SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN
Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of God. Verily, I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” (Luke 18;16-17)
The other Sunday, several small children and two babies were taking their first communion after baptism. They looked so sweet in their new clothes and our priest showed immense patience and love in his attempts to get the babes to take the bread and wine. I love to watch the different reactions of the babies. Some hate the whole affair and scream throughout, eventually being ‘force fed’ while held in a sort of gentle headlock. Some are as good as gold. My favourites are those who cry and refuse to co-operate until they taste the wine and decide they quite like it after all! With them all, however, the priest talks gently and kindly.
Unlike the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, there is no Confirmation Service in the Orthodox Church; the child at baptism immediately becomes a full member of the Church, including participation in Holy Communion. There is no need for the promises made by the godparents to be confirmed by the child itself on reaching an age of understanding. When I first considered this concept, my Baptist origins and even my later Anglican beliefs rebelled a little. Surely a baby cannot understand enough to be a full participant in the Church’s sacraments. However, like the Irishman giving directions who says “Well, I wouldn’t start from here,” the Orthodox doctrine starts from a completely different understanding of the nature of the Church and the meaning of Baptism.
Fr. Antony Coniaris expresses the concept beautifully and simply: “Baptizing infants before they know what is going on is an expression of God’s great love for us. It shows that God loves us and accepts us before we can ever know Him or love Him. It shows that we are wanted and loved by God from the very moment of birth. To say that a person must reach the age of reason and believe in Christ before he may be baptized is to make God’s grace in some way dependent on man’s intelligence. But God’s grace is not dependent on any act of ours, intellectual or otherwise; it is a pure gift of His love.” Christ said, “Let the children come to me” and nowhere is this command followed with such literalness as in the Orthodox Church. The child is accepted by God at the time of Baptism, it receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit and becomes a full participant in the Church’s rites. Baptism, however, is a beginning, not an end. Nobody can undo the sacrament of Baptism; nobody can take away the gift of God’s love. But what we do with this gift is up to us. As children grow and begin to understand, they must accept the gifts for themselves but this does not require a particular act of confirmation but is a continuing journey of discovery.
One aspect of their full membership of the Orthodox Church is the considerable freedom allowed to children in churches, at least in Greece. Although taught from an early age that they mustn’t go up the steps of the Sanctuary, nobody minds much if they run about or even chatter during the services. A visiting friend, an Anglican vicar, found this astounding when compared with the English attitude towards children in church, where they should be “seen and not heard” or even not seen too much.
The position of the Orthodox Church on children before Baptism is slightly less clear. There have been cases of priests and even bishops refusing to give Christian burial to unbaptized babies but this is unusual. I believe most Orthodox priests and theologians would take Christ’s words in the full spirit and accept that a baby, while not a member of the Church must yet be subject to God’s infinite love and mercy. Indeed, this is implicit in the Orthodox funeral service where, for the funerals of children up to the age of two, the petitions for the forgiveness of sins are omitted, surely meaning that babies are innocent of sin. There has certainly never been a place in Orthodoxy for the extraordinary doctrine of ‘Limbo’. It is a tragedy that a theoretical philosophical concept, first postulated merely to get out of a complex theological paradox, should have resulted in so much suffering for so many parents for so many centuries. Thank God, the doctrine has now been consigned to the Vatican’s dustbin!
To conclude with more words from Dostoyevsky's character, the Elder Zossima, who he possibly based on St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: “Love children especially, for they too, like the angels, are without sin, and live to arouse tender feelings in us and to purify our hearts, and are as a sort of guidance to us. Woe to him who offends a child.”