This week is one of those rare weeks when the antiphon – after which the entire Sunday is named (Quasimodo Geniti) – is not from Psalms. It’s from I Peter chapter 2. Here is the full context:
“Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because ‘All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever.’ Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”
In short, you have been born again by the Word of God – it alone endures forever – so as newborn babes, desire the Word of God, by which you grow, from which you have “tasted that the Lord is gracious.”
First, a quick comment on antiphons as a reminder of that liturgical element known as the Introit. Introits are based on Psalms, but they are more than Psalms. They are Psalms with antiphons and the Gloria Patri. True, perhaps 95% of antiphons are from the Psalm, but occasionally the Church has seen fit to add to the Psalms, to improve them, as it were.
Improve on God’s Word? Yes, when that Word is in its unfulfilled mode. Remember, all the Old Testament is as a veil, and the veil only comes off in Christ. The antiphons turn the Psalms from a general word claimed by Jews and Christians, to something only claimed by Christians. No one but a Christian says, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.”
So also the antiphons. The Psalm used this week – “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. – was insufficient without the installment of what Jesus added to it. Alone the Psalm could be talking about manna; Jesus fulfilled the manna and became the Word made flesh who gives us His flesh to eat. Manna spoiled each day; Jesus’ flesh never corrupts, and remains the only living, organic thing in all history to not be able to corrupt.
Just like the Word which St. Peter talks about. “The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever.” That Word is Christ, who cannot wither, by whose resurrection we are born again in baptism, and Whom we desire as spiritual milk, having tasted that He is gracious.
The Psalm needed that antiphon.
Now to the main theme of the week. As newborn babes.
This is obviously speaking about being born again, or what was known as palingenesia, a term used by many of the mystery cults in the ancient world, as well as by the Gnostics. For them, being born again meant being made woke to the delusions of this world. It was an internal phenomenon, involving the manipulation of internal, psychological faculties.
Everything about the Christian’s second birth focuses on the external. It’s by the Word that rebirth happens. It’s by baptism.
At the center of the distinction between the two births is the heart of the analogy itself: babies. Consider how Gnosticism looks at the birthing event versus how it actually works and what it means for the analogy.
The pre-born situation is one in which one’s individual existence blurs with that of the mother. The distinction between Self and Other is at a minimum, particularly at conception, even if the new person’s individual distinctiveness grows bit by bit which each new day. Still, prior to birth that distinction is almost negligible. The baby doesn’t even eat. It’s almost like another organ of the mother, being nourished like a kidney or the brain.
In Gnostic terms, this phase is similar to our pre-born existence in the Pleroma, where all is as one. The things that separate people – our flesh and blood – haven’t developed yet. We exist in a fullness of harmony with one another, the distinction between Self and Other is almost negligible.
At birth, a radical separation is introduced. Now, the “walls are set up” (in Gnostic terms), and now we begin to see ourselves as distinct persons separate from all others. This, again in Gnostic terms, is the radical beginning that sets us on the road to delusion, to falsely thinking our flesh and blood define us. We lose that primal oneness from which we came.
And the growth of a baby only furthers the evil. Day by day the child grows more independent, gains consciousness, discovers himself as a distinct being. Notice the discovery a baby first has when he sees himself in a mirror. In Gnostic terms this is the fall! All this “growth” and “discovery” is actually propaganda from the Creator of this fleshly, material world, getting us to define ourselves by where our flesh and blood places us – as members of a family, as located within the borders of a nation, as having a sex. And this is the stuff we need to be “woke” from, truly born again from, if we would be saved.
The Christian understanding of new birth couldn’t be more different.
For us, it’s the birth of the new man – precisely as a distinct flesh and blood person – that is exactly the goal! That new birth climaxes, after all, in the resurrection, in our new birth from the grave, following what happened with Jesus’ flesh and blood.
And because it’s all physical, external stuff, we have no problem discerning the “born again” moment as formed by water and the Word, both external things. It was the Gospel, St. Peter said, rooted in the Word that endures forever – Jesus – that causes us to be born again.
Since the creation, God’s Word has had a “separating” effect, separating light from darkness, land from water, up from down, man from dirt. God’s Word is the midwife of the newly born baby! It separates us from a world submerging into nothingness, dust, and chaos. God’s Word calls us out of the world.
How does it do this? Simple! By faith. Here is the truth – Jesus Christ is risen and will save you – and if you believe that, you are separated from the world to take part in the holy people who give thanks for that truth (otherwise known as the Divine Liturgy). You are separated, midwifed, by the Word, and now you are like babies.
It’s not a pre-born analogy, where the baby receives nourishment similar to an internal organ of the mother. It’s a post-born analogy, where the baby is in a posture of receiving his gifts from an “other” distinct from itself, the milk. He lives by pure grace and gift, and at birth, the connection between the baby and its desire for nourishment is almost seamless – like it was born knowing how to suckle.
So also us. The evangelical analogy – “Here’s the gift, but you have to decide whether you want it or not.” – doesn’t fit. Rather, the gift itself – the milk – dictates, you might say, the terms of receiving it, and the baby knows this, from the milk itself! The baby knows not to reject the milk. Of course, it’s hunger drives that reception.
There’s a reason why Jesus sets up babies as the emblem of faith. Babies know only their hunger and receive without rejection the gifts of life and nourishment given to them.
So also us. The gifts of grace dictate the terms of our reception of them, and its our hunger and thirst for righteousness driving that reception. Our hunger for the manna that does not corrupt, the Word that does not wither.
This week Jesus gives out the Holy Spirit, who “speaks by the prophets” and who brings the Word to us. That gift of the Holy Spirit – that breath restoring Adam’s life and turning dry bones into an army – is all centered in the Church’s ministry of forgiving sins.
This is the breast from which the milk comes, the forgiveness every Christian hungers for, delivered by the Word which midwifes us – separates us – from the sinners and places us among the saints. The Church is the product of that, yes, even the architectural structure, each element of its structure rooted in the purpose for which the church is intended. It’s a real thing. It’s walls separate us from the world. It’s pulpit singles out the Word. It’s altar is where the newborn babe’s mouth is directed to suckle.