Byzantine babies

We went to a Greek Orthodox christening at the weekend: interesting theologically as well as moving. Because most of the congregation were not Orthodox, they had a fair proportion of the service in English, so we could follow some of it. I was listening out during the Nicene Creed, for example, and spotted some of the great theological controversies. No ‘filoque’ clause, the Holy Spirit proceeds just from the Father, not the Son. (It says something about changing religious priorities that once churches split on the arcane details of the relations between the three persons of the Trinity. Nowadays in the Church of England it barely seems to matter what views you hold on God, the key is what you think about homosexuality).
The emphasis of the service was also very different from a modern Anglican one. The Anglican baptism service has become increasingly (and I think positively) about welcoming a child into the church family. This service was in a far older tradition in its stress on dedicating the child to God and protecting him from the forces of evil. There were a number of invocations against demons, devils and even dragons. (Some of the liturgy may have sounded better in Greek, like the bit about wanting the child to become a ‘rational sheep’. I could follow the thought, of reasoned obedience, but it does sound odd). There was even a bit where a piece of his hair was symbolically clipped and put in the font as a kind of micro-tonsure. Not my specific style or understanding of Christianity, but still saying something significant.
I felt the same strangeness and yet also possibly insight in the whole way the baby being baptised was treated. At first I was vaguely feeling it wasn’t quite right when he started crying and the priest just carried on, completely ignoring this. I think in an Anglican service there’d be a pause, while everyone tried to soothe the child. On the other hand, given how much the baby in an orthodox christening has to put up with (anointing, full immersion etc), maybe it’s more realistic just to treat his/her crying as a natural reaction, and not be embarrassed about it (which is often the real emotion in C of E services). On a historical note, I now also understand more the circumstances in which the eighth-century Byzantine emperor Constantine V acquired his ill-omened nickname of ‘Copronymus’ at his baptism. Since the child is stripped naked for the immersion, you do get the excruciatingly humiliating risk for all concerned of him doing a poo in the font. There are some practical advantages at least to the more token Anglican way of doing things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s