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“Gregory of Nyssa on Baptism”
An excerpt from In Baptismum Christi (On the Baptism of Christ)
Click here to read at earlychurchtexts.com in the original Greek (with dictionary lookup links). The English translation below is from the NPNF series.
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Christ, then, was born as it were a few days ago—He Whose generation was before all things, sensible and intellectual. To-day He is baptized by John that He might cleanse him who was defiled, that He might bring the Spirit from above, and exalt man to heaven, that he who had fallen might be raised up and he who had cast him down might be put to shame. And marvel not if God showed so great earnestness in our cause: for it was with care on the part of him who did us wrong that the plot was laid against us; it is with forethought on the part of our Maker that we are saved. And he, that evil charmer, framing his new device of sin against our race, drew along his serpent train, a disguise worthy of his own intent, entering in his impurity into what was like himself,—dwelling, earthly and mundane as he was in will, in that creeping thing. But Christ, the repairer of his evil-doing, assumes manhood in its fulness, and saves man, and becomes the type and figure of us all, to sanctify the first-fruits of every action, and leave to His servants no doubt in their zeal for the tradition. Baptism, then, is a purification from sins, a remission of trespasses, a cause of renovation and regeneration. By regeneration, understand regeneration conceived in thought, not discerned by bodily sight. For we shall not, according to the Jew Nicodemus and his somewhat dull intelligence, change the old man into a child, nor shall we form anew him who is wrinkled and gray-headed to tenderness and youth, if we bring back the man again into his mother’s womb: but 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 were a thing more exalted than all creation), but the command of God, and the visitation of the Spirit that comes sacramentally to set us free. But water serves to express the cleansing. For since we are wont by washing in water to render our body clean when it is soiled by dirt or mud, we therefore apply it also in the sacramental action, and display the spiritual brightness by that which is subject to our senses. Let us however, if it seems well, persevere in enquiring more fully and more minutely concerning Baptism, starting, as from the fountain-head, from the Scriptural declaration, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God4.” Why are both named, and why is not the Spirit alone accounted sufficient for the completion of Baptism? Man, as we know full well, is compound, not simple: and therefore the cognate and similar medicines are assigned for healing to him who is twofold and conglomerate:—for his visible body, water, the sensible element,—for his soul, which we cannot see, the Spirit invisible, invoked by faith, present unspeakably. For “the Spirit breathes where He wills, and thou hearest His voice, but canst not tell whence He cometh or whither He goeth.” He blesses the body that is baptized, and the water that baptizes. Despise not, therefore, the Divine laver, 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. For this holy altar, too, by which I stand, is stone, ordinary in its nature, nowise different from the other slabs of stone that build our houses and adorn our pavements; but seeing that it 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 of the priests alone, and that with reverence. The bread again is at first common bread, but when the sacramental action consecrates it, it is called, and becomes, the Body of Christ. So with the sacramental oil; so with the wine: though before the benediction they are of little value, each of them, after the sanctification bestowed by the Spirit, has its several operation.
