Catechetical Lectures: For the Remission of Sins

St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures (Part III)

Or do you not know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Were buried therefore with Him by our baptism into death
—Romans 6:3-4

In part III of St. Cyril’s catechetical lectures, he examines baptism. This is directed primarily at converts and focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism, how Jesus affected baptism during His earthly ministry, and what baptism does for the believer.

Union with the Holy Spirit

To start with, St. Cyril defines baptism as union with the Holy Spirit.

For [baptism] is no light matter, no ordinary and indiscriminate union according to the flesh, but the All-searching Spirit’s election according to faith.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:1

In addition to recognizing our union with the Holy Spirit in baptism, St. Cyril points out that the union is not merely physical. He references a number of times throughout this lecture the fact that man is comprised of both body and soul; this is important given that baptism affects both body and soul. I also found the wording regarding election, namely, that baptism is a union according to the Holy Spirit’s election according to faith. I think it would be inappropriate to draw any soteriological significance from this, but I would be curious to see what else St. Cyril says about faith and election — perhaps in a future lecture.

Make ready the vessels of the soul, cleansed by unfeigned faith, for reception of the Holy Ghost. Begin at once to wash your robes in repentance, that when called to the bride-chamber you may be found clean.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:2

The language here is somewhat ambiguous in that he refers to both the vessel of the soul and the soul itself. The context seems to indicate that he is talking about spiritual cleansing here — I’m not sure how one would wash their clothes with repentance — but this does speak to how closely tied the physical practices are to the spiritual: both require preparation, and both are affected by baptism. To that end, St. Cyril shares his desire for the catechumen:

…that the soul of every one of you may be found not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; I do not mean before you have received the grace, for how could that be? Since it is for remission of sins that you have been called; but that, when the grace is to be given, your conscience being found uncondemned may concur with the grace.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:2

Citing Ephesians 5:7, St. Cyril states that it is through baptism that we are presented as being without “spot or wrinkle”. Naturally, this would be impossible before baptism since baptism — according to St. Cyril — is that very thing which is for the remission of sins. Also, connecting the grace of baptism with the conscience of the one receiving the baptism, he adds another layer to his theology of baptism drawing from the importance of the mind of the convert.

This is in truth a serious matter, brethren, and you must approach it with good heed. Each one of you is about to be presented to God before tens of thousands of the Angelic Hosts: the Holy Ghost is about to seal your souls: you are to be enrolled in the army of the Great King. Therefore make you ready, and equip yourselves, by putting on I mean, not bright apparel , but piety of soul with a good conscience.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:3

Here again, we see St. Cyril’s blending of the physical and spiritual realities by use of literal washing and figurative garments. More importantly, we see his emphasis on the serious reflection that the convert takes when preparing for baptism; we see the gravity of being presented before the heavenly hosts, and the depth of being sealed by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit and Baptism

Next, St. Cyril teaches on the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism.

For since man is of twofold nature, soul and body, the purification also is twofold, the one incorporeal for the incorporeal part, and the other bodily for the body: the water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul; that we may draw near unto God, having our heart sprinkled by the Spirit, and our body washed with pure water.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:4

The Holy Spirit not only seals our souls, but He purifies our hearts. These are the spiritual happenings of baptism, as stated in Hebrews 10:22. Just as our body is washed with pure water, our souls are washed by the Spirit.

What then must you do? And what are the fruits of repentance? Let him that has two coats give to him that has none: the teacher was worthy of credit, since he was also the first to practise what he taught: he was not ashamed to speak, for conscience hindered not his tongue: and he that has meat, let him do likewise . Would you enjoy the grace of the Holy Spirit, yet judgest the poor not worthy of bodily food? Seekest thou the great gifts, and impartest not of the small?
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:8

This is our response to such a gift: that we live a life of repentance and love: that we continue to fall down before God in confession, and in so doing bear our fruit in our lives in keeping with that repentance, namely that we love one another.

