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Question 23.

Dear Father Christopher,
Christ is in our midst!
Our parish is part of the Antiochian archdiocese (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch) and is an English language mission. We have many converts, but also many first generation Greeks from Greece and Crete, that come to our parish. So, it is with this background that I have the following question:

1) When I baptize Greek children, the "tradition" that the Greeks request is one where the Godparents cover the child with oil after the priest has anointed the child. They speak of having "baptized the child." (even though it is the priest himself that immerses the child). I do not see this practice stated in the rubrics in your euchologion, but it is found in the bilingual "Priest's Service Book" (Mikron Euchologion) printed in Greek and English by Fr Evagoras Constantinides. The whole body anointing by the Godparents is not found in Antiochian, Romanian or Russian practice. So, my questions are as follows: Do you do this in the Church of Cyprus? What is the significance/meaning of this? Is it not theologically incorrect for a layperson to say "he/she baptized so and so" (I do realize they can do this in an emergency)? Do you know when and where this practice first started?

In Christ,
Fr. Polycarp


Answer to Question 23
Dear Father Polycarp,
Christ is in our midst!
Great to hear from you again!
On reading your letter I couldn’t help smiling because there must be many Greek customs and traditions that seem strange to people from western backgrounds. When I first came to Cyprus I also had a sort of spiritual culture shock by the many things people do believing it is part of their Christian faith. In time I leant to sort out the bad customs from the good and discovered that a great many have their roots in very old practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. Your baptism question is one such custom. To understand it fully we must go back to the first centuries of Christianity. St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril of Jerusalem tell us that the whole body from head to toe was covered with the exorcised oil. This doesn’t mean that this was the Priest’s duty. The Priest anointed the parts that are mentioned in the euchologion but then it was the duty of the Deacon or the Deaconess (for women) to cover the body with the oil. The Deaconess was essential as men and women were baptized totally naked and it was not appropriate for the Priest to look upon a woman’s naked body let alone touch it. Thus we have from the very beginnings people anointing the body with the oil who were not Priests but rather his assistants. When infant baptism prevailed, the Deacon and Deaconess were no longer required in this capacity and this duty was taken over by the Godparent. Of course the Godparent is not necessary for the anointing as the Priest can himself anoint the child’s body, but Greeks take this part of the ceremony very seriously and insist on covering the whole body. In Cyprus we are not so fanatical. Whether or not the Godparent puts oil on the child depends entirely on whether the Priest invites them to do it. The service of baptism is probably the only Church service that has such diversity among Priests and you will rarely find two priests that perform it exactly the same. Covering a child’s whole body with oil can also be very dangerous. I remember once during my early and enthusiastic years that I decided to be overzealous and perform a baptism to the letter. I covered this child’s body completely with oil then lifted him to place him into the font. The child began to slip out of my hands and I only just made it to the font where he slipped into the water. When I tried to lift him up I just couldn’t and had to wipe away the oil from under his arms. As you can imagine I have never tried that again. In our parish we do the following: the oil is placed in a glass and then we dip our two fingers (many use cotton wool, but we prefer our fingers) into it and anoint the forehead, the chest, the ears, feet and hands as mentioned in the euchologion and also anoint the back saying “whosever will come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”. We then invite the Godparent to also dip his or her fingers into the oil and anoint crosswise wherever they want. They usually follow a similar pattern as the Priest. We purposely ask them to put oil on the child as that makes them feel that they have taken part is the baptismal ceremony and helps them understand that being a Godparent is a serious matter. This brings us to the custom of saying that I baptized such and such. True, people do say that they baptized a certain child, but they do not mean it as though they actually took upon themselves the role of the Priest and immersed the child into the water. In Greek at least, it is perfectly correct to say this and no one would even think that it meant that they did the actual baptizing. It is probably one of those language things that cannot be conveyed in another language. In English we call a child to whom we are a Godparent as my Godson or Goddaughter, in Greek we say that such a child is my (Βαπτιστικό) Vaptistiko which literally means the child I baptized or my child in baptism. In short it shows the seriousness of the relationship of the spiritual father and spiritual child born from the font of regeneration: a bond of father and child through baptism. In English we also call the Godparent the sponsor but the correct Greek word for a Godparent is (Ανάδοχος) “Anathohos” which means someone who receives and refers to receiving in his arms the newly born child from the spiritual womb, for as St. Cyril says: “the Water of salvation was at the same time your grave and your mother”.
If we try to give it theological significance, then yes, it is not correct to say I baptised such and such, but if we take into account that nowadays (at least in Cyprus and Greece) it costs the Godparent around 2000 euros (and more) to buy all the necessary things tradition says he must buy for the child, then I think that earns the Godparent the right to say that he baptised such and such. But as I have already said, no Greek would even assume that he meant that he did the actual dipping into the water.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher.