Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Suffer the Little Children

Recently some parishioners at St. Barnabas brought a Protestant friend of theirs to the Divine Liturgy. At this particular liturgy a newly-baptized infant received her First Communion. This prompted the visitor to later ask why we Orthodox give Communion to babies. The parishioners sent an email to me asking for a response to this question, and what follows is my reply to them.

The Orthodox Church has several reasons for the practice of Infant Communion. Here are just a few:

The first and greatest is that our Lord Himself commanded it: “And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them; and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.’ And he took them up in his arms, put his hands on upon them, and blessed them.” [Mark 10:13-16]

In that passage we can see that our Lord was “much displeased” when his disciples wrongly sought to exclude children from His presence and blessing. He taught them that children are fellow-heirs of the kingdom along with adults and should be allowed every benefit that the parents are allowed. By definition, Holy Communion is the Church’s most sacred sharing in the “real presence” of Christ and therefore, following our Lord’s command, children should not be deprived of this greatest of all blessings.

St. Peter obviously recalled this lesson on the day of Pentecost when he told the crowd, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” [Acts 2:38-39]. In those days whole families were baptized into Christ and not the adults only, for “the promise is unto you, and to your children”. The fundamentalist claim that “children” doesn’t necessarily include “infants” is mere sophistry and a parsing of the text to fit their doctrine. The clear meaning of the passage above is that there is no age limit to inherit the promise of God. It soon became clear to the Church that Christian baptism was the antitype of circumcision prescribed under the Old Covenant as the rite of entry into the community of God. To the Jewish mindset of the early Church it made perfect sense to baptize their infants into the community of the Church just as they had previously circumcised their male children into the community of Israel. The second reason we baptize our infants and include them in the communion of the Church therefore is that this was the Christian practice from the very beginning and not a later addition as some falsely claim.

What about faith? Can an infant possibly have faith to make his baptism “valid”? Let us not forget that Israel was also a community of faith under the Abrahamic covenant, as “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness”. Could a 40-day-old Jewish infant have faith to be circumcised into the covenant of Abraham? Obviously he was circumcised by the faith of his parents and then would be raised in that faith, being taught by them to obey the commandments and ordinances of Israel until one day the faith of his parents became his own. The Jews did not postpone the circumcision of their children until they had reached some arbitrary “age of reason” but included them in the community from their birth, following the commandment of God to do this very thing. This was the historical and biblical custom that the Church, seeing itself as the true continuation of Israel, followed in baptizing their children and raising them in the communion of the faithful.

If we go all the way back to the Garden, we see that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Paradise of Bliss. They were created in a state of “theoria” or the vision of God, in that they were in communion with God and could see Him and talk with Him. They were not created as perfect beings, but rather as “spiritual infants” with the intention that they grow in this communion and thus in the likeness of God in whose image they were made. If they had been created as perfect beings they would never have disobeyed God and fallen from grace. Rather they were created in that state of theoria and were given the free will to continually choose God and grow in their communion with Him. Imagine if Adam and Eve had been created outside of Paradise and without this theoria, and had been required to attain to a level of spiritual knowledge and “faith” before they would be allowed to enter in! This clearly is not how God operates. He placed the newly formed man in the Garden of Blessedness and gave him the privilege and every possibility to continue in that condition and grow in it.

This is the same privilege that God granted to the babies of the Jews under the Old Covenant and that He still grants to the babies of the Christians under the New Covenant. By being baptized on the fortieth day and receiving Holy Communion immediately, they are literally born into the kingdom of God in full communion with Him, and are given the choice to remain in that communion and continue to grow in it as they become older and make the faith of that community their own.

By contrast, excluding children from baptism into the community of the faithful and from Holy Communion until they reach a certain age that the modern traditions of men claim is “good enough” constitutes a stark violation of the will of God expressed in both the Old and New Testament scriptures, and we might add, is also rather cruel. If God had created Adam and Eve outside of Paradise, if Jewish males had not been allowed to be circumcised until the age of thirteen, if Peter had said “the promise is for you and for your older children”, then the proponents of this practice might have a legitimate argument. But we know that such is not the case. God allows His spiritual children to begin their lives in communion with Him and then continue in that state of blessedness and growth if they so choose.

Unwittingly following the dictates of secular humanism, segments of contemporary Western Christendom have made an idol of human reason and have reduced Holy Communion from a true mystical sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ [1 Corinthians 10:16] to a mere rational remembrance of past events. Yet does not our Lord say “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you”? [John 6:53] Does not nature itself teach us that young ones cannot thrive and grow without nourishment? Yet children are routinely denied the spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion because modern doctrines of men have shifted Communion from primarily being an action of God’s grace to exclusively being an action of the mind of man.

What a shame that so many children are “hindered from coming unto Christ” until their parents decide that they have sufficient rational understanding to permit it. Are they not committing the same error as the disciples with whom our Lord was “much displeased”? Can we accept or find any biblical evidence for the practice of forcing children to sit and watch their parents take Communion while they themselves are excluded? This is what happens when human reason is exalted above simple faith in the mysteries of God. Here we see that secular humanism has blended with Christianity to form a distortion of traditional, orthodox Christian belief. These traditions of men have very much made void the Word of God and are truly an offense to Him.

I hope these thoughts will be of some help to you and your friend.


At 4/05/2006 5:39 AM , Anonymous Bruce Heying said...

Father Michael, Great article. Helps me with some things. I have a question regarding this. Last year I went to my Grandson Ezra's baptism. What has bothered me was not the fact that he was baptized. It it the fact that in the aftermath of the baptism he will not receive communion. In fact I guess that the Roman Church will not commune him for years! Why do they do this? I take it that this is something they changed along the way? If so, when? Perhaps you can respond a bit regarding this on you general blog site. For many of my Protestant friends, they like to lump me together with the Roman Catholics. Although I'm sure this bigger subject would be best served for another article, it would be great if you could give a general overview of how we are different than Rome.

Thanks, Bruce


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