Baptism in Brixton
The Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg, has been eclectic by its very nature. For a long time it was the only English-speaking Orthodox Church in Gauteng, and so drew people from all over the province and beyond. It has had “parishioners” from Limpopo and the Western Cape. When it began, it met in various venues around Johannesburg — St Matthew’s Anglican Hall in Fairmount, St Martin’s in the Veld Anglican chapel in Dunkeld, an old Russian Chapel in Yeoville, and finally landed in Brixton because the old Brixton Tabernacle was for sale — it formerly belonged to the Full Gospel Church.
So the parish could have had a home almost anywhere in central Gauteng. When the new temple was acquired, people came from all over to Brixton, and nobody came from the immediate neighbourhood. “Parish” was a bit of a misnomer. The English word “parishioner” comes from the Greek “pariki”, which can be translated directly into Afrikaans as “bywoners” — squatters, sharecroppers. In the New Testament, God’s people are described thus (Heb 11:13, II Pet 2.11), as “strangers and pilgrims”). But pariki means literally those “beside the house” — in other words, those who live around the temple. But St Nicholas parishioners did not. They came from elsewhere, almost anywhere but Brixton itself.
But having acquired a permanent home, we thought we should at least introduce ourselves to the neighbourhood, and invite them to join us. We printed 5000 pamphlets, giving a brief explanation of what the Orthodox Church was, and had them distributed as junk mail in Brixton and neighbouring suburbs — Crosby, Mayfair, Vrededorp, Auckland Park, Hurst Hill. At least when we did our weird processions round the block on Good Friday and Easter, people would know what was going on. Occasionally local people dropped in, but they usually dropped out again pretty quickly. There were a few Roman Catholics — there was no Roman Catholic Church nearby, so they came to St Nicholas, but then they moved away again.
But over the last couple of years, neighbourhood children have dropped in to the services more frequently.
Orthodox services are not “children’s services”. They are not “seeker sensitive”, as some say nowadays. They are not designed to attract adults, never mind children. They are really for the faithful. Indeed, at one point in the service the deacon says, “Depart catechumens, let all catechumens depart, let no catechumen remain” and the prayer that follows this is called “The First Prayer of the Faithful”. But still the children came… and went. Until now.
Yesterday we baptised David, the first person from the neighbourhood to be baptised.
Onyebuchiuche Nnagie (known as Buche) is seven years old, and like other children in the neighbourhood, dropped in to St Nicholas. But, unlike some of the others, he made a friend — Milosh Krunich, also aged 7. Milosh wanted to be an altar boy in services, so Buche did too.
Other children came and went, but Buche stayed. He became a regular. So he was asked if he wanted to be baptised, and he did. But being so young, he needed the permission of his parents, and his parents, Ernest and Thembi Nnagie, agreed.
In being baptised, he could choose a Christian name, and he and his parents chose David. I looked up St David to see which one should be his name saint, and I had no idea there were so many saints named David — four kings (of Israel, Wales and Georgia), and a couple of martyrs and teachers as well. St Gleb the passionbearer was named David in baptism.
Buche’s parents came to the baptism, and were greatly impressed. Some of his neighbourhood friends came as well. They come for the Liturgy, which, with Matins, lasts from 8:30 to 11:00, though they usually spend part of the time in Sunday School, This time they stuck around for the baptism, and several of them said they wanted to be baptised too.
And, quite independently of David and his family, we’ve had a couple of other people drop in from the neighbourhood. One of them, Jamie, was impressed by the prayers said at the blessing of the water for baptism. I said he should make sure not to miss the Theophany (Epiphany) service, where the blessing of water is central.
Orthodox baptism services are not for the faint-hearted. They begin with no fewer than four exorcisms, a renouncing of the devil, and an accepting of Christ. For those interested, the text of the baptism service is available for download here.
So Buche was baptised as David, and Milosh’s mother, Henriette, was his sponsor.
