The Final Destruction of Demons – Holy Baptism

“Final” is not a word you often hear in Christian teaching. Most Christians leave the final things until, well, the End. But this is not the language of the fathers nor of the Church. A good illustration can be found in the Orthodox service of Holy Baptism. During the blessing of the waters the priest prays:

And grant to [this water] the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities; the final destruction of demons, unassailable by hostile powers, filled with angelic might. Let those who would ensnare Your creature flee far from it. For we have called upon Your Name, O Lord, and it is wonderful, and glorious, and awesome even to adversaries.

What can it possibly mean to ask that the waters be made “the final destruction of demons”?

The nature of the waters of Baptism reveals the Orthodox understanding of the world. These waters, now in a font, are none other than the waters of the Jordan. They are an incorruptible fountain and all the things we ask for. They are the final destruction of demons because they are nothing other than Christ’s Pascha. The waters of the font are Christ’s death on the Cross and His destruction of Hades. They are the resurrection of the dead.

For this reason St. Paul can say:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).

The realism of St. Paul’s teaching on Baptism is mystical realism (to coin a phrase). These waters become those waters. This event becomes that event. This time is now that time. Christ’s death now becomes my death. Christ’s resurrection now becomes my resurrection.

How utterly and uselessly weak is the thought that Baptism is merely an obedience to a command given by Christ! The idea that nothing happens in Baptism is both contrary to Scripture and a denial of the very nature of our salvation.

The anti-sacramentalism (and non-sacramentalism) of some Christian groups is among the most unwittingly pernicious of all modern errors. Thought to be an argument about a minor point of doctrine, it is, instead, the collapse of the world into the empty literalism of secularity. In the literalism of the modern world (where a thing is a thing is a thing), nothing is ever more than what is seen. Thus every spiritual reality, every mystery, must be referred elsewhere – generally to the mind of God and the believer. Christianity becomes an ideology and a fantasy. It turns religious believing into a two-storey universe.

The reality of in the Incarnate God was not obvious to those around Him: no surgery would have revealed His Godhood. The proclamation of the Gospel, from its most primitive beginnings (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), announces the in-breaking of a mystical reality. Many modern theologians misunderstand Christ’s (and St. John the Baptist’s) preaching on the Kingdom to refer to an imminent end of the age. They hear, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to mean, “the End of the world is near.” Thus we have protestant theologians creating an “interim ethic” to cover Christian activity in the “in-between” period – between Christ’s first coming and His second. If the coming of the incarnate God into the world did not fundamentally alter something, then the preaching of Jesus was in vain and radically misunderstood by His disciples.

The Gospels presume and proclaim at every turn that in Christ, the Kingdom of God is present. Christ says, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk 11:20). There is a mystery at work in the presence of the Kingdom. Christ makes statements such as that just quoted, but also frequently says that the Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom is a reality and a presence that has both come near us, and come upon us. But in neither case does it simply refer to a later “someday.” The urgency of the proclamation of the Kingdom is not caused by the soon approach of an expected apocalypse. Its preaching is urgent because its coming has already begun!

The sacraments of the Church (indeed the Church itself) should never be reduced to “holy moments” or “instances of miracles” in the life of an otherwise spiritually inert world. If bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then the Kingdom of God has come upon us! And nothing less.

The sacramental life of the Church is not an aspect of the Church’s life – it is a manifestation of the whole life of the Church. It is, indeed, the very character and nature of the Church’s life. The Church does not have sacraments – the Church is a sacrament. We do not eat sacraments or just participate in the sacraments – we are sacraments. The sacraments reveal the true character of our life in Christ. This is why St. Paul can say:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me, etc. (Galatians 2:20)

I am…nevertheless I…yet not I…but Christ….  This is the language of the mystical reality birthed into the world in the Incarnation of Christ. Thus we can say: This is the Body of Christ…nevertheless you see bread…but it is not bread…but Christ’s Body sacrificed for you. This is the Hades of Christ’s death and the Paradise of His resurrection…nevertheless it is the water of Baptism…but it is not water…but Christ’s death and resurrection into which you are baptized.

And so we see the whole world – for the “whole world is sacrament” – in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew. We struggle with language to find a way to say “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is.” This is always the difficulty in expressing the mystery. It is difficult, not because it is less than real, but because of the character and nature of its reality. Modern Christian thought and language that simply dismiss the mystery and postpone its coming, or  deny the character of its reality, change the most essential elements of the Christian faith and inadvertently create a new religion.

