A 5th Century Poetic Theology of Baptism by Mar Narsai
To my great pleasure, I have recently learned some of the grand history of the Church of the East which thrived for two thousand years in the Persian Empire, the Islamic Caliphates, and even the Mongolian Empire. In great part, I blame my ignorance of Eastern Church history on my particular form of Christian background. Every branch of our faith believes it is the right and best branch, therefore tragically tends to teach its followers little of the other branches of Christianity except for the faults of those branches. While the Church of the East is not without fault, it is also not without merit, having spilled its martyrs' blood for two thousand years across the largest continent on earth.
One of the heroes of the Church of the East, they call "the harp of the Spirit," Mar Narsai. Narsai learned at, then taught at, then directed the School of Edessa near the border of modern Turkey and Syria in the fifth century AD. Later he founded and directed the School of Nisibis further East. While the reader may disagree with some of Narsai's theology, I was enamored by the following piece he wrote concerning ritual immersion or "baptism." If the mood is right, you may enjoy pondering his artistic and poetic thoughts as translated by Dom R.H. Connolly M.A. and published by Cambridge University Press in 1909:
"Who suffices to repay love to the Fashioner of all, who came in His love to beget men spiritually? Too little is the tongue of height and depth to give thanks with us to the power of the Creator who has renewed our image and blotted out our iniquity. As in a furnace He re-cast our image in Baptism; and instead of our clay He has made us spiritual gold. Spiritually, without colours, was He pleased to depict us; that the beauty of our image might not again be corrupted by death. O Painter, that paints an image upon the tablet of the waters, nor is His art hindered by opposition! O Artist, that breathes the Spirit without hands, and sows life immortal in mortality! Ah, for the Command, to whom all hard things are easy, who gives power to things feeble by the might of His greatness! Ah, for the Will, whose purpose precedes His operation, - and before He had created He saw by His knowledge that which He created!
Visible to His purpose was this will which He has shewn towards us; and on it He was gazing when as yet He had not created us who created us in the beginning. Before its creation the image of our renewal was depicted before Him; and with His Being He had it in His heart to do this. With wisdom He performed it, even as it befits the All-knowing; and wisely He accomplished His will and shewed His power. He created a second time the creation which He had created in the beginning; and He purged out from it the old things of mortality. The rust of iniquity He willed to wipe away from mortals; and His purpose put the sponge of the Spirit into the hand of our body.
"Who is that has set the will of His love towards our race, and appointed our vileness as officers over His wise? Out of our clay He has made treasure-keepers of His hidden things; and from it He has appointed stewards to dispense life. He chose Him priests as mediators between Him and our people; and He has sent them on an embassy to men. To them He gave the great signet of His Divinity, that with it they might seal the work of the renovation of all. To them He entrusted the boundless wealth of the Spirit that they might livingly distribute it according to is greatness. A spiritual art He taught them, that they should be tracing the image of life on the tablet of the waters. Ah, corporeal beings, painters of the Spirit, without hands! Ah, mortals, mixers of life with mortality! Ah, priesthood, how greatly is it exalted above all, having won a station in the height and the depth by the power of Him that has chosen it! Ah, marvel, the wonder whereof is too great to be set forth, that death should quicken itself, as though by is own! Ah, Will, that has let itself down to its own creatures, and has given to the work of His own hands a pen, that it should depict itself! Who would not marvel at the greatness of His love and His graciousness, that He has made our clay the creator of a creation, after His own likeness? Who would not praise His care for our race, who has exalted our low estate together with His own incomprehensible Divinity? To our own nature did He give the authority, together with its renewal that it should create itself a new creation of immortals.
"A power of life He breathed into our body, parent of passions, and it began to interpret spiritual things that were to it invisible. His art of creation He shewed to our soul; and it acquired power to create a creation, even as the Creator. By a word that from Him it forms men in the bosom of the waters, and fashions them spiritually without hands. This is a design the interpretation whereof is too high to be set forth; and the will of the Hidden One is able to describe it as it is. By the transparence of the soul the mind is able to discern it; and with the understanding instead of eyes it sees its dignity. August is the theme thereof, and it cannot be spoken bodily; and high is the quest thereof, and it cannot be achieved in earthly wise. Spiritually is composed the story of the renewal of our image; and save by the Spirit no mouth can expound its history. In heavenly fashion did He mix the drug for the disease of our iniquity; and unless the mind ascend to the height it cannot see it. By the chief Rabbi is written the lesson of the redemption of our life; and unless the learner imitate he cannot understand.