The priest prays:
In thy Name, O Lord of truth, and in the Name of thine Only-begotten son, and of thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon they servant (name), who has been found worthy to flee unto thy holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of thy wings.
Remove far from him (her) his (her) former delusion, and fill him (her) with the faith, hope and love which are in thee; that he (she) may know that thou art the only true God, with thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and thy Holy Spirit.
Enable him (her) to walk in all thy commandments, and to fulfil those things which are well-pleasing unto thee, for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them.
Inscribe him (her) in thy Book of Life, and unite him (her) to the flock of thine inheritance. And may thy holy Name be glorified in him (her), together with that of thy beloved son our Lord Jesus Christ, and of thy life-creating Spirit.
Let thine eyes ever regard him (her) with mercy, and let thine ears attend unto the voice of his (her) supplication.
Make him (her) to rejoice in the works of his (her) hands, and in all his (her) generation; that he (she) may render praises unto thee, may sing, worship and glorify thy great and exalted Name always all the days of his (her) life.
For all the Powers of Heaven sing praises unto thee, and thine is the glory, of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
This is followed by the four exorcisms.
After the exorcisms, and the renunciation of the devil and turning to Christ, he is brought into the church to the font, where the water is blessed.
The priest blesses the water saying:
Great art thou, O Lord, and marvelous are thy works, and there is no word which suffices to hymn thy wonders. (three times)
For thou, of thine own good will, hast brought into being all things which before were not, and by thy might thou dost uphold creation, and by thy providence thou dost order the world. When thou hadst joined together the universe out of four elements, thou didst crown the circle of the year with four seasons. Before thee tremble all the Powers endowed with intelligence. The sun sings unto thee. The moon glorifies thee. The stars meet together before thy presence. The light obeys thee. The deeps tremble before thee. The water-springs are subject unto thee. Thou hast spread out the heavens like a curtain. Thou hast established the earth upon the waters. Thou hast set round about the sea barriers of sand. Thou hast shed abroad the air for breathing. The Angelic Powers serve thee. The Choirs of the Archangels fall down in adoration before thee. The many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim as they stand round about and fly, veil their faces in awe before thine ineffable glory. For thou, who art God inexpressible, existing uncreated before the ages, and ineffable didst descend upon earth, and didst take on the semblance of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man: for, because of the tender compassion of thy mercy, O Master, thou coudst not endure to behold mankind oppressed by the Devil; but thou didst come and didst save us. We confess thy grace. We proclaim thy Mercy. We conceal not thy gracious acts. Thou hast delivered the generation of our mortal nature. By thy birth thou didst sanctify a Virgin’s womb. All creation magnifies thee, who hast revealed thyself. For thou, O our God, has revealed thyself upon earth, and has dwelt among men. Thou didst hallow the streams of Jordan, sending down upon them from heaven thy Holy Spirit, and didst crush the heads of the dragons who lurked there.
Wherefore, O King who lovest mankind, come thou now and sanctify this water, by the indwelling of they Holy Spirit. (three times)
And grant unto it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities; the final destruction of demons, unassailable by hostile powers, filled with angelic might. Let those who would ensnare thy creature flee far from it. For we have called upon thy Name, O Lord, and it is wonderful, and glorious and awesome unto adversaries.
The Oil of Gladness is blessed by the priest, and then some is poured into the baptismal water, while the rest is poured over the candidate for baptism. This is why Christians are called Christians — the name “Christians” means “oily ones”.
He is also given a lighted candle as a symbol of the light of Christ. For the next forty days, when he bcomes to receive the Holy Communion, he will come holding the candle, and will be the first to receive communion.
And after the baptism, he receives Holy Communion
David’s friends were very impressed, and several of them asked to be baptised too
Father Athanasius, the parish priest of St Nicholas, remarked that, as far as he knew, David was the first person from the Brixton neighbourhood to be baptised at St Nicholas, and hoped that he would be the first of many, and that the day would come when the priest of the parish would himself have roots in the local community.