For the Life of the World 19

Posted: January 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

During the press of the holidays, illness, and all the rest that has been happening, I’ve fallen pretty far behind in this series. I’m going to work to catch up this week. I find both Fr. Schmemann’s book and Dn. Hyatt’s podcasts on that book fascinating and illuminating.

The discussion now moves from baptism to chrismation in section 4 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter four.

In both the book and the podcast, the history of this sacrament and its divergent path in the West are touched upon. But I’m going to take this first post to focus on it in more detail. From my personal experience, I doubt that many modern evangelicals know much about the mystery of chrismation or its Western counterpart, confirmation. I went to a Roman Catholic school for three years growing up (and an Episcopal school for another year and change), I was as interested as I have ever been in spiritualities of every sort, and I still didn’t really understand confirmation until I encountered the older Orthodox tradition of chrismation.

In the early days of the church, each individual church had its own bishop assisted by his presbyters. And though anyone could baptize at need, absent an urgent need, the presbyters or the bishop performed baptisms. However, the bishop alone blessed the oil used to anoint and then anointed the newly baptized with the seal of the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as priests and kings in the royal priesthood of Christ.

As an aside, that was one of the disconnects I noted pretty early among so many modern churches. They refer to the royal priesthood of all believers, but they have no practice that anyone in the ancient world would have connected to either kings or priests. Coming from a Jewish context, that would obviously be part of a ceremony that included anointing with oil, as it was priests and kings who were anointed in the Old Testament. And I’ll note that one of the gifts the young Christ received from the magi was a rich oil. Gold, incense, and oil — truly gifts for a kingly priest. Further, the gospels recount stories of Christ being anointed by expensive oil. Though not like the anointing everyone would expect (what about Jesus happened the way people expected?), nevertheless, he was anointed with oil.

The formerly pagan believers would have understood such an act even if it wasn’t entirely native to their culture. Neither group would have understood what evangelical churches do today as something that anointed or ordained you into a royal priesthood. The concepts of king and priest had a deep cultural reality for them that we largely lack in our native culture of liberal democracy. I knew something had to be missing in our modern practice, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I encountered chrismation. It fills that gap perfectly.

At first, every church had one bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people (all anointed as kings and priests, but with different functions within the body). This is the picture we see, for instance, in St. Ignatius’ writings.  As the Church grew, there came to be more churches in a city to serve all those converting. The bishop delegated presbyters to act in his stead in the churches and visited each as he was able. And it is at this point that East and West began to diverge.

In the ancient world, we have to remember, the West was the frontier. It had a single apostolic see in Rome. And it had widely dispersed peoples. As Rome contracted, it contracted first in the West. This was further complicated by the fact that the West always had fewer bishops than the East. So over time, an individual bishop was not over a church or even a set of geographically close churches, but often serving a far flung network of churches.  The bishop could not physically be at every baptismal service at every church.

And so, in the West, they decided the physical presence of the bishop was the important thing and began to separate baptism from chrismation and communion. And over time, that developed into the confirmation of baptism performed as children entered into what was considered the earliest of the ages of majority in the medieval West. I believe, even today, confirmation is always performed when the bishop is present (though I could be wrong about that). Eventually, even first communion became separated from either baptism or confirmation. Now it is normal in the Roman Catholic Church for a child to be baptized at birth, begin taking communion sometime as a child (in a ceremony known as First Communion), and finally be confirmed near the onset of puberty.

The East took a different path as they encountered the same problem. The bishop still blessed the anointing oil of chrismation, but it was distributed to all his presbyters. And along with baptism, communion, and everything else, the bishop delegated the performance of chrismation to his presbyters so its unity with baptism could be preserved. Even today in the Orthodox Church every person, whether 9 weeks old or 90 years old, who is baptized, is baptized, chrismated, and communed in that first service. The unity of the mysteries was maintained.

The practice of the East makes sense to me. That doesn’t mean it’s right, of course. But I do think it’s significant that I couldn’t truly understand the Western sacraments until I saw them in light of the Eastern practice.


9 Comments on “For the Life of the World 19”

  1. 1 E.K. said at 1:49 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    Scott,
    When I read things like your post, it makes me wonder about Christians living in such poor conditions they cannot afford oil, particular communion wafers and the like – what are they to do? It makes me wonder whether Christians in the past made traditions of such things unnecessarily. After all, these things are all just symbolic – the Holy Spirit isn’t in the bottle of oil, we don’t actually die and rise again during baptism, etc…

    “The concepts of king and priest had a deep cultural reality for them that we largely lack in our native culture of liberal democracy.” – I agree. These days it would might be a more recognizable and meaningful ceremony if golden crowns were placed upon the heads of new converts. Most unchurched people I know would not have a clue about oil.

