Washed in God’s Forgiveness

What Does Paul Mean by 'Baptism for the Dead'?
Ancient Baptismal font – Tunisia


#9 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Wash me from my iniquities and cleanse me of my sin”  Psalm 50:2

                “Out, Out Damn Spot!”  Lady MacBeth

This line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, captures the driving madness of guilt in the soul – in this case that of Lady Macbeth, who is driven by the guilt of the death of the King of Scotland, which she perpetrated.  In a mental fog she sees blood on her hands and can’t clean them and is driven to madness because of what she’s done. The blood of the dead is part of her, never to be removed.

Eradication of the Blood Evidence?

The popular TV show, The Black List, has portrayed from time to time, people called ‘cleaners’ who go in and clean up the mess at a murder scene (for a price of course). These people are supposedly very good at what they do.  Yet while  the TV shows seem to show that the blood of the murdered can be quickly and effectively cleaned, it seems that in real life residues of violence remain, materially – but also spiritually and psychologically. Try as they may, there is lingering DNA or other evidence that just doesn’t come out for the cleaners of this world.  And while one can create justifications for doing so, such as for soldiers who are ‘doing their job’ for ostensibly good reasons like defending the innocent, the stain and strain on the soul is very deep and very lasting.  Violence does that to the soul – which is why there are more victims to crimes than just those on the bullet end of the gun.

And certainly, the Prophet David felt this so deeply himself, for the blood of Uriah was on his hands and he couldn’t get rid of it – trying his best with excuses, collusive coercion to hide the deed, and self-deception.  But finally, when confronted with the truth by the prophet Nathan, he accepts what he has done, but this does not relieve his anguish.

So there is something of importance here about guilt. When all of our efforts to dull guilt’s powerful force of truth in our souls[i] by denial, or chemical ‘medication’ are no longer effective, we are stuck only with blood of another on our hands – which cannot seemingly be eradicated.[ii]  This ‘bloodstain’ is proverbial in many cultures, in fact the whole notion of ‘life-blood’ across the human experience makes things of the deepest human importance represented by blood.

Step 1 – Confession of Sin

So we see here the emergence of truth over falsehood through spiritual courage in the words of Nathan internalized by David.  He now realizes that his hands are bloodstained, but his words are not to the ‘Damn Spot’, but to the Lord.  His way out is not dealing with the problem, which cannot be resolved by himself, but by turning to God.  And while he cannot wash the blood from his hands, He cries out to God to do this for him: “Wash me from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

This takes deep humility, courage and faith to pray in such a way.  It takes humility just to acknowledge this to Almighty God, Whom he has so offended.  It takes courage to stand up and acknowledge this because he will have to face the consequences. (Recall how Adam hid from God after his sin – Gen 2)  But, it also takes faith, to somehow believe in a God who would not obliterate him from the face of the earth because of this grievous sin – but that He somehow longed for David’s betterment, effectively a loving God.

Confession of sins – including sacramental Confession requires at least these three things – humility, courage and faith – confronting our sins and their work within us.  Failing humility, we will be like Pharisees, never seeing our sin, or justifying ourselves. and, a deeper anger often results, with ever-increasing self-protection through self-justification.   Lacking courage we will stew in our self-awareness of sin, but be unable to acknowledge it to another, we never get to the ‘washing’.  Depression, despondency and even despair follows – leading to the fate of Judas Iscariot. Lacking faith, we may not ever complete the ‘return’ and come to know the One who came into the world to forgive sins.  This is the essence of faith in Jesus, as the Savior Who came for this expressed purpose – to forgive us our sins.  It takes a personal faith to get to this point, not in ourselves, but in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, the mercy and forgiveness of God, the Father is manifest as divine love, completing the circle of our return to restoration.

