"Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 4:17) With these words, Jesus began his public ministry to the lost sheep of Israel. This is after he had been baptized by John and then after he went into the desert for 40 days where he was tempted by the devil. Perhaps it is no accident that he began his public ministry to the people after those events and with those words. The word "repent" in Greek (metanoia) means to turn around, to have a change of heart, to have a change of mind, a change of direction. In the early Church this action was expressed in the sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism man publicly expresses this turn around, this change of heart, this change of mind. He turns from sin, and turns to God. In Baptism one puts off the old Adam whose sin brought death into the world, and puts on the new Adam, Jesus Christ whose death conquered sin and death and brought resurrected life into the world. (Romans 6:3-11) The one to be baptized turns from Satan and joins oneself to Christ. In the Orthodox Baptism service this action begins when the candidate for baptism faces the west and renounces Satan three times, spits on him, then turns to the east and confesses that he unites himself to Christ three times, and then three times announces that he has united himself to Christ. Eventually one is immersed in water three times as the name of the Holy Trinity is invoked. The newly baptized is united to Christ, and thus is united to His Body the Church. Baptism is an initiation into life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the early Church and at least for the first three hundred years of Her life, Baptism was the sacrament of repentance and reconciliation. There was no sacrament of Confession as it is understood and practiced today in the Church. The idea of going to a priest to privately confess your sins and be reconciled to the Church did not come into practice until around the 5thcentury.
There are two other dimensions to Baptism in the early Church that need to be mentioned as well. First it seems as if the early church didn't tolerate someone returning to their old way of life after being baptized. This thought is echoed in the epistle to the Hebrews:
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:1-7)
It is hard to know how widespread the above thought was held throughout the entire early church. But it was the case until the mid- third century, that if someone committed such sins as murder, adultery, or publicly renounced Christ after being baptized, they permanently excommunicated (separated) themselves from the Church. There was no sacrament of Confession that existed where people could be restored to Communion and be reconciled to the Church. Does this reflect how seriously Baptism was taken in the early Church? Baptism is not just something one does because it identifies you with your ethnic culture. In Baptism the candidate participates in the Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and experiences his own Pascha; his own passage from death to life. By doing so this also joins one to Christ's Body, the Church and one is joined to a new family of brothers and sisters. This thought is beautifully expressed in the epistle to the Galatians: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28)". The homeland of this new family is the "New Jerusalem", the Heavenly City (Revelation 21:1-4). Our Lord told Pilate prior to His crucifixion "My Kingdom is not of this world." Our Baptism into the Body of Christ is a witness in time to a timeless heavenly reality! To see and understand Baptism as something other than this reflects a wrong understanding of Baptism.
The other dimension to Baptism in the early Church was the period of instruction that preceded Baptism and the Holy Eucharist's connection to Baptism as being the fulfillment of it. It was customary in the early Church that before someone was baptized, the candidate went through a period of instruction that lasted anywhere from one to three years. This instruction consisted of how to live a good moral life, a review of the scriptural witness to the coming of the Messiah (The Old Testament Readings that we read during Great Lent from Genesis, Proverbs, Isaiah and the Prophets were the very readings used to instruct candidates who were seeking Baptism). Finally the candidate learned the rule of Faith the Church had received through Holy Tradition (both written and oral) concerning the Good News that Jesus preached, His life, His ministry, and His teachings, and what the Church believed concerning the person of Jesus Christ. "Who do you say that I am?"(Matthew 16:15) Even the Nicene Creed we recite during the liturgy was initially a baptismal creed that candidates learned and confessed prior to being baptized. If one could not say "Amen" to the Nicene Creed, they could not be baptized. The Creed was not recited as part of the regular Divine Liturgy until the mid 6th century. Once the above learning process was completed, and the candidate(s) was(were) ready for Baptism, it was customary to do the baptisms in the Church on Holy Saturday with all assembled in prayerful vigil awaiting the Good News of our Lord's Resurrection. The newly baptized candidates would join the assembly and immediately participate in the Holy Eucharist. I mention this because some of us have grown up in the Orthodox Church experiencing Baptism as something that was separated from the Divine Liturgy; something that became a private service where only immediate family and relatives were invited. This is still the common practice in many Orthodox Churches. There are differences of opinion about how this issue is to be understood. Needless to say I do believe the proper way to do Baptism in the Church is for us be faithful, when we can, to this early practice of the Church as it expresses a fuller meaning and understanding of Baptism. This fuller meaning is diluted when we separate Baptism from the context of it being part of the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Eucharist.
Before I go on to talk about the sacrament of Confession, I cannot stress how important it is to understand what I have just said. I don't think one can properly understand Confession without understanding the mystery of Baptism. If we aren't firmly anchored in the understanding of what in means to be "baptized into Christ" the rest of what I am going say regarding Confession will not make any sense. Next month, I will discuss how the sacrament of Confession developed in the Church and how it evolved to the way it is practiced today. Take care, Fr. Paul