  2. 2 Scott said at 3:32 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    Bread, wine, and oil are and were the staples of the poorest in most parts of the world. I didn’t mean to imply that rich oil is used in chrismation (though myrrh from icons and relics sometimes is) because the oil with which Christ was anointed was an expensive oil. Normal bread is blessed and a portion of it is transformed by the Holy Spirit so it is also the body of Christ. Everyday oil can be blessed and used in chrismation. Many of the early Christians were poor and had little more than bread, wine, and oil. It is enough.

    While the particular meaning you are placing on “symbolic” is a modern one, there was a similar concept in the classical ancient world. It was related to, but different from “parabolic,” which is more often used, I believe in the NT. (Off the top of my head, I believe “symbolic” indicated something like different from and representing the true thing, but not sharing in its essence. “Parabolic” on the other hand was something different from the true thing, but alongside it and sharing in its essence. However, I’m not a Greek scholar and I probably mangled both of those descriptions since it’s been a long time since I studied them.) However, even a symbol did not “merely” represent something else as the word is often used today. Symbols had true power. (I would argue they still have more power than we often credit today, but that’s another discussion.)

    Neither of those classical concepts are ever applied to baptism, the seal of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, or similar mysteries in the NT. They are used, though as I recall “symbolic” is used in only one or two places, but not in regard to the things we are discussing here. So from a biblical perspective, there is no foundation for calling them “just symbolic” in the modern sense. And, of course, there is similarly no basis from a historical perspective.

    I don’t think people in America would have any more sense of the meaning if crowns were used. We just don’t think that way here and now. So I think whatever is used, its true meaning will have to be explained and even then people will have to live it to begin to understand it. I think that may be part of the reason we struggle so much with the concept of “Kingdom” that permeates the NT. If our churches are indeed manifestations of the eschaton, then Christ’s Kingdom is a liberal democracy. While I like living today in a liberal democracy and it’s certainly better than other sorts of human kingdoms, I’m not really convinced that’s truly an accurate incarnation of the Kingdom of God.

    While I have no problem with the ancient Christian practice of translating our scriptures and liturgies into other languages, incorporating hymnography and liturgical practices from the nations, I’m less comfortable with the idea that we are free to perform the central mysteries of the faith any way we please. It’s oil in the Old Testament. It’s oil in the New Testament. It’s oil through centuries of Christian practice across many nations and many cultures. I think we explain to people what the oil means.

    Oh, and according to Paul, at least, in Baptism we do die with Christ and are buried with him, and are raised to new life, a recreated life, a life made new. You are, of course, free to reinterpret his words any way you choose, and many do so. But that’s actually one of the places where he is easier to understand. Of course, our hearts don’t stop. But is that all you understand life to be? The beating of hearts and the pulse of blood?

    I suppose that begs the larger questions: What is life? What is death? Paired with the question, “What does it mean to be a human being?,” those questions have been given very different answers within different contexts. That’s too big for a comment thread, of course, but I do believe my present answers to those questions (and more) look a lot like the answers given by St. Athanasius for one example.

    I’m also unclear what the label “unchurched” actually means. There are the thousands upon thousands of different sorts of Christianity in the US today which collectively claim roughly 190 million adherents (if I remember the latest studies correctly — I didn’t go look it up). I suppose those people could be divided into those who regularly attend a church of some sort and those who don’t, though I’m not sure I see the value in such a division. And then there are the rest who are something other than self-identified Christian. I would call those people non-Christians or I would call them by the particular designation they choose for themselves (secular, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc). I do hear and read “unchurched” a lot, but I’ve never grasped why that is a significant category to people.

    There is a formative disconnect at work. I’m not sure I agree that anything can ever be “just symbolic” from a purely personal perspective. I waffle from one side to another according to my frame of mind. To the extent I have been able to understand the ancient perspectives, at least in the cultures and places that formed and shaped Christianity, I am reasonably certain that what we mean by “just symbolic” would have been alien to them.

  3. 3 Scott said at 3:48 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    And yes, that really does represent the rambling, tangential, and sometimes disjointed way my thoughts flow when I express them as they form. My friends are probably chuckling. 😉

  4. 4 E.K. said at 4:26 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    OM Scott – You really went all out in your response!

    “(I would argue they still have more power than we often credit today, but that’s another discussion.)” – hey, when you have time, I’d be curious as to your thoughts on this.

    “Of course, our hearts don’t stop. But is that all you understand life to be? The beating of hearts and the pulse of blood?” – I truely wasn’t trying to stir up any animosity. I was just stating the usual way it’s viewed by people I know.