The same power of the word, again, also makes the priest venerable and honourable, separated, by the new blessing bestowed upon him, from his community with the mass of men. While but yesterday he was one of the mass, one of the people, he is suddenly rendered a guide, a president, a teacher of righteousness, an instructor in hidden mysteries; and this he does without being at all changed in body or in form; but, while continuing to be in all appearance the man he was before, being, by some unseen power and grace, transformed in respect of his unseen soul to the higher condition. And so there are many things, which if you consider you will see that their appearance is contemptible, but the things they accomplish are mighty: and this is especially the case when you collect from the ancient history instances cognate and similar to the subject of our inquiry. The rod of Moses was a hazel wand. And what is that, but common wood that every hand cuts and carries, and fashions to what use it chooses, and casts as it will into the fire? But when God was pleased to accomplish by that rod those wonders, lofty, and passing the power of language to express, the wood was changed into a serpent. And again, at another time, he smote the waters, and now made the water blood, now made to issue forth a countless brood of frogs: and again he divided the sea, severed to its depths without flowing together again. Likewise the mantle of one of the prophets, though it was but a goat’s skin, made Elisha renowned in the whole world. And the wood of the Cross is of saving efficacy for all men, though it is, as I am informed, a piece of a poor tree, less valuable than most trees are. So a bramble bush showed to Moses the manifestation of the presence of God: so the remains of Elisha raised a dead man to life; so clay gave sight to him that was blind from the womb. And all these things, though they were matter without soul or sense, were made the means for the performance of the great marvels wrought by them, when they received the power of God. Now by a similar train of reasoning, water also, though it is nothing else than water, renews the man to spiritual regeneration, when the grace from above hallows it. And if any one answers me again by raising a difficulty, with his questions and doubts, continually asking and inquiring how water and the sacramental act that is performed therein regenerate, I most justly reply to him, “Show me the mode of that generation which is after the flesh, and I will explain to you the power of regeneration in the soul.” You will say perhaps, by way of giving an account of the matter, “It is the cause of the seed which makes the man.” Learn then from us in return, that hallowed water cleanses and illuminates the man. And if you again object to me your “How?” I shall more vehemently cry in answer, “How does the fluid and formless substance become a man?” and so the argument as it advances will be exercised on everything through all creation. How does heaven exist? how earth? how sea? how every single thing? For everywhere men’s reasoning, perplexed in the attempt at discovery, falls back upon this syllable “how,” as those who cannot walk fall back upon a seat. To speak concisely, everywhere the power of God and His operation are incomprehensible and incapable of being reduced to rule, easily producing whatever He wills, while concealing from us the minute knowledge of His operation. Hence also the blessed David, applying his mind to the magnificence of creation, and filled with perplexed wonder in his soul, spake that verse which is sung by all, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works: in wisdom hast Thou made them all.” The wisdom he perceived: but the art of the wisdom he could not discover.
Let us then leave the task of searching into what is
beyond human power, and seek rather that which shows signs of being partly
within our comprehension:—what is the reason why the cleansing is effected by
water? and to what purpose are the three immersions received? That which the
fathers taught, and which our mind has received and assented to, is as
follows:—We recognize four elements, of which the world is composed, which every
one knows even if their names are not spoken; but if it is well, for the sake of
the more simple, to tell you their names, they are fire and air, earth and
water. Now our God and Saviour, in fulfilling the Dispensation for our sakes,
went beneath the fourth of these, the earth, that He might raise up life from
thence. And we in receiving Baptism, in imitation of our Lord and Teacher and
Guide, are not indeed buried in the earth (for this is the shelter of the body
that is entirely dead, covering the infirmity and decay of our nature), but
coming to the element akin to earth, to water, we conceal ourselves in that as
the Saviour did in the earth: and by doing this thrice we represent for
ourselves that grace of the Resurrection which was wrought in three days: and
this we do, not receiving the sacrament in silence, but while there are spoken
over us the Names of the Three Sacred Persons on Whom we believed, in Whom we
also hope, from Whom comes to us both the fact of our present and the fact of
our future existence. It may be thou art offended, thou who contendest boldly
against the glory of the Spirit, and that thou grudgest to the Spirit that
veneration wherewith He is reverenced by the godly. Leave off contending with
me: resist, if thou canst, those words of the Lord which gave to men the rule of
the Baptismal invocation. What says the Lord’s command? “Baptizing them in the
Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” How in the Name of the
Father? Because He is the primal cause of all things. How in the Name of the
Son? Because He is the Maker of the Creation. How in the Name of the Holy Ghost?
Because He is the power perfecting all. We bow ourselves therefore before the
Father, that we may be sanctified: before the Son also we bow, that the same end
may be fulfilled: we bow also before the Holy Ghost, 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, the Holy Spirit in a less
degree than the other Two. Why then dost thou divide the Three Persons into
fragments of different natures, and make Three Gods, unlike one to another,
whilst from all thou dost receive one and the same grace?
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original Greek text
In Baptismum Christi
On the Baptism of Christ
wood of cross
Gregory of Nyssa in Greek with English Translation
Migne Greek Text
Patrologiae Graecae Cursus Completus
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