Saturday, March 31, 2007

Mass Chrismation

Tonight I attended a Service for the Chrismation of Converts into the Orthodox Faith in Warrenton, Virginia. Chrismation, which literally means anointing, is the Eastern equivalent of the Sacrament of Confirmation. In most Orthodox jurisdictions, it is the means by which already-baptized Christians are received into the Orthodox Church.

Tonight 45 people of all ages were chrismated. They are the initial members of St. Patrick's Western Rite Orthodox Mission. A year ago they were all members of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. The CEC's roots were in the charismatic movement. Through their study of the Bible they discovered that liturgical worship was biblical, so they adopted the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. They received their holy orders, in apostolic succession, from an independent Catholic church headquartered in Brazil. They established contact with the Roman Catholic Church, which sent observers to all of their episcopal consecrations. It appeared that the CEC was on the road to convergence with the Catholic Church, but moving slowly so as not to lose anyone along the way.

That all changed last year. Amid various sorts of scandals, the CEC went into meltdown and abruptly changed course. Most members of the Warrenton parish were there because they were looking for apostolic Christianity. When the CEC veered from that course, most of the members left the CEC. Many went to Rome, but about half, including the priest, chose to start a Western Rite Orthodox parish. For the past several months, Fr. Nicholas, pastor of St. Gregory the Great, a Western Rite Orthodox mission in Washington, DC, has been traveling to Warrenton to teach the large flock of catechumens the Orthodox faith and to celebrate the occasional Mass for them. Tonight his labors came to fruition.

The service was originally scheduled for Christ Church, where the congregation usually meets, but when it became apparent that the expected crowd would be too big for that small church the location was changed to the local Episcopal Church, St. James'. The evening began with the clergy and acolytes processing to the rear of the nave to receive Bishop Thomas as the choir chanted the Benedictus Dominus (the Canticle of Zechariah). As they returned to the chancel the bishop sprinkled everyone with holy water. This was followed by Vespers, which was identical in form to Evensong in the Anglican tradition.

Then the bishop, who had been seated in the sanctuary, came down to the chancel steps. He made the clergy, choir, and acolytes move down to the nave before he began the homily – he wanted everyone to hear him! He joked that some of the locals apparently expected us to be a bunch of Greeks worshiping in a foreign language. But (except the Kyrie) the service was all in English! The bishop is from northern New Jersey, himself, not the old country. He told his new flock that, in being chrismated, they were being married to the Church. This is a bold move, perhaps even dangerous, because the purpose is nothing less than perfection.

The Chrismation began with the Trisagion Prayers, the Nicene Creed, and a Litany. Then Bishop Thomas called the priests forward and sent them to their stations – Father Nicholas in the middle, the two Fathers Gregory on either side, and Father Alban in the back. Catechumens lined up before each priest. Then the bishop said, in a loud voice, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit," and each priest made the sign of the cross with chrism (blessed oil) on the forehead of the first catechumen in line, and the congregation responded, "Seal!" The bishop immediately repeated his line, and the priests made the sign of the cross on the eyes; then again, and they made the sign of the cross on the nostrils; and so on, the mouth, ears, breast, hands, and feet. Then the next person in line. And the congregation continued to respond, "Seal!" The bishop was repeating his line faster than the priests could anoint their catechumens, so the correspondence between the repetitions of "Seal!" and the anointings broke down, but the rapid-fire chrismations continued. Within five minutes the priests had completed the chrismations of all the catechumens. (It's amusing to contemplate how Anglo-Catholics would react if one of their bishops tried something like this!)

The service continued with the Liturgy of St. Gregory – a medieval form of the Latin Mass used by some Western Rite Orthodox parishes. Father Nicholas celebrated, and Bishop Thomas presided from the throne (to use the traditional Western terminology). The Mass setting, sung by the congregation, was Missa Deus Genitor alme, and the hymns incuded "Lift High the Cross" and "St. Patrick's Breastplate" (nine verses, including two I'd never sung before!).

The Mass was followed by a reception featuring a wide assortment of treats appropriate for Lent. And we were entertained by a priest who played the bishop's favorite instrument – the bagpipe! This photo shows Bishop Thomas (standing in the center) posing with the newly illumined members of his flock and Father Nicholas (seated in front).

Update: Here is the official story from the bishop's own web page, with photos better than mine! And here you can see his visit to my parish the following day.


Trevor said...

For those not terribly familiar with Orthodoxy, it might be useful to clarify the rite of chrismation. Normally, it follows immediately upon baptism, as a sacrament of the gift of the Spirit. With the common situation in the West of converts to Orthodoxy who have already been baptized in another Christian tradition, there are two different approaches. (Actually, two poles with some variation in between.) One is to take a strong stance on the idea that there is only one baptism and refuse to repeat the rite. The other is to emphasize that baptism is a sacrament of entrance into the Church and insist on performing the rite, regardless of how many heretical baptisms may have come before.

Now, I have heard that there are some who take the first approach with the idea that the prior baptism was actually valid. This may be a misperception on the part of observers, or I suppose it might be true of some ecumenical-leaning Orthodox. What I have heard more often, and what Bp. Thomas explained when he recounted this event at Holy Cross yesterday, is that there is one baptism, and that baptism is in the Orthodox Church. Therefore, the act of chrismation makes the formerly-performed rite valid where before it was not.

There are also those who re-baptize in some cases but not in others. (Of course, it's not actual re-baptism, since the first rite was not a real baptism, but the terminology is convenient.) They would judge on a case-by-case basis or by denomination whether the rite performed was sufficient to be validated by chrismation. For instance, I suspect that most Orthodox would not accept a baptismal rite that used a non-Trinitarian formula.

I should add that ROCOR, which notably does follow a pattern of re-baptizing, has not always done so, and there are voices within ROCOR that say it goes too far. And to my knowledge, they will not insist on a convert who was chrismated in another parish being re-baptized to finish the job.

You probably know all this, but some of your readers might not.

Gabriel said...

Welcome Home. God Bless. Gabriel