It was just Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Now, there are two reasons why we observed Easter as a church way back on March 27 and why our Orthodox brothers and sisters just got around to observing Easter last Sunday (May 1) –
The first factor, the calendar, has to do with the fact that the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha (Easter). The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. There is a thirteen-day difference between the two calendars, the Julian calendar being thirteen (13) days behind the Gregorian. The other factor at work is that the Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, that requires that Pascha must take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. The rest of Christianity ignores this requirement, which means that on occasion Western Easter takes place either before or during the Jewish Passover. http://usa.greekreporter.com
On the grounds of tradition (This is my SJ “Ignatian” spiritual inclinations coming out – see: Prayer and Temperament – Michael & Norrisey -The Open Door – 1991), I’m much more Eastern Church than I am Western Church on this, but not enough to make a big fuss about it. In fact, in recent years I have found that this calendar variation between when Eastern Christians and when Western Christians observe Holy Week has actually proven to be spiritually beneficial for me. You see, I’m a little busy during Holy Week when we observe it as a church. And so getting another chance to walk the way of the cross from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday each year when I’m not the one who is responsible for planning, preparing and presenting the worship services has been a real gift to me. By lurking at the edges of the Eastern Orthodox community of faith during their observances of the events of our salvation in Christ accomplished during their later Holy Week services, I have found that I have been able to worship myself.
This is what I was doing in a Greek Orthodox Church on a Good Friday afternoon. I was there to hear the Gospel story of Jesus Christ’s saving death read in its entirety in a harmonization of what Mathew, Mark, Luke and John told us, and to witness all of the ritual acts which embody it for those faithful Christians in that spiritual tradition. I followed along in my copy of the Holy Week Orthodox Service Book that I have, and watched with fascination as the icon of Christ on the cross was venerated and then eventually taken down. Nails were literally pulled from the wood and the image of Christ that hung there was reverently detached, shrouded and carried through the Sanctuary in a symbolic burial procession. It eventually wound up on a table in the front that was meant to be symbolic of the tomb, and then a curious thing happened.
Worshippers – the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the infirm – began to line up, and when they got to that table in the front that was symbolic of the tomb where the body of Christ had been reverently placed, they got down on their hands and knees and crawled beneath it! Now, I had not anticipated this, but watching it happen, it was clear to me what was going on.
By passing under that table these faithful people were personally identifying themselves with Christ’s death and burial in full anticipation of His resurrection. This was their symbolic way of entering into Christ’s death. I get this, in fact, this is why I was baptized myself by immersion when I was 17 years old after I had crossed the threshold of “owned” faith after having been baptized as an infant by my parents in their genuine act of “affiliative” faith. My parents brought me to church long before I was even capable of knowing what was happening to me and they had me ritually marked as already being the object of God’s affection and attention in Jesus Christ. It was a promise that they made then and there, a promise that they would raise me in the faith of the church so that I would one day have the opportunity to make it my own.
To that end they had my sisters and me in church every Sunday morning, and when I was 12, they had me confirmed. I didn’t resist, but this was still more about them and their hopes for me than it was about me and what I actually believed. But God was faithful in this gradual unfolding process as well, and the moment eventually came when what I had been so carefully taught was true through all those years of going to church became real for me. I crossed the threshold of personal faith nurtured by the community of faith. The promise of my baptism as an infant with all of its hope for my faithful future became the defining fact and experience of my life as an adolescent. I finally accepted Jesus Christ for myself as Lord and Savior. I gave the title of my life over to Him. I committed myself to trying to be who He wanted me to be and trying to do what He wanted me to do. And with that decision of faith made, I believed that a fundamental change occurred inside me. I had been born again. The person I had been died and the person God in Christ always intended me to be was brought to life, and the more I thought about this, and experienced this, the more what the New Testament said about baptism by immersion began to make sense to both my head and my heart.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
It was believing this, and experiencing this, that finally led me to be baptized by immersion during my senior year of High School. Now, I wasn’t immersed because I thought that I had to be in order to be truly saved. No, I was immersed because the New Testament said that it was a command, and because the New Testament said that it involved some really important promises. Years and years after my baptism by immersion I read the Radical Reformer Menno Simons’ observation about baptism being the least important thing that Christ commands us to do as our Lord. The commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7), in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:27-40) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are all so much more important than His command for us to be baptized. But because the command to be baptized comes first in the Christian life, at its very beginning, on its very threshold, our obedience to it establishes the proper disposition of our hearts to be obedient to all that Christ has commanded. If we are evasive and resistant about the very first thing that Jesus Christ asks us to do as Lord, what will we do when the things that Christ asks us to do start getting really serious (e.g. – “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” – Luke 9:23)?
And then there are the promises.
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
According to Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Christian Baptism has reference to both forgiveness – being saved from our sins; and the gift of the Holy Spirit – being saved to newness of life. Just as water cleanses and refreshes, so water baptism is a symbol of both purification and renewal. Water baptism points to the forgiveness of our sins as the “washing” or “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). But water Baptism also points to the Baptism of the Spirit that is often compared in Scripture to a well of life-giving water gushing up and flowing out from somewhere deep inside us (John 4:14; 7:38; Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-2).
My decision to be immersed in 1970 when I was 17 was not just a decision that was born of my strongly felt need to be personally obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but it was just as much a decision that was born of my deep need to be consciously rooted and continuously grounded in the promises of forgiveness and renewal in the Holy Spirit that are instrumentally attached to the act of Baptism in Acts 2:38.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said “there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism” and he proved this in his personal life and experience. Luther admitted that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he comforted himself by repeating, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” In so saying, “I’m baptized!” Luther affirmed, and rightly stated that he belonged to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this we learn that who you are, and whose you are, are important components of baptism. (http://pilgrimindy.org)
And this same desire is what I saw in the act of all those people who were passing under the table of Christ’s tomb on Good Friday afternoon. It was an act motivated by their profound awareness of just how much they desperately needed what it was that Christ had accomplished by dying on the cross and then by being raised from the dead. I need it too, and that’s why I am so glad that I can say, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” And if this is something you think you want, or need, then let’s talk. Water Baptism may be something that you really need to consider for your comfort and assurance. DBS +