy beside them.  And also, as any baby could tell you, the feet beckoning at the end of your legs.  We must stop and stare at the world a little longer, and look at everything a little deeper.  Every single thing around us whispers, “God made me”, and points us back to Him.  Alice was amazed when she walked through Wonderland.  We should be no less amazed at the world in which we live, for it is no less full of wonders.