That We Who Had Fallen Might be Raised Up

From Sermon on the Baptism of Christ (381)

I for my part rejoice because of you who are initiated, because you are enriched with a great gift.  And I also rejoice over you who are not yet initiated, because you have a fair expectation of hope — remission, release from bondage, close relation to God, free boldness in speech, and instead of slave-like subjection, you will have equality with the angels. The grace of baptism provides these things to us and secures us….

Christ, then, whose birth we celebrated only a few days ago — he was begotten before all things. Today Christ is baptized by John the Baptist so that he might cleanse him who was defiled, that Christ might bring the Spirit from above, and exalt human nature, that we who had fallen might be raised up… Christ, the repairer of Satan’s evildoing, assumed human nature in its fullness and saves us…

Baptism, then, is a purification from sins, a remission of trespasses, a cause of renovation and regeneration. And this regeneration is not by bodily sight. Let us not misunderstand as Nicodemus did, that we will change old men into children, nor shall we form anew him who is wrinkled and gray-headed to tenderness and youth. And yet we do bring back, by royal grace, him who bears the scars of sin, and has grown old in evil habits, to the innocence of the babe. For as the child new-born is free from accusations and from penalties, so too the child of regeneration has nothing for which to answer, being released by royal bounty from accountability.

And this gift it is not the water that bestows (for in that case it would be a thing more exalted than all creation), but the command of God, and the visitation of the Holy Spirit that comes sacramentally to set us free. But water serves to express the cleansing. For since we wash in water to clean our bodies when they are soiled by dirt or mud, we therefore apply water also in the sacramental action, and display the spiritual brightness by that which is subject to our senses.

Let us think more about Baptism, starting with the words of scripture, “Unless a person is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Why are both water and the Holy Spirit named, and why is not the Holy Spirit alone accounted enough for the completion of Baptism?  A human being is compound, not simple. And therefore the corresponding medicines are assigned for healing us… There is water, the sensible element for the body; and for the soul, which we cannot see, the Spirit which is also invisible.  The Holy Spirit is invoked by faith and is present unspeakably. For the Spirit breathes where he wills, and you hear his voice, but cannot discern from where he comes or to where he goes. The Holy Spirit blesses the body who is baptized, and the water that baptizes.

Do not despise, therefore, the Divine bath, nor think lightly of it, as a common thing, on account of the use of water. For the power that operates is mighty, and wonderful are the things that are wrought thereby.

Consider this altar, too, by which I stand.  It is stone, ordinary in its nature, and in way different from the slabs of stone that build our houses and adorn our pavements.  But seeing that this altar was consecrated to the service of God, and received the benediction, it is a holy table, an altar undefiled, no longer touched by the hands of all, but by the priests alone, and even when the priests touch it, it is with reverence. Consider the bread too. It is at first common bread, but when the sacramental action consecrates it, it is called and becomes the Body of Christ. Consider the sacramental oil too, and the wine. Before the benediction they are of little value. And yet each of them, after the sanctification bestowed by the Holy Spirit, has its several purposes. The same power of the word, again, also makes the priest venerable and reverend, set apart, by the new blessing bestowed upon him… Yesterday he was one of the masses; now he is suddenly rendered a guide, a presider, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries… And so there are many things, which if you consider, you will see that their appearance is mundane, but the things they accomplish are mighty….

And we in receiving Baptism, in imitation of our Lord and Teacher and Guide, are not indeed buried in the earth — for that is what one does with a body that is entirely dead, covering the infirmity and decay of our nature), but instead coming to the element akin to earth, to water, we conceal ourselves in that as the Savior did in the earth. And by doing this three times we represent for ourselves that grace of the Resurrection which was wrought in three days.

And this we do, not receiving the sacrament of Baptism in silence, but spoken over us are the names of the Three Sacred Persons on whom we believe, in whom we also hope, from whom comes to us both the fact of our present and the fact of our future life… Why in the name of the Father?  Because God the Father is the primal cause of all things.  Why in the name of the Son? Because God the Son is the maker of the creation.  Why in the name of the Holy Spirit?  Because God the Holy Spirit is the power perfecting all.  We bow ourselves therefore before the Father so that we may be sanctified.  We bow ourselves before the Son so that the same end may be fulfilled.  And we bow also before the Holy Spirit so that we may be made what he is in fact and in name.  There is not a distinction in the sanctification, in the sense that the Father sanctifies more, the Son less, or the Holy Spirit in a less degree than the other two.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395) is one of the great theologians of the Eastern Church, often grouped with his brother Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus as the Cappadocian Fathers. They are praised for their careful defense of Nicene Orthodoxy and integration of Christian doctrine and Platonism. Gregory served as Bishop of Nyssa, a small town in present-day Turkey, and was an especially gifted writer on the spiritual life and contemplation. His traditional feast day is on January 10, though he is commemorated together with other saints on the liturgical calendars of some churches.

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