All you who have been Baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!
The gathering of friends and family around the baptismal font are the happiest moments and most important ones in a Christian’s life. My newborn daughter was recently baptized, chrismated, (confirmed) and given her first communion. Serafina’s godfather flew to Wisconsin from California for the event and we also had some friends visit from Michigan. These friends along with the monks and regular community who worship at the monastery were present. The day was joy-filled and perfect.
As I held my sweet girl with my husband beside me, along with our compadre (literally means co-father), my eldest daughter (who stood in for Serafina’s godmother) and all my children and friends, I thought about how blessed Serafina is to be entering into the Body of Christ and in so doing, entering also into the life of the Holy Trinity. Baptism not only unites us to God but also to the Church—to one another. I was very aware that even though so many we hoped could be present but were unable to be, either due to distance or even death, were absolutely spiritually present and were represented by the small group of people gathered around to witness this birth of a new Christian.
Many are not aware that in the Eastern churches the sacraments of initiation are given all at once regardless of age. The order the sacraments are given to the faithful and also the age they are received has been in question in the Roman church lately. You can read about this here and here. The difference in practice between East and West can be read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church here.
I firmly believe that both East and West can look to one another for insight, and perspective. The example of the Eastern churches practice can help the Western church as she is looking for answers and making changes regarding the sacraments of initiation. Following are my thoughts and experience as an Eastern Catholic bringing children into the Church receiving Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist as newborns. I offer it in hopes that it can be a positive part of the conversation the Western church is having right now and to shed a little light on the Eastern tradition.
The reasons why we believe in infant baptism are the exact same reasons why Eastern Christians Confirm and give the Eucharist to infants too. If we really believe Confirmation strengthens the Holy Spirit and completes Baptism, and if the Eucharist is truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, then why would we withhold these gifts from our children? Why would we not want the Holy Spirit strengthened in them while they are young and can arm themselves with the gifts of the Holy Spirit? Why would we keep them from the wedding feast? Do we wait until our child understands what healthy food is, food their body needs, before giving them veggies? Just like at Baptism, it is the faith of the entire Church that ensures the faith of the child who receives Confirmation and the Eucharist during infancy.
At my Serafina’s baptism, Father Maximos made the point during his homily that the scripture reading that day affirmed the truth of our practice. The Gospel was Matthew 8:5-13 the story of the centurion pleading with Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. When Jesus offers to go and heal the servant the centurion tells him he is not worthy for Jesus to come under his roof and tells Jesus to only say the word and the servant will be healed. After Jesus shares his amazement at the faith of this man the gospel says, “Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour.” Father Maximos explained that the servant was healed not because of his own faith but the faith of the centurion and so also Serafina’s reception of the sacraments was given on the faith of her godparents, parents, and the entire community (a truth which is emphasized by making the profession of faith during the Rite of Baptism).
Of course we Eastern Christians are not finished once our children have received the sacraments. We must also bring them up in this faith and live it ourselves. Godparents are essential as is the entire community a child grows up in—they are vital to the Christian life.
My children will not need to go to CCD in order to receive any of their sacraments but that doesn’t mean they won’t be educated in their faith. The first place a child must learn what it means to be Christian is at home—in the domestic church. The idea that children must go to a classroom in order to learn what it means to live a Christian life has many flaws. The notion that children must earn the sacraments by fulfilling certain requirements is extremely flawed. CCD is good but it should only be an addition, an aid, to what is already being learned by living the faith at home and in one’s church community. The reason why CCD is not enough to keep our young people in Church and their faith alive is because it isn’t enough. We need strong Christian families and communities, close relationships, we need to struggle and grow together, fast and feast together, cry and rejoice together, and we must pray and worship together. In doing these things a child will learn by observing and being intimately a part of other Christians lives. The faith must be handed on not merely taught from a book.
We cannot compartmentalize our life into ‘spiritual versus non-spiritual,’ ‘religious versus secular’ anymore than we can compartmentalize the sacraments. When the sacraments are given separately we tend to only focus on the specific charisms of each. When all three sacraments of initiation are given at once, the emphasis is on the new Christian entering into the very life of the Holy Trinity and the life of the Church. We even show this in our ceremony; after Baptism and Chrismation, the newly illumined child is taken by the priest along with the parents and godparents around the baptismal font three times. This “dance” symbolizes the newly baptized and confirmed Christian entering into the life of the Holy Trinity—into the dance of salvation. The Roman rite also teaches that the unity of the three sacraments of initiation must be safeguarded, and the faithful taught that reception of all three is what fully initiates a person into the Christian life. The Eastern practice of giving all three sacraments together emphasizes this and shows this fact in a much more profound way.
Our oldest child is now eighteen and the first of nine children in all. We have seen the fruit of our children receiving all three sacraments of initiation together. Our children’s faith is very organic and whole. Their life in Christ is not something separate from the rest of their life. There is no need for them to have a ceremony where they publicly declare that they accept the faith they have been given. They make this decision every day they live their Christian lives. Their participation in the sacraments and prayers of the Church is their yes to the faith. They understand (when old enough) that they must take these treasures they have been given and build their own relationship with God and the Church as they more fully realize their place as members of the Body of Christ. It is the grace they have received all their lives from the sacraments which gives them the strength to live Christian lives.
Of course the sacraments are not magic. We must do our part, and we parents, godparents, and church community members are responsible for being examples and aiding our children to live holy lives. We are not lacking in the Church, we do not need fancy youth programs, we need to help the faithful understand the treasures we have already been given. We need to help one another mean what we say when we profess the creed and when we receive the Eucharist. The grace of the sacraments is available for all of us; we simply need to respond to it.
I believe if we want to stop seeing our youth leave the Church we need to help build the domestic church—let’s equip parents and children to live holy lives. Education and support for the parents so they can live the faith fully and truly make their homes little churches; and the sacraments of initiation for the children so they can have all the grace available to them at a younger age.