"Come, ye disciples of the Master, Christ, let us gaze attentively upon the spiritual writings of Baptism. Come, ye heirs of the covenant written in blood, look upon the substance of your inheritance with the eye of the spirit. Come, examine with affectionate love your possessions, and praise and magnify Him that enriches men from His stores. Come, together, ye purified sons of Baptism, let us depict the word that cries out in the waters so that they acquire power. Come, let us examine discerningly the hand of flesh that buries bodies and raises them up swiftly. Come, let us make ready to look upon a marvel in the holy temple; and upon the armies of the height that attend the mystery of our redemption. Behold the hour that requires of the beholders that they be in orderly array. Let every one fasten the gaze of his mind on the things that are said.
"Lo, the priest is ready to enter the holy of holies, to open the door of the kingdom of the height before them that would enter. Lo, he approaches the curtain of the royal house, that he may receive power to perform the mysteries that are to be done by his hand. Lo, the King of the height reaches out to hm the hand of the Spirit, and places in his hand the signet of His name, that he may seal His sheep. Lo, He puts on him the vesture of glory of the immortals, that he may hide therewith the disgrace of men who were guilty and exposed. Lo, He has brought him to visit the flock entrusted to him; and he lifts up his voice and calls the sheep by their names. Lo, the sheep are gathered together, and the lambs and the ewes; and he sets upon them the stamp of life of the word of his Lord. Lo, he brings them, as it were, into a furnace by means of their words; and he exacts from them the one confession of the name of the Creator. As a pen the Nod holds him spiritually, and inscribes writes body and soul in the book of life. As with a rod it drives from them by the word of his mouth the darkness of error which had blinded them from understanding.
"He lifts up his voice and says: 'Renounce ye the Evil One and his power and his angels and his service and his error.'
"They first renounce the dominion of the Evil One who brought them to slavery; and then they confess the power of the Creator who has set them free. Two things he says who draws night to the mysteries of the Church: a renunciation of the Evil One, and a faith in the Maker: 'I renounce the Evil One and his angels,' he cries with the voice, 'and I have no dealings with him, not even in word.'
"The priest stands as an interpreter, and asks him: 'Of whom dost thou wish to become a servant from henceforth?' He learns from him whom he wishes to call Master; and then he inscribes him in the number of the firstborns of the height.
"From Satan and his angels he turns away his face; and then he traces for him the image of the Divinity upon his forehead.
"The Evil One he renounces as an evil one whose intercourse is evil, and his angels as haters of the word of truth. The Evil One and his adherents hate the word of truth; and it behoves him who loves the truth to hate them. 'Thy haters, O Lord, I have hated,' let him repeat with the son of Jesse; and let him exact of him vengeance for the wrong the name of the Creator. A warfare has he that approaches Baptism with Satan and with his angels and with his service. His angels are men clothed in deceit, who minister to him with abominations full of wickedness. One of his angels is Mani, the treacherous wolf, who clothes himself in the likeness of the lambs of the flock and leads the flock astray. Another of his angels is Valentinus, the perverter of the truth, who obscures the resurrection of the dead with his idle prating. His angle also is Arius, the foul-minded, who lies sick of the disease of 'inequality,' which is worse than the leprosy. His angel also is Eunomius, the subtle serpent, who by his bites destroys the soul of them that obey him. One of his angels is the fool Apollinarius, who builds deceit into the edifice of the truth and is not abashed. Of his angels is Paul, the stubborn-minded, who insolently challenges the power of the Word of the Father. Among his angels we must number also Eutyches, the madman, who went mad in the matter of the passibility of the Empassible. As an inn-keeper he learned the inn-keeper's trade; and every moment he mixes up the living Nature with the passions of the body. Far greater is his wickedness than the wickedness of his fellows, and he renders greater help to the devil than his companions. By these the hater of men leads men astray; and by them he casts the poison of his deceit into the mind of men. These perform the various services of his abominations, and even improve upon them with lying inventions. His service is that service of which they boast; and therein his mysteries are uttered, and not those of the truth. Him the heretics serve in all manner of ways; and by his wiles they go astray, and lead astray their hearers. We must flee from them, then, as from the unclean, and we must not mingle with the abominations of their doings. 'Unclean' and 'evil ones' let us call them-them and the Evil One; and let us turn away our faces from their mysteries full of wickedness. Full of wickedness is the invention of the Evil One and of them that listen to him; and diseases of iniquity are hidden in the error of his craft His invention are the circus and the stadium and the theatres, and the riotous sounds of the songs which he has composed and written. His error are soothsayings and witchcrafts of all sorts – eye-winking and ear-tickling and street accosting. These things the disciple of the truth renounces when he becomes a disciple.