I would note that I find that those who do come to Sacramental Confession with regularity and purpose, are truly helped by this grace.  I think it may be for several reasons – first that they must simply say what they did wrong aloud.  It’s not enough to ‘say it to God’ in many cases, that it never gets past the five walls of our heads. So it just rattles around in there – to use a popular term – it’s a spiritual echo chamber.  The mouth becomes the point of exit of the sin – and when heard by another (i.e. priest) it is a freeing experience to know that someone says, ‘I hear you.’ Without judgment.  The priest serves as the ‘ears’ of God in physical form, to help us ‘get it out’ and begin the healing process.[iii]

Step 2: Washing of the Sin

Now to get to the point of deliverance from the sin, there must be a process of cleansing.  The Church has proclaimed this cleansing process in many different manifestations.[iv] 

The Cleansing of Baptism

If we follow the Church’s practice of  receiving people into Christianity and the Church, called the catechumenate, we can see how this preparation for Baptism worked for the healing of the soul through forgiveness.  A person outside the Church is one who is in sin – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) Perhaps a person’s sins do not seem as dastardly as David’s, but again using St. Paul’s words, the wages of all sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The reception of people into the catechumenate brought them awareness of how sin works in their lives, the mission of Christ for our forgiveness through the Paschal Mystery[v], and the necessary work of repentance and reforming one’s life morally, to overcome sin. Prior to Baptism, a full life confession was made (and still is) so that this would open the soul through the washing of the blessed waters of Holy Baptism.  The words of the baptismal liturgy repeat those of scripture, of how forgiveness of sins and washing of the soul is accomplished through Baptism – echoed by the apostles from the earliest proclamations of the Church. (Acts 2:38)

Shedding the Clothes of Work in the World

We know that if we’ve been working in the dirt outside doing our spring planting, that the clothes themselves get  dirty and need washed, perhaps vigorously.  If you take a shower and put on the same clothes you get dirty again! For the early Church, the ‘dirty work’ was not digging in the soil, but living in the world of sin and its pollution through our actions in participating in them. Going back to the old ways of working in the world would stain the soul. When a person came to be cleansed in the waters of Baptism, she or he was literally stripped naked of their clothes before going into the baptismal pool.  This was a way of ‘shedding’ the filth of the world and its evils – and rejecting the Devil and all his works, he who is the Prince of this World. When the newly baptized person emerged from the baptismal pool they were clothed in a new, bright white garment which served as a sign to them of the inner reality of their cleansing, and new life in Christ.  It also served as an external witness, as they wore the baptismal garments in the world for a first week after their baptism. Wearing a white garment walking the streets during a time of persecution could result in quick martyrdom!

The Washing by Blood. 

The Church deals with Lady Macbeth’s problem in a powerful way.  The blood is cleansed by Blood – the Blood of Jesus.  To understand Baptism being more than a simple religious ritual, it’s necessary to understand how the Blood of Christ, “shed for you and for many”[vi], is for the remission of sins.  At the time of Jesus, the baptism of repentance proclaimed and carried out by St. John the Baptist, and was a simple washing of water. But Christian baptism is much, much more. As the apostles tell us:

Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.   (Romans 6)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.   (1Jn.1:7)

So, for Christians, the forgiveness of sins goes far beyond the profound work of Nathan for David, but is accomplished through Baptism in the shedding of His Blood – the Death of Jesus.  Through Baptism, a sinful person dies to sin, but is born again in Christ. The Baptism in the Death of the Christ means being joined to His sacrifice of the Cross – a true Sacrifice with the shedding of Blood of the innocent One, which washes away all sin. She can then be joined with the very person of Jesus Christ, unto life eternally.   This new life brings with it a whole new way of living, enlivened in the Holy Spirit, who continues to purify us and help us in the life of perfection intended for us.

So we are washed in the Waters of Holy Baptism but this is a Symbol (in the ancient sense), of our Baptism in the Death of Christ and his Blood, bringing with it the deliverance from sin and Death through His Resurrection as St. Paul assures.

The Washing of Christ Heals

Understanding the effects of Baptism, is to enter a true Mystery not only in a theological sense, but a personal one as well.  I cannot easily understand how my forgiveness happens through the Blood of Christ[vii] – but rather that it does, accepting it by my faith.  This becomes the start of a new life for the Christian, wherein he is now warriors against sin at work in himself and when called by the Lord, in the world. This is defined as a struggle – first begun in the catechumenate, which the Christian undergoes, in ‘taking up the Cross’ of that struggle inwardly and through personal behavior.

So what Happens to the Spot?