But we have been taught something different. We have been given the Final Destruction of Demons, the Mystical Supper, the Kingdom of God. Why should we look for something less?

 

36 comments:

  1. Excellent article. And to think that to some the Gospel means demons are to continue to torment souls, perpetually without end into infinity! Modernity has changed it all, even the meaning of “final”.

  2. I look forward to baptisms on Monday morning, Theophany, and time to reflect in my own baptism while rejoicing in those entering the church! Thank you for these words to today that help me prepare.

  3. Fr Stephen,
    Your thoughts in this article indeed says what I find/found so hard to say. This is so helpful. Thank you!

  4. Enjoy your retirement Father, but keep these articles flowing. You are a wonderful asset to the Faith. Your article so succinctly spells out the foundational principles of our Faith. I sent Fr Thomas with my retirement greetings to you. Hope to see you in the near future.

  5. Thank you Fr. Stephen. It struck me while reading your article that the statement, “we are sacrament” manifests in the theotic (I think that’s a word!) nature of salvation in Orthodox understanding. The “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is” is there in that ongoing salvation action: the presence of the Kingdom, the becoming, the among you and within you…and also the “End” which also is in process of becoming or fullness (even the word “telos” , end, which works in this way of becoming perfect.

    A quandary to think about for me, but somehow it all seems to be there. Without theosis how can we understand this “being saved?”

    There’s that Bob Dylan line which I like for its sense of continuum: “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Maybe he got it from somebody else (-:

  6. Talk about difficulty expressing the mystery…
    There is a young fellow who sits near me at church. It was announced at our last service that he will be Baptized [tomorrow]. I do not know this boy ‘personally’ – but I know him.
    I asked him, “Saturday?”. “Yes”, he said, “at 3:00”. He had to turn a bit and bend down (the boy is tall!), but he looked me straight in the eye…and in his eyes I clearly saw earnest anticipation. He’s not one to show excitement, but I saw it. I can not describe the joy in my heart. To take back precious words that have been corrupted, this ‘son’ is about to be “born again”. Indeed, born of Water and Spirit. In my heart it was already a done deal.
    I can not describe how I can call this boy a son…a brother…but in every sense of the word, he is. I can say ‘ he is one of our sons because he is one of The Father’s sons. He’s a brother, because he’s one of Christ’s brothers. And we are all heirs, one family, in Christ ‘ . Still, what I just described only touches the surface. The reality of knowing him, in the manner that I struggle to describe (the mystery of the Body of Christ) can only be truly known by the heart, by God’s grace. I can not describe it any further. It is very real ‘kinship’…but like none other.

    You can know someone for your whole life…grow up (and old) together…but if they do not participate in the Mysteries, and you do, devotedly – they can never truly know you. They do not know the very thing you thrive on. That which is your identity. But…someone who you don’t even know their name (I just found out his name is Abraham), whose been sitting near you for many months…this person your heart ‘connects’ with?! I mean a heart connection. I can not explain it. Is this the love of Christ? It must be.

    I remember a while back a discussion here on familiarity and the importance of discrimination (respect of boundaries) in our relationship with others. Familiarity -when those boundaries are crossed – breeds contempt. Underneath this is the implication that many people think we ‘must’ become familiar with another before we can know them. Well, not in the Church. I have found out…not in the Church.

    I am very much looking forward to the Baptism receptions tomorrow!

    Thank you Father for this very timely and thoughtful post!
    Blessed Theophany!

  7. That’s beautiful Paula. Once upon a time, decades ago, I was standing in a checkout line at a small store. I turned my back, and just forgot about something I had paid for. The man behind me told me not to forget what I’d left there. I couldn’t tell you why, but I saw his face and thought, ” You’re one of the sheep.” It wasn’t that I knew him in the conventional sense, it wasn’t the kind act, but there was something in the deliberate consideration and a light in his face that was more than what anybody else saw. I’ve never forgotten it.

  8. As a newly illumined (last Pasca, 8 months ago) the triumphal song occasionally goes through my head, and I think it could bear repeating here. At the top of the lungs,

    CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD;
    TRAMPLING DEATH BY DEATH;
    AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS BESTOWING LIFE!!

    (Repeat x3)

    Glory to God!

  9. Yes Janine! It’s a subtlety so subtle, you just can’t explain it! But you don’t have to to those who know. And eventually, the longer you explain, the farther the ‘mystery’ disappears in the ‘many words’!!

