It is Holy Week. Lent is over. Any self-deception I still harbor about self-improvement through asceticism and renunciation is over. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”. Jeremiah 8.20.
Today in my church a young family brought their children for baptism, and the parents were chrismated into the Church. It was a joyous occasion. They brought a lot of family and friends with them, most of whom had never entered an Orthodox church before. The effort expended resembled a small military campaign. The family’s oldest child was old enough to require the “moonshiners’ baptistry”, so the lesser clergy had to trundle it out from the storage shed, rinse it out, and set it up in the center of the sanctuary. Then it needed to be filled with water, and not cold water either. The Orthodox Church does not make provision for the flesh, but it is also not needlessly cruel to small children. A warming coil was found, and the water was tepid when the time came for the baptisms.
The children being baptized were an active lot, even more so than most small children. My wife and I had babysat these particular children before, so we were expecting a spectacle. We were not disappointed. The difficulty was getting all the children in the same spot. They were excited about the number of aunts, uncles, and cousins in attendance, so one or another of them would slip away while Father was herding the others towards the font. By the time the prodigal was corralled and brought into the fold, another would have escaped. This continued until it was no longer cute, then the relatives intervened and the service was allowed to continue.
The baptismal service in the Orthodox Church resembles a great deal the services for Great and Holy Theophany. I can see now why Orthodoxy is so much “all of one piece”, so that you can’t change one part without doing damage to the whole tapestry, and also why you need to pay attention to what is going on in the services. Orthodoxy is not an ideology extracted from a text, it is wet, or sweet like incense, or sharp,like the pain in your knees after too many prostrations, and it takes time to make the connections.
One by one, the children were guided up the stairs by Father. The look on the oldest child’s face was priceless. She was old enough (about six) to realize that something very important was happening. Of course, the children all enjoyed being the center of attention, but the eldest, a girl, was perceptive enough to realize it wasn’t all about her. Her eyes darted back and forth between the icon of Christ and the water, and maybe I am reading something into a six year old girl’s actions, but it appeared to me as if she understood the connection.
The third child, also a girl, was the wiggliest and complained the loudest. I don’t think she was quite three. Father dunked her three times in rapid succession, and she let out a yowl that rattled the rafters. The last child was much easier. God has had mercy on these particular parents, and has blessed them with a relatively tranquil child after the other three little dynamos. Then came the chrismations, the presenting of crosses and icons, and the procession of the boys behind the iconostasis for their churching.
I tried not to think of the countless people for whom that would be an offense and an outrage, that the boys should be paraded behind the iconostasis and their sisters excluded.
After the baptism service came the Divine Liturgy for Lazarus Saturday. On the day before Palm Sunday, the Orthdox Church celebrates the raising of Lazarus from the dead. As Father explained it, it is first of all a glimmer of hope to start us on a very difficult road; the road past the Cross to the Tomb during Holy Week. Lazarus was a particular man. He had a family; two sisters who loved him deeply and mourned him bitterly. His resurrection is an earnest of our own, even though he had to die again eventually.
I didn’t know that he became a bishop in Cyprus later.