    “I’m less comfortable with the idea that we are free to perform the central mysteries of the faith any way we please. It’s oil in the Old Testament. It’s oil in the New Testament.” – do you think it needs to be poured on the head and not just dabbed on the forehead?…is that what you’re trying to say? …just wondering.

    Like you, I happen to really enjoy getting into the history of the Church and the original languages of the Bible and so forth, but I also have many Christian friends and family members who couldn’t care any less about such things if they tried. For them, it seems to be enough to know “the Gospel in a nutshell” and to spread that message of God’s love. None of the background and the certain details of why or how Jews or early Christians did things matter to them in their daily walk.

    Thanks for your response.

  5. 5 Scott said at 4:56 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    I wasn’t feeling any animosity. It’s just the sort of broad questions such ideas about life, death, reality, God, and man raise in my mind.

    I’m not good at reducing things to a “nutshell” of any sort. You might have noticed. 😀

    I couldn’t put my family and friends in any one bucket. They are all over the place, both the Christians and the non-Christians. But I do understand what you mean.

    I also don’t believe the “Gospel” can be reduced to a nutshell any more than God can be reduced to a nutshell. The problem is that a lot of the reductionist “Gospels” out there today end up describing a God I wouldn’t even worship, much less love. At least they do if you really think them through.

    Hmmm. I suppose there is a very simple expression of the euvangelion (gospel) found in the NT. It’s the shortest expression of it I know.

    JESUS IS LORD

    Of course, then you need the rest of scripture to begin to understand what it means that he’s Lord, how that relates to Messiah, how we know that he’s Lord (hint: connected to the ‘crucified and risen Lord), and why that is “good news”. So though I guess I can reduce the gospel to a nutshell, it’s a nutshell that doesn’t mean anything unless you understand what’s behind it.

    But that’s for those of us who ask questions. It is certainly possible to love God, love Jesus, and follow him loving others even if you don’t understand very much at all. The key to our faith lies not in understanding God. (Of course, as Fr. Thomas Hopko says, “We can’t know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Or something like to that effect.) It’s in loving God and loving other people. And anyone can do that, even if they don’t understand much at all. Heck, a baby can love.

    And I wasn’t really going all out. In posts I tend to at least somewhat order and structure my thoughts. In comments (here or elsewhere), you’re more likely to get something more like a free flow torrent of what comes to my mind.

  6. 6 E.K. said at 5:35 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    “But that’s for those of us who ask questions. It is certainly possible to love God, love Jesus, and follow him loving others even if you don’t understand very much at all. The key to our faith lies not in understanding God. (Of course, as Fr. Thomas Hopko says, “We can’t know God. But you have to know Him to know that.” Or something like to that effect.) It’s in loving God and loving other people. And anyone can do that, even if they don’t understand much at all. Heck, a baby can love.
    – here you summed up very well what I was mulling over. For loving God and loving our neighbor – the main gist of it all – sometimes those details and histories aren’t that big a deal – except to people like you and me. But if all those histories, details and traditions suddenly disappeared – I wonder if our faith might actually grow??

  7. 7 Scott said at 6:17 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    Before I start going off on my tangents, I wanted to thank you for the push back and questions in these comments. I don’t often get that sort of thing and it helps me a great deal when I do. I wanted you to know that I do really appreciate your comments.

    Also, before I move on, I never answered your request that I explore in writing my thoughts about the ways “symbols” have more power than is generally acknowledged today. That’s a really tall order. I might develop a series on that topic at some point, but to be frank it somewhat intimidates me.

    Now. Would it be better if the histories, details, and traditions disappeared?

    No. It wouldn’t. It would be a return at least to ancient Christian heresies and misunderstandings of God. (One could reasonably argue this has happened at places in the 30k+ denominations and non-denominations of Protestantism.) More likely it would mark a return to the darkness of the ancient pagan world, where we had no clear idea what God looked like or who God was.

    Within the context of Christianity, it is not important or necessary that every individual understand or grasp the details of who God is as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. For the individual, it is enough to love. But if the Church does not retain the knowledge of the full revelation of God in Christ, then that knowledge is lost.

    And we no longer know what God we worship.

  8. 8 E.K. said at 8:29 pm on January 18th, 2010:

    Scott,
    I rather regretted hastily typing that last question, but I hit Post Comment too quickly…and there it went. But I thought, Oh well he’ll have something interesting to say. 🙂
    Of course, I agree with your answer – we’d all be back at ‘square one’ without them. I really wasn’t trying to push back, but just enjoying meaningful dialogue.

  9. 9 Sermon Ideas said at 12:44 am on January 19th, 2010:

    Searching For: For the Life of the World 19: The key to our faith lies not in understanding God. (Of course, as Fr… http://bit.ly/5LBdQ9