  10. Father

    Thank you for another of your “mystical realism” articles (it is a good phrase!). They are probably the ones I like the best, and this one that explains baptism in that context is very useful..

    As a contrast, I recently was referred to WH Auden’s excellent Christmas Oratorio, some bleeding chunks of which can be found usefully extracted here: http://www.cs.utsa.edu/~wagner/church/auden/ .

    The following seems very apropos as we approach the end of the Nativity Season, and the contrast between mystical realism and the lived out, washed out nature of much lived out faith could not be more pointedly made:

    “Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
    To love all of our relatives, and in general
    Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
    As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
    To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
    Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
    Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
    The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
    The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
    And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
    Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
    Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
    Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
    Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
    Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
    And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
    And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.”

  11. My daughter was Baptized on Jan 1 (she is almost 2 now) with the hope that she and her brother and sister will always associate New Year’s Day with Christ’s gift of new life, even when they are old and grey and hopefully especially then.

    I also needed the reminder, and hope my mom noticed it too.

    Father, I think of your Father in Law saying ‘God is at work’ often. I have feared demons, I hate to say, and am working on that.

  12. Father I wonder if you would comment on Christian groups that teach that the Kingdom is here and is evidenced by spiritual gifts. They don’t deny that the Kingdom is at hand, though they may still think of things as “Two Storey.”

    I found Fr Barnabas Powell’s metaphor of “fire without a hearth” to be helpful, but I’d like to hear your thoughts as well.

  13. I love it when you bring these things out!

    I’ve told you before, everything came together for me before converting, in the Baptismal liturgy. In my years of living with a worldview based on Total Depravity I couldn’t figure out how people could become so evil without it. I would think about death creating temptation for hours a day to test if it had explanatory power, and it did, but something was missing. Eventually I read the Baptismal liturgy and there it was, a Biblical explanation for how the will was capable for so much evil, but also, how it could be free. It seems only Pentecostals and missionaries take the demonic seriously, meaning, they are real threats. Others will speak of Satan’s power and the need to be delivered but then their view of sovereignty makes the devil into a puppet of God’s, making the demonic, really, no enemy at all. I recently finished John Owen’s, The Mortification of Sin, which I still believe is an excellent book – but in the afterword – he basically negates all he has said about Satan because he was operation from the Scriptures while writing the book and I’ll bet someone challenged the inconsistency with his Calvinism, so much so that the devil really posed no threat (and in this case it would be to Christians and those who think they are Christians but are not).

    But, while I am happy to see these articles, I am also saddened that because the catechumen is often never made aware of what baptism entails, it is merely an initiation rite. We have assumed that Satan is not operating as in days gone by, but, when you evaluate where the ideas modernity pushes on us, engineers us with, come from, you see that the destruction of Satan is absolutely crucial. The movement of God into the areas of the world, the people of the world – it’s a global takeback of territory – that’s what the “gospel” genre is – an edict from a new Kingdom – but not all are willing to submit. I think this is our theodicy if we had one. This is why Baptism is spiritual war. It’s a reclamation of territory claimed by Satan.

    God bless you,
    Matthew Lyon

  14. Father,
    I began reading last night, and finished this morning, Christianity in a One-Storey Universe (the link you provided). Another treasure that bears repeating…often. A very beneficial addendum to this post. Thank you!

  15. Fr. Stephen: I have only been Orthodox for about 6 years and I entered the Church through Chrismation.

    I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit when I was attending a protestant church and was actually fully immersed since this was done in a river.

    I have always worried that I might not have received the full benefits, for lack of a better word, because I was not “rebaptized” in the Orthodox Church but was told that Chrismation was allowed because of “economia”.

    Could you help me understand this because I certainly would like to know? I do remember being asked if I renounced the devil and all his works and did I embrace the teachings of the Orthodox Church. It was a long service and we had to recite the Nicene Creed, etc.

    Thank you for any help you can give me.

    Anna

  16. Anna,
    What you are describing is and has been the practice of the vast majority of Orthodox Churches across the centuries. There are several ways to understand it. But, Baptism is not a mechanical action. It is a personal work of the Holy Spirit. I recall my late Archbishop underlining a phrase in ordination service that says the “Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking.” It is a very rich phrase and quite suggestive.