"And then he comes to the confession of the faith. The truth of his soul he reveals by the sensible voice: 'Lo,' he says, 'I have turned away from the Evil One to the Creator.' He puts the devils to shame by the utterance of his mouth: 'Hearken, ye rebellious ones, I have no part with you.' The assemblies of the height he makes to rejoice by the words of his faith: 'Come, ye spiritual ones, rejoice with me, for I am saved from destruction; I am your fellow-servant and a fellow-labourer in your works; and with that Lord to whom ye minister I am desirous of serving.' He names himself a soldier of the Kingdom of the height – a fugitive who has returned to take refuge with the King of Kings.
"He first entreats the stewards of Holy Church to present him at the door of the King, that he may speak his words. The stewards are the priests, the ministers of the Mysteries, to whom is committed the treasury of the Spirit to dispense. To one of them the wanderer, the exile, approaches, that they may set him free from the subjection of the Evil One who took him captive. As an exile he stands naked, without covering; and he shews him the toil and labour of his captors; house: 'I appeal to Thee, O King,' cries the captive to the King's servants, 'approach the King and entreat for me, that He may be reconciled to me. Enter and say to Him, “One of Thy servants has returned from captivity, and lo, with love he beseeches to see Thy face.” I have verily been made a captive by the slave that rebelled against Thy Lordship; free my life from his slavery, that he may not deride me. I am Thy servant, good Lord, and the son of Thy handmaid, why should I serve a wicked slave who has revolted from Thee? Heretofore I have wickedly served the all-wicked one; ransom me from him, that I may be Thine, for Thine I am.'
"These words the wanderer puts together on the day of his return, after the manner of the story of the younger son. For his sake were the parables enacted; and it is right that he should frame his words according to those that are written. He it is of whom it is written that he strayed and went forth, and turned and came; and the day of his going forth and of his repentance is inscribed in the Gospel. To-day comes to pass in truth that which is written; and abundant mercies go forth to meet him and receive him. At his repentance the heavenly assemblies are rejoicing; and they are escorting him as a dead man that has returned to life. The devil alone does he make to be in sorrow over his return, – that he has severed his meshes and broken his snares and left him and fled. From his bitter slavery the sinner has fled; and he has taken sanctuary with the good Lord whose love is sweet. From his exile the exile has returned to his Maker; and lo, he entreats to enter see the face of the King. By means of his petition he frames an indictment against his captor, and convicts him out of the law of God. To the servants of the King he gives the pen of the word of his mouth; and they write down and bring him before the Judge. The priests he asks as an advocate in the suit against the suit; and they plead the cause for him while he is silent. As in a lawsuit the priest stands at the hour of the Mysteries, and accuses the devil on behalf of sinners. The sinner also stands like a poor man that has been defrauded; and he begs and entreats that mercy may help him in the judgment. Naked he stands, and stripped before the Judge, that by his wretched plight he may win pity to cover him. Without covering he pleads his cause against his adversary, that the King may see him and swiftly exact judgment for him.
"He bends his knees and bows his head in his confusion, and is ashamed to look aloft towards the Judge. He spreads sackcloth; and then he draws near to ask for mercy, making mention of his subjection to the Evil One. Two things he depicts by his kneeling down at the hour of the Mysteries: one, his fall, and one, that he is making payment as a debtor. That fall which was in Paradise he now recalls; and he pleads a judgment with Satan who led astray his father. He is in dread of him, therefore his face is looking upon the ground till he hears the voice of forgiveness, and then he takes heart.
"He waits for the priest to bring in his words before the Judge; and he restores to him the chart of liberty with the oil and the water.
"A sponsor also he brings with him into the court, that he may come in and bear witness to his preparation and his sincerity. With sincerity he protests that he will abide in love of the truth; and his companion becomes surety: 'Yea, true is the protestation of his soul.' He becomes as a guide to his words and his actions; and he shews him the conduct of spiritual life. He calls his name, and presents him before the guards, that they may name him heir, and son, and citizen.