Jesus and Baptism

Having discussed baptism as union with the Holy Spirit, and His role in baptism, St. Cyril now turns to how Christ defines and sanctifies baptism. Starting with what Christ implies about martyrdom:

For martyrdom also the Saviour is wont to call a baptism, saying, Can you drink the cup which I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with [ Mark 10:38 ]?
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:10

I found this claim interesting. Was Jesus implying that martyrdom is its own form of baptism? I do wonder if this is a common notion within Orthodoxy or if St. Cyril is making a rhetorical illustration. The words of Christ in Mark 10:38 certainly seem convincing in that Christ refers to a future baptism of which He will partake in being crucified. This is certainly something to ponder.

Jesus sanctified Baptism by being Himself baptized. If the Son of God was baptized, what godly man is he that despises Baptism?
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:11

Returning to Baptism proper, St. Cyril states that Jesus’ primary role in baptism was sanctifying the practice. He elaborates upon this claim further:

But He was baptized not that He might receive remission of sins, for He was sinless; but being sinless, He was baptized, that He might give to them that are baptized a divine and excellent grace. For since the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise partook of the same, that having been made partakers of His presence in the flesh we might be made partakers also of His Divine grace: thus Jesus was baptized, that thereby we again by our participation might receive both salvation and honour.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:11

So we can see that we are partakers of the sacrament sanctified by Jesus. Christ Himself had no sins remitted, but in being baptized, He provided grace for those who join in His baptism. St. Cyril uses an apt comparison between baptism and the Eucharist. Jesus did not need to partake of the Eucharist, yet He did. He initiated the practice at the Last Supper and blessed it. He provided the instructions on how to practice the Eucharist. He sanctified it. He promised divine grace and blessings for those who also partook of the Eucharist. In the same way, then, Jesus initiated baptism in the Jordan River. He provided instructions to His disciples on how to practice baptism. He sanctified it. He promised divine grace and blessings for those who are baptized. A very interesting connection indeed.

The Believer and Baptism

Finally, St. Cyril speaks directly to the catechumen and discusses the effect baptism will have on them.

For you go down into the water, bearing your sins, but the invocation of grace, having sealed your soul, suffers you not afterwards to be swallowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, you come up quickened in righteousness. For if you have been united with the likeness of the Saviour’s death, you shall also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:12

Once more, St. Cyril makes the case that baptism remits sins, but no he also adds that it offers a quickening in righteousness. Additionally, he states that baptism protects one from the evils of sin and Satan (the “dragon” mentioned, cf. Job 40:23). This is done through being united with Christ in His death (Romans 6:5), that we may be united with Him in His resurrection.

Moreover, when you have been deemed worthy of the grace, He then gives you strength to wrestle against the adverse powers. For as after His Baptism He was tempted forty days (not that He was unable to gain the victory before, but because He wished to do all things in due order and succession), so thou likewise, though not daring before your baptism to wrestle with the adversaries, yet after you have received the grace and art henceforth confident in the armour of righteousness, must then do battle, and preach the Gospel, if you will.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:13

Here we can see that the defense against evil cited earlier is, in fact, the strength the battle against the “adverse powers”. Baptism, then, is an armor, of sorts (2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 6:10ff), that helps us face temptations as Jesus did after His baptism. This, then, strengthens us to fulfill the Great Commission and preach the Gospel.

Far from being a mere symbol, St. Cyril shows that much should be made of baptism. A great deal of spiritual drama unfolds before, during, and after one’s baptism. Preparation is required before, a good conscience is required during, and afterward is a call to do battle.

Finally, St. Cyril offers his final thoughts on baptism, and gives a blessing to the catechumen:

And God grant that all of you when you have finished the course of the fast, may remember what I say, and bringing forth fruit in good works, may stand blameless beside the Spiritual Bridegroom, and obtain the remission of your sins from God; to whom with the Son and Holy Spirit be the glory for ever. Amen.
St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures 3:16

Amen, indeed.


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