The spot of sin is completely washed and like the world of sin after the Flood at the time of Noah, it is cleansed and begins anew. The old is gone.  Although we are ‘born again’ into Christ through Baptism, we are not like newborns in certain respects.   The secondary effects of our prior sins may, in some cases, remain.  The wounds caused by our sinful decisions may remain in our lives and the lives of others.  The alcoholic who has abused liquor for decades will may still have a sick liver. The healing of psychological trauma of sin also takes time – not unlike the healing of PTSD in the mind of a soldier at war.[viii]  The external effects of sin, say addiction, must still be dealt with – i.e., if one’s sin led to anger, which led to a breakdown of marriage and family or divorce, that’s got to be dealt with.  But the New Way of Christ has guideposts for walking the rest of life by grace, invoking this grace for continued healing in body and soul flowing from the spring of one’s heart renewed in through the sacraments of the Church.

I believe that the painful memories of past sins, though washed, can be helpful to us.  They are a reminder – ‘Don’t go there again!’  You know from experience where it leads, just as the Prodigal Son learned how he wound up in the pig pen.  The forgiven sinner can and must say, ‘No’.  Ironically, after Baptism and forgiveness they can be powerful witness to others who need someone to help them in their struggle – as AA and other 12 Step Programs show.  The prayers of Confession remind us of the need for a ‘Firm resolve’ – deciding in our minds and hearts not to offend God, or others again.

Also, the remembrance of the pain of the past can call us to compassion for others.  So, when we remember our sin, we remember that we weren’t alone in it – but that others were brutalized by our actions.  This can lead us to a spirit of compassion born of remorse because of what we’ve done, reconciliation and healing of those relationships. Being forgiven means that we come to these relationships from a different place – with a sense of hope and trust in God as a way to amending our life.  So often the crippling effect of sin keeps us from ever being able to look into the face of others whom we have offended.  Forgiveness allows us, even compels us, to look up and look around.

Wash and Rinse – a New Start

So, In this blessed washing, the spots of damnation are cleansed completely. We are changed – not only forgiven, but given a new future and perspective to live a life in this world and in the world to come, in keeping with the truth of Him Who shed His Blood for us to accomplish this washing. A very high price indeed.

[i] I note here what I would call true guilt’ born in the conscience  – based on the truth of what we have done and why.  This is very different from a kind of false guilt which is a psychological illness where people blame themselves of all sorts of things inappropriately.  Ironically the ‘blaming’ of other things can be a delusion to deflect where the real internal troubling of one soul is originating.

[ii] In perhaps one of the most ironic verses in Scripture, the Jewish leaders cry out to Pontius Pilate at the Judgment of Jesus to be Crucified, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children.” (Mt. 27:35)  This verse is worthy of much meditation.

[iii] There is much more to the role of the priest in the confessional context of course – to be explored later.

[iv] One which cannot be covered here is the cleansing through tears, the weeping for one’s sins, of which the spiritual fathers speak so frequently.

[v] ‘Paschal Mystery’ is an ancient term which includes the events of the Cross, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus into which the Christian enters through the Mysteries, or sacraments.  The ancient homilies of the Fathers of the Church to the catechumens as well as those to the newly baptized are extremely important and enlightening as they explain the Christian’s participation in the life of God through the Paschal Mystery.

[vi] These words of the Lord in the institution of the Holy Eucharist show us the immediate link of the Mystery of forgiveness through Baptism and repeated through the reception of the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Baptism is not repeated – we are not re-baptized, but forgiveness in an ongoing way and entry into divine life is sustained by the Person of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

[vii] Notwithstanding the passages in Romans and elsewhere which speak of a metaphorical  juridical process of forgiveness through justification by faith, as with most metaphors these become insufficient to explain with sufficient clarity the mechanics of this sort of thing – hence I am reluctant to go into the ‘appeasement of God’s wrath’ and other constructs which may start in the scriptures but go beyond that truthful base into other places including outright falsehood. We do well do stay within the boundaries of the patristic understanding of all this.

[viii] Over the years I’ve been amazed at how some who have struggled with addictions, once they make their life change, actually experience physical as well as emotional and spiritual healing. As much as anything, they are in a better place to take care of themselves being no longer prisoner of addictive, destructive thinking.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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