    For example, I had been an Anglican priest for about 20 years prior to entering the Orthodox Church, after a period of retraining, etc., I was ordained as Deacon, and later priest in the Orthodox Church. What was the status of my life and ministry prior to that? There are some Orthodox who would quickly and easily say that they were nothing and completely lacking in grace. That strikes me as a very easy answer that simplifies everything – but doesn’t really describe the complexity of human experience. For myself, I simply passed over that period in my life with silence as a question that I could not answer (which probably means that the question is not being asked correctly). Rather, the simple phrase, “the Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking,” settled the matter.

    I think of the Baptism/Chrismation question in the same manner. I suspect that many are asking the question in the wrong way and coming up with problematic answers. The Church, from its earlies centuries, has practiced economia in the reception of schismatics and heretics. If the Church extends its economy and choose to receive us by Chrismation and admit us to Holy Communion – I accept that the Holy Spirit completes that which is lacking. For what it’s worth, there are many saints who have entered the Church in such a manner by such economy. Obviously, their lives demonstrate that grace is fully at work in them.

    Our lives find their completion in God and His Church. Once we are safely within the life of the Church we can be assured that we are safe and complete.

    That said, there is a strongly stated opinion out there shouting that on re-baptism is correct. Perhaps. However, even those bishops who declare that re-baptism is the correct approach, accept and commune those who have been received through confession and chrismation beneath the authority of some other bishop – rendering the question moot. That is, none of the canonical jurisdictions declare that such a reception is unacceptable.

    What you experienced is the practice of the vast majority. Be at peace.

  17. Kamal,
    That’s a very large question. To a certain extent, they are right. The Kingdom of God has come in the coming of Christ and is certainly made manifest in various operations of the Holy Spirit. That is perfectly Orthodox. The difference is, I think, that many of those Christians mistake some fairly questionable practices as “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Pentecostalism is rife with delusion and more than a little nonsense – witness the televangelists and prosperity gospel charlatans.

    Orthodox practice properly expects sobriety. Over the years, I’ve encountered some Orthodox who get a bit too caught up in concern for certain things and cross over into a form of Orthodox charismatic practice and thought. But, adhering to my policy of not criticizing other Orthodox, I’d prefer not to go into all that.

    There are many sincere Christians among the Pentecostals (and the like), and, with patience and love can be assisted in finding safer ground.

  18. Father, one thing I take from this post is that nothing created is just a thing. The created world is luminous with the in breaking of God. His condescending in the best sense and therefore potentially sacramental, certainly Theandric.

    Only He Is.

    I have a question. Which death is more difficult? The inevitable death of our bodies or the death of repentance and forgiveness?

  19. Dear Fr. Stephen:

    Thank you so much for answering my question about Chrismation – you have put my worrying mind at rest. This has bothered me all this time but now I will let the Holy Spirit complete that which is lacking.

    If you have time, would you know the names of some of those saints who entered the Church through Chrismation? I might be able to be uplifted by their stories.

    Thank you so much for helping me,
    Anna

  20. Father forgive me for expressing admiration for your gentle (relative to my own reactions) comment concerning Pentecostalism and similar behaviors that seemed to arise among some Orthodox. Sometimes I fear this might have to do with the lack of appropriate catechism, which is another reason why I’m grateful for this blog. And your book is helpful also, btw.

  21. Dee,
    I have to confess that, despite all the things that were distorted in the charismatic experience of my late-teens, early twenties, some things profoundly changed my life. One of those was grasping that the Kingdom of was fully real and a present reality in Christ. The crisis of faith that followed that experience could be described as a crisis of doubting that fact. I had come to think very critically, not about the Kingdom of God itself, but about the experiences of Pentecostalism. It was: “If that’s not true, is the Kingdom itself not true?” That sort of question directed me back to the Tradition, and the solid witness(es) within it, including the beginnings of understanding the sacramental world.

    Those questions led me back into classical Anglicanism – while I was just beginning to read Orthodox work (there was very, very little available in English at the time). The reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst is the result of Christ’s Pascha and the fullness of the life He has inaugurated. What seems clear this far down the road is that perceiving that reality is the fruit of a lifetime (particularly for a hard-hearted, Anglo-skeptic).

    On the one hand, I did not want to be deluded, while, on the other, it did not want to be deprived of the Kingdom.

  22. Hello Fr. and happy retirement,

    Your comments on the ‘mystery’ can be a stumbling block for the reason. Particularly men, who inherently pigeon hole everything by identifying it (solving the problem). And particularly women, who connect everything to everything (relating the problem).

