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The Authority of the Church // Associating the Divine Eucharist to the Church // Is infant baptism permissible? // Rebirth “by water and Spirit”

Experiencing the Sacrament/Mystery of the Church through

Baptism and the Eucharist 

Metropolitan of Pergamus, fr. John Zizioulas

 An excerpt from the exceptional book “Eucharistic Exemplarium”. Megara 2006. “Evergetis” Publications. Pages 64-73.

The Orthodox Church has frequently been condemned by various Protestant groups: because we baptize infants; because Orthodox churches are adorned too luxuriously; because it tolerates sinners; because we address our priests as “father”, and because we link the Sacrament of Baptism to Rebirth. But, as we shall see in the article below, THEY HAVE WRONGLY CONDEMNED US!   If only they had comprehended - even at an elementary level - the Christian faith, the way it was preserved by the Orthodox Church – clean and intact – they would then realize just how far they have drifted away from it, by pursuing the novel teachings of the 16th century. The excerpt below is quite characteristic, inasmuch as it helps one to understand just how much the Westerners’ worship and faith was affected, by forsaking the Orthodox Tradition.


Experiencing the Sacrament of the Church through Baptism

When we say that the Church is a mode of existence, what exactly do we mean?  What does this mode of existence consist of?

The first thing I would like to point out is that the Church is a Mother, which means it gives birth to offspring; therefore,  every time someone becomes a member of the Church through Holy Baptism, what happens is that we have before us a new birth, a new identity, a new hypostasis.  There are many things that one can say about Holy Baptism, yet there are certain things that are not usually mentioned, even though they are the most essential.  Baptism entails a death and a birth; the death of the “old person” and the birth of a new one. One might ask: What do you mean by “the old person”?  Is it merely a moral issue, in other words, the changing and improving of a person?  And if that person’s behaviour does change, has that person become a “new person”?  Has he beenreborn”?   More often than not, that is where we stop, thus confirming the things that I mentioned at the start regarding the Protestant influence on our perception of “experiencing”.

The issue of the death of the old person, however, is not a moral one; it is an ontological one, because the problem with our biological birth is not that it causes us to carry sin within our existence (in the words of the Psalmist:  “...and in sin my mother conceived me...” Psalm 51); it is not simply because we carry inside us what is called the original sin; it is only because all of these things translate into the fact that we are bearers of a mortal existence; we are born as mortal beings.  Thus, the life, consequently, that originates from a biological birth – from those very laws of nature and biology - will inevitably lead to death.  Therefore, the new person, the one who will be reborn, must be the one who will live eternally; who will not only possess the mortal existence that our biological birth gave us.  Through Baptism, the Church becomes a Mother that gives birth to immortal offspring, as opposed to the biological mother that gives birth to mortal offspring.

In this way, one could say that we have, during Baptism, a first experiencing of the Church. If we were to ask ourselves when we experienced the Mystery/Sacrament of the Church for the first time, the reply would be: with our Baptism.  That is when we break our ties with death, and acquire a life that is not bound to the laws of biology, the laws of death.  That is why, through Baptism, we have a radical about-face of the person, which we should not interpret in a simple, moralistic way, that is to say, as a change in behavior, since, regardless how much someone might try to change behavior, he will remain mortal.  Besides, this is why one can find persons outside the Church who albeit have mastered virtue and a change ion behavior, have not however managed to rid themselves of the bondage of death.  The about-face, therefore, which takes place during Baptism, which the candidate symbolically enacts during the moment of the exorcisms when he is turned around, from facing the West to facing the East, is the turning away from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light and life.  Thus Baptism similarly signifies a liberating from everything in the past that held the person in bondage. And even if that person is an infant and does not have any problems of moral behavior, as does an adult, Baptism constitutes a new birth for the infant as well, because it too possesses the mortality which we mentioned earlier.  If again the person is an adult, the sins of his past are all erased, thus realizing a radical about-face towards a new identity, which is no longer dependent on what that person was in the past, but only what God wants us to be, eternally.  Thus, through Baptism, we experience this about-face, this conversion from what we used to be, to that which we will be in the future.

But Baptism includes another element.  It is not only the death of the past -which is thenceforth abolished- but also the Resurrection into a new life, which new life however is expressed (and this is a very important point which is very often overlooked) with our incorporation into the Body of the Church.  There can be no Baptism, which does not automatically entail incorporation into the Body of the Church.  When the Apostle Paul wrote that with Baptism, we die together with Christ and we are resurrected so that we might be incorporated into Christ’s Body – which is in practice translated as our incorporation into the Community of the Church – it means that the associations that now govern our existence are no longer biological ones, the ones we acquired during our first birth, but are now Ecclesiological associations – the ones that are given to us by the Church.  Characteristically, let us remember the words that are repeatedly mentioned in the holy Gospels as an exhortation by the Lord, that your father is no longer the father of your family; it is the One “who is in the heavens”, and also «Ye shall call no-one on earth your father, for one is thy Father, the one in the heavens» (Matthew 23:9).  All of these sprang from the Baptismal experience, the experience of henceforth belonging within a new framework of relations, which is not the biological one.  It is from there, that the faithful now acquires his hypostasis, his personal identity.

