Our Faith - Preparing to Serve as a Godparent
It is a rule of the Orthodox Faith that every person, child or adult, should have a Godparent at Baptism. To serve as a Godparent is both a special honor and imposes responsibilities which last a lifetime.
It is an honor because God is using you to lead a soul into the sphere of redemption. Christ tells us: "Whosoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark. 16:16). Through Baptism we receive a full forgiveness of all sin, whether original or actual; we "put on Christ,” becoming members of His Body, the Church. The Godparent, along with the parents and guided by the Church, should assist the newly baptized child through the walk of life. Just as natural parents have serious obligations for the care and nurture of their child, so Godparents have important duties in regard to their Godchild, in particular to see to it that the child receives a Christian upbringing.
Before one says "Yes,” to assuming the role of Godparent, he or she should make certain that the commitment to the baptized child will be honored. Every Godparent becomes accountable to God as to whether or not he has discharged his duties to the child which he has baptized. Mindful of the sacred task of the Godparent, this information has been parent to provide every Orthodox Christian parent helpful hints in selecting the right person for the new infant and to make the intended Godparent acutely aware of his or her task.
When It All Began
The early Church faced the problem that the majority of those who wanted to become her members came from pagan families and therefore lacked even an elementary Christian education and knowledge of the new faith. To remedy this, the Church undertook the task of educating them before their baptism. The systematic instruction, which was a preparatory stage for baptism was called "catechism.” During catechism one learned the simple elements of the Christian faith and morals and later in the fourth century one was also given an education of the more profound Christian mysteries, as is made clear in the 4th Pre-baptismal Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem. The candidate had to be introduced by one of the faithful, called "anadochos,” and be examined by the "doctors” who were in charge of the catechumens, to ensure that clear spiritual motives led him to enter the Church. The "anadochos” which means one who receives, was responsible for the candidate and played a very important role during the process of his catechesis and even after the candidate had been baptized. Eventually, infant baptism become the norm rather than the exception in the Church and the "anadochos” or Godparent was called upon to be the spokesperson for the infant.
The Role of The Godparent During Baptism
The Godparent is the representative of the infant who is being admitted into the Church of Christ. He speaks for the infant and vows that he will do all he can to assure that the child will be a true soldier of Christ and a devoted member of His Church. He accepts the sacred responsibility of guiding the child into the understanding and practice of the teachings of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The Godparent makes a public profession of the Nicene Creed during the Baptism. Every Godparent should try to have the Creed committed to memory prior to the Baptism. His renunciation of the devil is made on behalf of the candidate for Baptism. The Godparent implicitly pledges himself to aid his Godchild in whatever necessities that may arise, but most especially in the giving of good Orthodox Christian example to the Godchild.
Choosing the Godparent
Parents must exercise the greatest care in the selection of Godparents for their children. Certainly they will never select atheists or agnostics, or persons who are lukewarm toward the Church. The Godparent must bring godliness and holiness to the child. Godparents are parents representing God or parents on God's behalf. Jesus loved to have children come to Him. The Gospels tell of one such incident: "Some people brought their babies to have Jesus place His hands on them. The disciples saw them and scolded them for doing so. Jesus called the Children to Him and said, ‘Let the children come to me! Do not forbid them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:13-14).
The faith of the Godparent is significant. The person who confesses Jesus Christ as His Lord cannot ignore and violate in word and deed this faith. How can he promise God that he will make certain that the child will grow to be true follower of Christ, when he himself lives a life of unbelief and disobedience!
It goes without saying that the Godparent cannot b e a non-Orthodox person. How could someone who is not Orthodox provide the proper religious education, example and inspiration to his Godchild? It should be noted that an Orthodox who has not had his marriage blessed in the Orthodox Church is also excluded from exercising the privilege of serving as a sponsor. The Church also cautions us to select a person who has reached the age of reason and moral responsibility (at least 12 years of age).