"In the books the priest inscribes the name of the lost one, and he brings it in and places it in the archives of the King's books. He makes him to stand as a sheep in the door of the sheep-fold; and he signs his body and lets him mix with the flock. The sign of the oil he holds in his hand, before the beholders; and with manifest things he proclaims the power of things hidden. And as by a symbol he shews to the eyes of the bodily senses the secret power that is hidden in the visible sign.
"O thou dust-born, that signest the flock with the sign of its Lord, and sealest upon it His hidden Name by the outward mark! A, dust-born, that holds the Spirit on the tip of his tongue, and cuts away the iniquity of the soul and body with the word of his mouth! Ah, mortal, in whose mouth is set a mighty spring, and who gives to drink life immortal to the sons of his race! A, pauper, son of paupers, that is grown rich on a sudden, and has begun to distribute the wealth of the Spirit which his fathers had not! Ah, dust-born, whose dust bears witness to his vileness, who has received power to create himself a new creation! A new creation the Good One taught the sons of his house, that they might restore the handiwork of His creation. The iniquity of men had cast down the high edifice which His hands had made; and He gave authority to men to build it again. He saw His work, that it was grown old and worn out in mortality, and he contrived for it a remedy of life immortal. He saw that the walls of His house were tottering through weakness; and He laid its foundations in the deep of the waters and made them firm. With feeble waters He was pleased to confirm feeble bodies; and with the power of the Spirit He would strengthen the wavering faculties. The furnace of the waters His purpose prepared mystically; and instead of fire He has heated it with the Spirit of the power of His will. His own handiwork He made a craftsman over His creation, that it should re-cast itself in the furnace of the waters and the heat of the Spirit. Come, ye mortals, see a marvel in mortal man, who dies and lives again by the mediation of its working. Come, let us examine the mystery of our dying in the midst of the waters; and let us look upon the wonder that is mystically achieved in us. Come, let us draw nigh to the treasurers of the Church's treasures, and let us hear from them how they give life by the water. Let us enter with them the mystical holy of holies, and let us learn from them the explanation of the mysteries of death and life. Death and life is the mystery of Baptism; and two things in one are performed therein by the hand of the priesthood. By the hand of the priesthood the Creator has been pleased to reveal His power; and to it He has entrusted the great riches of His sweetness. The priests He has established as stewards over His possessions, that as trusty officers they may distribute wealth to the sons of His house. To them He gave the signet of the name of the incomprehensible Divinity, that they might be stamping men with the holy Name. The stamp of His name they lay upon His flock continually; and with the Trinity men are signing men.
"The iron of the oil the priest holds on the tip of his fingers; and he signs the body and the senses of the soul with its sharp. The son of mortals whets the oil with the words of his mouth; and he makes it sharp as iron to cut off iniquity. The three names he recites in order, one after the other; and in triple wise he completes and performs the mystery of our redemption. Ah, weak one, how great is the wonder that is administered by thee! and the mouth is too little to say how great is the power of its significance. Ah, lowly one, how greatly is thy feebleness exalted! and the mind cannot ascend with thee whither thou has arrived. Ah, man – it is to the priest that I have said what I have said – how great is the authority given to thee that has to be giving life! Life does the priest give to his fellows by his ministry; and he treads out a way for his fellow-servants towards the things that are to come. The office of a mouth he fulfils for faculties and members; and on behalf of all he pronounces the words of forgiveness of iniquity. Oil and water he lays first as a foundation, and by his words he completes and builds the name of the Divinity. With liquid oil and weak water he re-casts the body; and instead of clay he changes makes pure gold. Who would not marvel at the power our poverty has acquired, that it should enrich itself from the gift incomprehensible? As a treasure-keeper the priest stands at the door of the sanctuary; and he applies the keys of the word of his mouth, and opens up life.
