A hymn to the Theotokos

From thy virgin womb the Light that was before the sun, even God who has shone forth upon us, took flesh ineffably, coming to dwell among us in the body. Thee, then, O Blessed and all-holy Theotokos, do we magnify (The Irmos of the ninth Ode in the Matins Canon for the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist, trans. from “The Festal Menaion”, p. 401)


Since, this month we are celebrating the Baptism of our Lord which we usually call Theophany or revelation of God, it seems to me that speak about the Sacrament of Baptism is quite appropriate. I do not want to say much myself but to turn immediately to a pair of eleventh century saints whose writings are recorded in the Philokalia: Sts. Callistus and Ignatius. What do they teach us about the Sacrament (or Mystery) of Baptism? In the fifth chapter of their writings which is entitled, “The glory of the grace of Holy Baptism, what dims and what restores it”, they tell us:

What this grace is and how we acquire it, what dims and what purifies it, will be explained to you better than all gold by St. John Chrysostom, shining in word and soul who says (All quotes of St. John Chrysostom are as found in the writings of Sts. Callistus and Ignatius): “‘But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image’ (IICor. 3:18). This was more clear for the believers in the times of the Apostles when miraculous gifts occurred. Still, it is not hard, even now, for a man who has the eyes of faith to understand it. When we are being baptized, our soul, purified by the Spirit, becomes brighter than the sun; not only then are we able to look at the glory of God, but we ourselves take on something of its radiance. As polished silver, illumined by the rays of the sun, so a soul purified by the Divine Spirit, becomes more brighter than silver; it both receives a ray of the Divine glory, and from itself reflects the ray of this same glory. Therefore the Apostle says: ‘But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory’, that is, from the glory of the Spirit to our own glory, which fills us and which should be ‘even as by the Spirit of the Lord'” (IICor. 3:18).

As examples of such grace manifest in believers Chrysostom tells us:

Think of Paul, whose very garments had a miraculous effect. Remember Peter, whose very shadow manifested miraculous power.

Continuing he says,

Do you wish to see how their inner light penetrates even through their bodies? “And looking steadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).

Then, a little later, he mourns the infirm condition of the faithful:

But alas! We ought to groan bitterly; for, though granted such noble rank, we do not even understand what is said about it, because we quickly lose it and incline to the sensory. This ineffable and terrible glory remains in us one or two days, after which we extinguish it, bringing in the storm of worldly affairs and their thick clouds as repulse its rays. [These quotes are from, “Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart”, pp. 166-7]

Sts. Callistus and Ignatius go on to comment:

Do you see how much it lies in our power to increase or to diminish this supernatural grace, that is, to show it forth or to obscure it? What obscures it is the storm of worldly cares, and the ensuing darkness of passions which attack us like a whirlwind, or a wild torrent and, flooding our soul, give it neither rest nor possibility to look at the truly good and blessed things for which it was created. Instead it is mauled and tortured by the waves and smoke of sensory lusts, it is plunged into darkness and dissoluteness. Conversely, grace is manifest by that which is reflected from the Divine commandments, in the souls of those who walk not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. [Ibid. p. 167-8]

Continuing on this topic in the next chapter the saints write:

In the Divine womb, that is, in the Holy Font, we freely receive perfect Divine grace. If after this we cover it over with the fog of passions, either through abuse of temporal things, or through excess of cares for worldly activities, it is possible, even after this, to regain possession of it, to restore its supernatural brightness and to see quite vividly its manifestation, by repentance and the fulfillment of commandments whose action is Divine. Grace manifests in proportion to each man’s zeal in remaining faithful to faith, but above all through the help and benevolence of our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Mark [the Ascetic] says: “Christ as perfect God, gave to those baptized the perfect grace of the Holy Spirit, which receives no increase from us, but merely reveals itself and manifests in us in accordance with our keeping the commandments, and gives us increase in faith ’till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13).” Therefore, whatever we may bring after our regeneration in Him, must previously have been concealed in us by Him and of Him. [Ibid. p. 168]

In order to further illustrate how one rekindles this grace of Baptism I would like to refer to a conversation I had with a highly educated Athonite monk, Fr. Luke of Philotheou. Fr. Luke was a university professor before becoming a monk. This conversation took place in the early 1990’s, at that time many Charismatics claimed to be experiencing what they called a “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.” They would sometimes refer to St. Symeon the New Theologian who wrote of a second Baptism in the life of a Christian. However, they do take St. Symeon out of context, for this saint speaks of a Baptism of repentance or a Baptism of tears which is a long process of purification. Just as Bishop Basil Krivocheine once commented in a talk: “For the charismatics Baptism in the Holy Spirit is in the beginning, but for St. Symeon it is something in the end.” Bishop Basil authored a book on St. Symeon the New Theologian called, In the Light of Christ. So here are the notes of my conversation with Fr. Luke:

We spoke about the grace received in original Baptism and what some of the Fathers say about the grace of a second Baptism of repentance—a Baptism of tears. In summary concerning this he said:

We are like a glass that we must clean once again. We have the grace of Baptism but we are like a dirty vessel which has to be cleansed. When the process of cleansing takes place, then it is as though one has had a second Baptism. So what we call the “second” is greater than the first only in conscious awareness. The second is greater than the first because the second is done through a synergy of God and man. A synergy of God’s grace and man’s repentance, of man’s finally overcoming sin and becoming to a certain degree immune to the sickness of sin and then he receives this second Baptism. The second Baptism is not something different from the first but it is the complete manifestation of the first, that is, in manifestation of the grace itself acting in a person it is greater. It is in essence the same as the first, it is the uncovering of the first, but we say that it is greater because in it the manifestation of the grace in us becomes greater since we have struggled and become even more pure ourselves. We are able to receive the conscious awareness of the grace because of our repentance and struggling against sin and lulling the passions. Whereas in the beginning we were not able to receive the full impact and have this grace fully consciously active within us because of our state of separation from God.

A question to ponder: Can the experience of the Charismatics and Pentecostals or the “born again” Christians be compared to the “Second Baptism” spoken of by Fr. Luke?