Choosing a Name
Nowadays one of the commonest ways of naming a child is just to give the child a name you happen to like. More often than it is the name of some actor or actress. Saint John Chrysostom has an interesting suggestion in this matter. He writes: "Let us afford our children from the first and incentive to goodness from the name that we give them. Let none of us hasten to call his children after his forebears, his father and mother and grandfather and grandmother, but rather after the righteous - martyrs, bishops, apostles. Let one be called Peter, another John, another bear the name of one of the saints. Let the names of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children.”
It is Saint Chrysostom's idea that the child should be given a great name; that he should be repeatedly told the story of the great bearer of the name; and that thus he should be motivated to make himself like the great owner of the name which he bears.
What Is Expected of the Godparent?
It is a gross misunderstanding to think that the only duty of the Godparent is to buy a new outfit for the infant. Certainly this a beautiful tradition, when possible, but the emphasis must not be on the material but rather the spiritual. The Godparent should make a faithful commitment of love and that he will join the struggle with the parents, guided b y the Church, to bring the infant carefully and prayerfully along the difficult road to heaven.
The Godparent traditionally purchases a complete new white dress or suit to be worn by the child (and usually a hat and shoes to match).
In addition to this, the Godparent brings to the church:
- A gold cross to be worn around the neck of the child
- A large white linen sheet to wrap the baby in (for the protection of the Godparent)
- One to two large white bath towel to place on top of the sheet
- One to two small white hand towels (not wash cloths)
- A small (4 oz.) bottle of Olive Oil
- A bar of white soap
- Three candles - one larger 'lambatha' for the child being baptized, and one to three smaller candles for the children who will be participating the sacrament.
- Martyrika (witness ribbons)
- Boubounieres (candy-covered almonds wrapped in tulle)
After The Baptism
Your task as Godparent is about to begin. At the close of the service the sponsor solemnly delivers the child into the arms of the mother in front of the congregation. As she receives her child, now baptized, sealed, and illuminated, she kisses the hand of the Godparent as a token of the spiritual relationship that is established between the Godparent the family. This is a Christian expression of gratitude and respect.
The Church encourages the Godparent to bring the child regularly for Holy Communion, following the Baptism. The Godparent should also prepare to receive Holy Communion. He will hold each time, the lighted baptismal candle which he carries with him at the conclusion of the Baptismal service.
A faithful Godparent will be a friend in Christ and maintain close contact with his Godchild. The focus at all times is to progress the child in the knowledge and practice of the Orthodox Faith. He should at all times model a Christ-like example. The relationship between the Godparent and the baptized is so important and so close that the Church forbids marriage between the Godparent and Godchild.
Godparents are encouraged to call the remembrance the sacred and joyous moment of Baptism. This may be done by participating in "Godparents' Sunday” a National Observance by the Orthodox Church in America, remembering the Godchild on the date of Baptism along with birthday anniversaries, Christmas, etc. Significant gift-giving honoring these special occasions could include such objects as icons, medallions, a Bible, and religious books which will be helpful in building up the spiritual life of the child. By now you have to come to realize that the most important quality for the Godparent is to live a Christ-filled life and that he demonstrate his faith as a light-bearer, devoted to receiving salvation for himself and his Godchild. The Godparent is called upon to accept the Divine Commandment read from the Holy Gospel at the service of Baptism, "Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
What Must I Consider?
If you hope to be a Godparent some day, it would be well to consider carefully the chief conditions which the Church prescribes in the way of preparation:
- When you are approached and asked to baptize a child, do not answer immediately. Reflect and ask yourself if you could be true to the Baptismal vow.
- The Godparent must be an Orthodox Christian, of good moral character, regular and faithful in attendance at Liturgy and the reception of the Sacraments, and with a sound knowledge of the basic teachings of the Orthodox Church.
- Study the Creed and be prepared to recite it when the Priest calls upon you. The custom of having the Chanter recite it is incorrect. Knowledge of the Creed and familiarity with it constitutes the basic prerequisite for becoming a Godparent.
- A Godparent should be neither excessively young (under 12) or advanced in years nor in poor health. There must be at least a fair possibility that the Godparent will live long enough to carry out the obligations assumed.
- The Church recommends one Godparent. Consult with your Priest in advance of the day of the Baptism so that you will be prepared to answer correctly the questions asked during the Service of the Catechumens, the first part of the Sacrament of Baptism.