Let us insert a parenthesis here, of a liturgical nature.  For us Orthodox, it is of vital importance to insist that Baptism, the Chrism and the Divine Eucharist constitute a unified and inseparable liturgical unity, whereas in the West (for both Roman Catholics and Protestants), these three Sacraments have been liturgically separated, and there is an intervening time between the Baptism, the Chrism and the Divine Eucharist, on various experiential pretexts, in the personal sense of experience (i.e., the child has to grow up so that it can fully comprehend matters, and then proceed to the Sacrament).  For us, this kind of criteria does not apply.  On the contrary, our criterion is that we undergo an ontological change; that a person must enter a new relationship with the world.  One cannot be baptized and yet distance himself from experiencing the Community of the Church; this is why Baptism simultaneously signifies a placement within the Community of the Church and participation in the Divine Eucharist.  The fact that nowadays Baptisms take place apart from the Divine Eucharist, or, the Divine Eucharist is given to a newly-baptized person individually and outside the Community, is observed only in an emergency situation, which at least preserves the unity of the Three Sacraments.  At any rate, the proper way is to perform Baptism during the Divine Eucharist, so that the Community can receive its new member immediately, and it is in fact received, as a member of the Church.


Experiencing the Sacrament of the Church through the Eucharist

Apart from the Baptism, according to what we have said so far, the Church is experienced as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God; in other words, as the kinds of relations that provide life, not death, because –we must not forget- death is ingrained in the biological birth of man.  On the contrary, ingrained in the new birth of man through Baptism is life, and this is provided by the Divine Eucharist; because it is not possible for the one who experiences the Church as a Baptismal reality to not experience it immediately as a Eucharist reality also.  What is important with regard to the Eucharist experience of the Church is that man now enters into a relationship with others and the world in general, with Christ at its center.  The Church has, at Her center, the Body of Him Who overcame death, and this victory over death that the risen Christ possesses is the same victory from whence life springs, for all members of the Church.  This Christ-centeredness of the Divine Eucharist is what makes it differ from every other experience that the faithful (or people in general) may have.  There is nothing so Christ-centered, as the Divine Eucharist. There is no other experience that the faithful can have, which is so directly associated to the corporeal presence of the risen Christ.

The other important element in the experience of the Divine Eucharist is that it makes the association of man with God an association that passes through the others. One can easily create a relationship with God, in which one’s neighbor is set aside. This is a dangerous situation, which can easily occur outside the Eucharist experience.  However, even within the Eucharist experience, one quite often can observe the infiltration of a pietistic individualism, where one can see a member of the faithful going to the Divine Liturgy and isolating itself from the rest of the Church Body, on the pretext of praying better alone – which is something they could have done far better, at home.  We do not go to the Divine Liturgy to pray as individuals; we go to pray along with the others, as a Community.  We must therefore be constantly aware that the one seated next to us is also a member of the same Body, and that it is through our relationship with our neighbor that we communicate with God.

However, the Eucharist experience has yet another characteristic:  it is an experience of hierarchy. It is reflected in the existence of various functions, each of which is a pre-designation of End Times events, of the Kingdom of God, in a manner that differs and cannot be repeated by another function.  This variety of functions differentiates the functions within the Church and everything is performed in the way that the Apostle Paul perceived, as seen in his 1st Epistle to Corinthians, in chapter 12, (which is a very significant ecclesiological chapter), where he analyzes the meaning of “the Body of the Church”.   He says there that the body is comprised of the head, the arms, the legs, each of which has a specific function, that no other member can perform.  That is why it is imperative that all members of the body acknowledge the others’ significance, as well as the particularity that each member has.

Man, therefore, experiences the End of Time, the Kingdom of God, during the Divine Eucharist, where, by having this image of End Times that is enacted by the Divine Liturgy – and especially by the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, which, more than any other Eucharist liturgy portrays the future situation, the Kingdom of God – that is when he experiences the Kingdom of God within the Divine Liturgy, like a revelation of the future status of things.

