Word Magazine June 1997 Page 17
By Father Troy Mashburn
In a healthy Orthodox parish, there is a continual flow of births, and consequently baptisms in the parish. Where the parish is genuinely taking the faith to the surrounding world, there is also a steady stream of Chrismations of individuals into the parish and the Kingdom of God. In each of these blessed sacramental events, not only are the priest and the one receiving the sacrament integrally involved. A third person is essentially entwined in the sacrament, that being the Godparent (sponsor). Many times the Godparent’s role is minimized, centering only on material aspects of the sacrament. However, he has personal responsibilities as well as representative responsibilities for the entire parish that go far beyond material considerations. It is good for us to be reminded of the role of Godparents in the life of the Orthodox Christian.
Regarding his representative role, we must never forget that the entire parish takes responsibility for those “born again” by baptism (or received by Chrismation) into its midst.
Regarding the godparent’s personal role, there are many good descriptions in print already. I have borrowed the following from one of the better ones, Fr. Stanley Harakas’ 455 Questions, wherein he discussed the history and responsibility of Godparents as follows:
“The godparent at a baptism is recorded as early as the year 200 by Tertullian in his book De Baptismo. St. John Chrysostom mentions godparents in his book On The Psalms. In the early church, adults, primarily, were baptized. Godparents were chosen for each person. They were nearly always of the same sex of the person to be baptized. Their role was to assure the Church of the moral character of the candidate, to assist at the baptism itself, and to watch over his or her growth in the faith. By the 6th century, the practice of infant baptism became dominant. Together, with their previous duties, the godparent is responsible for the spiritual and moral growth of the child. In the East the godparent is known as “Anadohos,” which literally means, “one who takes responsibility for another” which shows both the role and the significance of the godparent … When you become a child’s godparent, you become the spiritual and religious mentor and guide of your godchild for the duration of both of your lives …
“The sponsor is a very important person in the baptismal service and in the life of the baptized Christian. In the early Church the majority of persons entering the Church were adults. This meant that they were able to make their own profession of faith, to reject evil and sin, and personally commit themselves to Christ. In infant baptism, which otherwise has much to commend it, this is not possible. The parents make the decision to baptize their child, thus bringing the child into the life of redemption. It is the Godparent, however, who rejects the devil, accepts Christ, and who makes the profession of faith on behalf of the child. It is a mistake for Godparents to think of their role as a merely social one. It is primarily religious and spiritual. The task of the Godparent does not consist simply in buying a cross and some new clothing, and participating in the service of baptism … All these things are merely the beginning of the responsibilities of the sponsor. For with these acts, the sponsor assumes a lifelong commitment to care for the spiritual aspects of the life of his or her Godchild. This means several things. First, to see to it, together with the parents, that the child is taught the necessary things for the living of the Christian life. This includes attendance at Church religious education classes, and, most importantly, frequent participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Godparents should also have close personal ties with their Godchildren. They should visit with them regularly, in person, by letter, or on the phone. They should remember their Godchildren on their name days, birthdays and other holidays. All this should be accompanied by loving counsel and concern in reference to the various stages of their lives with a view to the Christian formation of the Godchild. In later years, during the teens, a Godparent who has done these things during childhood years may prove to be the only one who can influence a young person during those trying and difficult times. Finally, the Godparent should include his or her Godchild in daily prayers.”
All of this may (and should) give prospective Godparents pause before accepting the task. It is a great responsibility. However, we should not flee from it, but embrace it. It will always prove to be just as instrumental for the Godparent’s salvation as it does for the newly baptized or Chrismated. It is in our sharing our lives in Christ with others that we ourselves draw nearer to the Holy Trinity. May God grant us increased understanding of this important role in the Kingdom of God.