"The three names he casts upon the oil, and consecrates it, that it may be sanctifying the uncleanness of men by its holiness. With the name hidden in it he signs the visible body; and the sharp power of the name enters even unto the soul. Ah, marvel, which a man performs by that which is not his own; signing the feeble bodies so that the inward feel the pain. The office of a physician, too, he exercises towards the members; touching the exterior and causing pain to reach unto the hidden parts. To body and soul he applies the remedies of his art; and the open and hidden he heals by the divine power. Divinely he mixes the dug that is given into his hands; and all diseases he heals by its power without fail. As a shop he has opened the door of the holy temple; and he tends the sicknesses and binds up the diseases of his fellow-servants. With the external sign he touches the hidden diseases that are within; and then he lays on the drug of the Spirit with the symbol of the water. With the open voice he preaches its hidden powers; and with his tongue he distributes hidden wealth. The words he makes to sound in the ears of the flock three names when they are proclaimed. With the name of the Father and of the Son and the Spirit he seals his words; and he confirms him that is being baptized with their names. The three names he traces upon his face as a shield; that the tyrant may see the image of the Divinity on the head of a man. The cause of the singing on the forehead is for the confusion of the devils; that when they discern on the head of a man they may be overcome by it. On account of these are performed the mysteries of the oil and water, that they may be an armour against their warfare and attacks. An armour is the oil with which the earth-born are anointed, tha they may not be captured by the spirits in the hidden warfare. It is the great brand of the King of kings with which they are stamped, that they may serve in the spiritual contest. On their forehead they receive the spiritual stamp, that it may be bright before angels and men. Like brave soldiers they stand at the King's door, and the priest at their head like a general at the hour of the mysteries, that they may be casting sharp arrows at the foe. The arrows of words he fixes, sets in the midst of their mouths, that they may be aiming against the Evil One who made them slaves. A mark he sets before their eyes for them to aim at; and as on bow-string he draws back the words on their tongues. They enter into an examination at the beginning of the warfare to which they have been summoned, being tested by the confession of their minds. In truth the priest stands at the head of their ranks, and shews them the mark of truth that they may aim aright. They renounce the standard of the Evil One, and his power and his angels; and then he traces the standard of the King on their forehead. They confess and they renounce – the two in one, without doubting – a renunciation of the Evil One, and a confession of the heart in the name of the Divinity. By the hand of the priesthood they make a covenant with the Divinity, that they will not again return to Satan by their doings. They give to the priest a promise by the words of their minds; and he brings in, reads before the good-pleasure of God. The chart which is the door of the royal house he holds in his hands; and from the palace he has authority to inscribe men.
"He calls the King's servants by their names and causes them to stand; and he makes them to pass one by one, and marks their faces with the brand of the oil. By the voice of his utterances he proclaims the power that is hidden in his words, whose they are, and whose name it is with which they are branded: 'Such a one,' he says, 'is the servant of the King of kings that are on high and below; and with His name he is branded that he may serve according to His will.' The name of the Divinity he mixes in his hands with the oil; and he signs and says 'Father' and 'Son' and 'Holy Spirit.' 'Such a one,' he says, 'is signed with the three names that are equal, and there is no distinction of elder or younger between One and Another.'
"The priest does not say 'I sign,' but 'is signed'; for the stamp that he sets is not his, but his Lord's. He is the mediator who has been chosen by a favour to minister; and because it is not his it drives out iniquity and gives the Spirit. By the visible oil he shews the power that is in the names, which is able to confirm the feebleness of men with hidden. The three names he recites, together with the oil upon the whole man; that hostile demons and vexing passions may not harm him. It is not by the oil that he keeps men from harms: it is the power of the Divinity that bestows power upon feebleness. The oil is a symbol which proclaims the divine power; and by outward things He gives assurance of His works in secret. By His power body and soul acquire power; and they no more dread the injuries of death. As athletes they descend stand in the arena, and they close in battle with the cowardly suggestions that are in them. This power of the oil of anointing imparts: gives power to the unction of the feeble oil, and it waxes firm by the operation that is administered in it. By its firmness it makes firm the body and the faculties of the soul, and they go forth confidently to wage war against the Evil One. The sign of His name the devils see upon a man; and they recoil from him in whose name they see the Name of honour. The name of the Divinity looks out from the sign on the forehead; and the eyes of the crafty ones are ashamed to look upon it.
"The second Sun has shone from on high on the head of man; and with His beams He drives away error, the second honoured thee, who has made thy body a second sun by His gift. Come, O debtor, pay praise to Him that has set thee free; for He has redeemed thee and set thee free from the slavery of the Evil One and Death. Come, O mortal, give glory to the power of the Divinity, who has set in thee power to sow life in thy mortality. Cry out with all mouths, I race of Adam the earth-born, to Him who has lifted thee up from the dust to His own greatness."
Image above is St. John Damascus instead of Narsai. The quoted text is Narsai's 22nd Liturgical Homily. The English translation quoted is in the public domain due to the age of the work.