This is why we Orthodox experience the Church in ways that often scandalize the heterodox.  For example, our Church and our Divine Eucharist have an exceptional splendor:  there is an excess of light, there are spectacular vestments, wonderful chanting, beautiful icons, rich colours... All of these aspire to one purpose: to portray the Kingdom of God for us, and to inspire us to pray.  It is therefore a gross mistake when, for various reasons (quite often because of a warped humility and supposed simplicity) we simplify all these things, thus depriving the Divine Liturgy of the splendor that the Church attributed to the Divine Eucharist through the ages.  Thus, by experiencing the Divine Eucharist as a Christ-centered Congregation and a portrayal of the Kingdom of God, or, in other words, the congregating of everyone around the Person of Christ, the Orthodox faithful acquires a special appreciation, respect and reverence towards the officiators of the Church, towards those who are portraying the End Times, and moreso, towards those who portray the Person of Christ, i.e. the Bishop, who is the par excellence Head of the Eucharist Congregation.  I believe that this tradition of our people, of bestowing special respect to the officiators of the Church, especially to the Bishop, the Priests and of course the Deacons, is an essential part of what we call “experiencing the sacrament of the Church”, and it is something that should be taught to the children and to all the members of the Church, as an essential element of our faith.


In closing, I would like to mention in summary and in conclusion certain specific ways in which we Orthodox experience the Mystery/Sacrament of the Church:

1)  From what we said, it has become apparent that the Church is experienced by means of the Sacraments par excellence, and chiefly through Baptism and the Divine Eucharist. The other Sacraments constitute extensions of the Divine Eucharist, and ritualistically, ever since the ancient Church, they were united with the Divine Eucharist.

2)  The Church is experienced as the place of catharsis from our passions, which have their roots in the egoism and the delusion that the true life is the biological life, along with whatever that entails. All passions have the same characteristics. Thus, it is inside the Church that man is cured of his passions; he is cured in a positive way, and not merely by ridding himself of those passions, but by substituting them with loving experiences, or, as Saint Maximus the Confessor called it “a loving relationship”.  And the Church is, after all, a mode of existence, precisely because it is the Sacrament of Love – the Sacrament in which we experience in a positive manner our freedom from passions.

3) The experiencing of the Mystery/Sacrament of the Church, albeit taking place within the Sacraments, also extends itself beyond the Sacraments, into the life of the faithful beyond the Sacraments, in his relations with others, in his relations with the material world.   In view of the fact that the Sacramentsas we mentioned above- are a portrayal of the Kingdom of God, we transfer this portrayal and make it a permanent criterion in our lives; every action, every decision, every act in our lives is now compared against this portrayal of the future status, of the Kingdom of God, thus creating –one could say- a consciousness of our inadequacy to relate this portrayal that the Sacraments offer, to the reality of our everyday life.  It is this realization of the conflict between what we are offered by the Sacraments and what we are in our everyday life that generates the experience of repentance; and it is precisely this repentance that keeps us always in the correct relationship with the Church, because the Church is comprised of sinners, of unrepentant souls, however difficult it might be for one to comprehend this.  Thus, this conflict leads us to true repentance and humiliation, and in this way, the Sacrament of the Church is experienced as the Sacrament of Repentance, of sincere repentance.  Because, we are aware that everyone, without exception, some more and some less, have failed to relate the portrayal and the experience of the Sacraments to our everyday life and subsequently, we do not judge others, we do not condemn them, instead, we repent, and we love with humility.  We should look upon these things, not as commandments (although they definitely are), but mainly as the consequences of the experience that we draw from the Sacraments of the Church.  The Sacraments of the Church reveal the eschatological, the ideal, thus providing the criterion by which we should judge our daily life.  In this way, the Church is experienced at every moment as a liberation from falsity, fraud, self-deception, egoism, individualism and finally, corruption and death. And this presupposes the faithful to struggle perpetually, to be perpetually alert.

These are a few thoughts regarding the way in which the Mystery/Sacrament of the Church is experienced. This experiencing of the Mystery of the Church is of course a vast topic, and, just like any other topic of this kind, it requires an analogous empirical status in order for one to comprehend it correctly.  But I believe that the experience that we should always rely on, when teaching every faithful member of the Church, is the one that all the faithful are familiar with, from their experience of the sacraments.  I am not saying that we all more or less know what we are speaking of, when we speak of these things;  As Saint Nicholas Kavasilas writes, “the Church is defined by the Sacraments” (Nicholas Kavasilas, “Interpretation on the Divine Liturgy”, chapter 38:6)

Consequently, the Sacraments are the best means by which the Mystery of the Church can be experienced, not only during the actual performance of the rituals, but also beyond, in our daily lives.


Translation by A.N.

Greek text

Article published in English on: 18-10-2006.

Last update: 18-10-2006.