    But these actions-of-the-mind are from our separation from the rest of creation. All of creation participates in communion with God, it has no choice. But we do. And our inherent actions-of-the-mind really only cause us to stumble in understanding. That is because they are actually our vanity, us controlling how we are going to participate. The result is a con stand struggle to ‘get it’.

    The mystery is not there to be understood, but to be recognised. Similarly to the Scriptures where you must first know Jesus in order to find Him in the text, participation in the Communion provides the recognition of the mystery. The mystery is hard to convey with words, not because words are inadequate – I’ll site your thesis here – but because our participation is fleeting and the one we might be trying to speak to about it has not experienced it. It would be hard to describe the colour red to someone who only sees in black and white. How much harder to describe any economy of God?

    The most gracious gift I think we receive from you, other than your answer to the call of God, is that we can read your articulating of these mysteries and recognise them because we have seen them once or twice before, and we can remember, ‘yes, they are beautiful’.

    Thank you for waking us again,
    T

  23. The final destruction of demons. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard, read, or said. What more do we, as Christians, need? The victory is ours, through Christ.

  24. Father, bless. The phrase “the Kingdom of God is at hand” has had a very powerful influence on my dawdling spiritual development. When I returned to Christianity at age 30 the phrase sounded different to me. As a child, it meant that Christ was returning soon (to judge me a sinner and send me to hell). As a returning adult, I intuitively understood it to mean that the Kingdom is right here, right now. (I haven been found of saying to people, “Look at the palm of your hand. See it? The Kingdom of God is right there! See it?” I pray that God gives me the discipline to repent of my cleverness.)

    Would you be ever so kind as to help us understand what the actual Greek phrase denoted and what the connotations of the phrase were? I suspect that there are subtleties that are not entirely revealed by the typical English translation?

  25. David,
    The word translated “at hand,” is the word for “near.” If you applied the word “near” to time, it would mean “soon.” If applied to space, it would mean “very close.” Essentially, I take Christ to be saying that He Himself is the coming of the Kingdom. Everything He does is a sign that the Kingdom of God has come. But, the Kingdom of God is not something that exists apart from Christ Himself. He is the King – the Kingdom is wherever the King is.

    If Christ is in our midst, then the Kingdom is in our midst. That is why we speak the way we do in the Church’s Liturgy.

    It’s not really very subtle – but we’ve found lots of ways to make it say that the Kingdom is somewhere other than where it is…

  26. Not subtle but we not only make it seem as if it is somewhere else but look for “evidence” that it is anywhere but here, now even in the midst of hurt and pain.

  27. David,
    the word “ἤγγικε” in Greek means ‘has grabbed’, or ‘touched’ you. It was often used as an expression for something that has already arrived.
    For example, if I wanted to tell my wife to hurry and get ready because I just saw our guest park outside our home, I’d say: “ἤγγικε” (he has already arrived!).
    It combines the sense of urgent imminence and of a an unavoidable ‘done deal’.

    It is obviously used most in St Matthew’s but St Mark’s (despite using it only twice) has a greater urgency as a whole, he uses the word “εὐθέως”, (promptly) so often in his opening chapters that it sounds as if someone needs to tell him to vary his vocabulary a bit! However, I now have come to think that this is far more significant & powerful than just the mistake of an illiterate fisherman.

  28. Dino, thank you for sharing. As Father says, it is extrordinarily helpful. There is resonance there that is incredible to me. For one thing it succinctly expresses the Incarnational reality thus illuminating so much of our prayers. It set off a pin ball machine in my head.

  29. Dear Fr Stephen, I was just talking to someone about this article, and they said that in early Christianity there were often several rites of (minor) exorcisms that happened prior to a person becoming baptized, and that this was one reason why the baptismal font was near the door of the church (so that demons would not be brought in), and one of the explanations for the use of oil for anointing during the baptismal rite.

    If so, does not the phrase “the final destruction of demons” in the rite just mean literally what it says? : You the baptized may have received exorcisms as you have prepared for your baptism, but from here on in you as the baptized are finally now protected from demonic possession once and for all.

    Is that right? If it is true, then don’t think it undermines the point you are making, but if anything reinforces it. Final and complete protection from demons is indeed a very good reason to get baptised! It sort of has me thinking, though, that a practice in which those preparing for baptism receive minor exorcisms might be useful – not only in itself, but also in reinforcing the gravity of what it is they are receiving in this sacrament.

  30. In my parish if a catechuman has a history of dabbling in the occult there is an additional exorcism done prior to reception whether by Baptism or Chrismation.

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