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Baptism and 'Sacramental Economy': An Agreed Statement

 
Introduction

For the past three years the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation has directed its attention to the concluding section of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: in particular to the confession of "one baptism," and to the faith in one Holy Spirit and in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" to which this single baptism is so closely related, and with which it constitutes an indivisible unity. We have chosen to consider this topic, first of all, as part of a larger and continuing reflection on baptism's constitutive role in establishing and revealing the fundamental character of the Church as a communion. Secondly, we wish to respond to the criticisms made by various groups of the statement issued by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches at Balamand, Lebanon, in 1993, "Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion," especially to protests against that statement's call for an end to the practice of rebaptism of converts (n. 13) and its reference to the Catholic and Orthodox communions as "sister churches"(n. 14). Finally, we recognize that our consideration of these protests directs us back to earlier statements which our own Consultation has issued: "The Principle of Economy" (1976); "On the Agenda of the Great and Holy Council" (1977); "On the Lima Document" (1984); "Apostolicity as God's Gift to the Church" (1986); our "Response" (1988) to the "Bari Document" issued by the International Commission in 1987; and finally our "Response" (1994) to the Balamand document itself. In drafting this present statement, we have elected to take our own advice and to offer a "deeper historical and theological investigation" of whether "our churches do in fact find the same essential content of faith present in each other" ("Response to the Balamand Statement," n. 9).
In the following sections we shall endeavor a) to summarize our findings regarding our common understanding of baptism, as well as its unity with the life of the Church and the action of the Holy Spirit; b) to elucidate the problems which, in relatively recent times, have arisen with respect to the mutual recognition of each other's baptism; and c) to present our conclusions, together with certain recommendations which we feel are necessary, in order that on various levels our dialogue be established on a solid and unambiguous foundation. Only if we have reached clarity on our common understanding of baptism, we believe, can our churches proceed to discuss, charitably and truthfully, those issues which at present appear to constitute genuine impediments to our unity in the one Bread and Cup of Christ.

I. On Baptism

  1. A Matter of Faith: Baptism rests upon and derives its reality from the faith of Christ himself, the faith of the Church, and the faith of the believer.

    1. The faith of Christ: With this Pauline expression we refer to the fact that baptism, like all the sacraments, is given to us first of all as the result of Christ's loving fidelity to his Father, and as a sign of his faithfulness in the Holy Spirit to fallen humanity, "so that we are justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus" (Gal 2.16, cf. Rom 3.22,26; Phil 3.9). Baptism is not a human work, but the rebirth from above, effected through "water and the Spirit," that introduces us into the life of the Church. It is that gift by which God grounds and establishes the Church as the community of the New Covenant, the "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16), by engrafting us into the body of the crucified and risen Messiah (Rom 6:3-11; 11:17-24), into the one sacrament (mysterion) which is Christ himself (Eph 1:3; 3:3; Col 1:27 and 2:2).

    2. The faith of the Church: In the Church of the Apostles and Fathers, baptism was never understood as a private ceremony, but was a corporate event. This is indicated by the development of the Lenten fast in the fourth century, when catechumens attended their final instructions before baptism at the paschal vigil: their baptism was the occasion for the whole community's repentance and renewal. Likewise, the definitive statement of the whole Church's faith, the "We believe" of the Creed, was derived from the solemn questions addressed by the sacramental minister to the candidate in the baptismal font. Whoever, then, is baptized, is baptized into the unique community of the Messiah, and it is that community's common faith in the Savior's person and promises that the candidate is obliged to make his or her own. As the Church, we acknowledge the trustworthiness of him who said, "Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live" (Jn 11:25). This is the faith of the Apostles and Fathers, of the martyrs and ascetics, and of "all the saints who in every generation have been well-pleasing to God" (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). In the words of the renewal of baptismal promises in the Easter liturgy of the Roman Rite, "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord."

    3. The faith of the Christian: As just noted, every Christian is obliged to make his or her own the faith of the Church. The "We believe" of the whole Church must become the individual Christian's "I believe," whether spoken by the adult candidate for baptism on his or her own behalf, or on behalf of a child by its sponsor and the assembled community, in the full expectation that, when it has grown, the child will make the common faith its own as well. By baptism, every Christian becomes a "new creation" (2 Co 5.17), and is called to believe and to grow "into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God...to the measure of the stature and fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). Baptism is the beginning of each believer's life in the Spirit, the implanting within each of the seed of the fullness of Christ "who fills all in all" (Eph 1:23): a life on earth which is at once the present reality and the continuing vocation of each Christian, as the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (I Co 6:19) and the dwelling place of divine glory (Jn 17:22-24). Christian initiation is the ground of our transfiguration "from glory to glory" (2 Co 3:18). It calls each of us to spiritual warfare as Christ's soldiers (Eph 6:10-17), and anoints us each with the oil of the Holy Spirit as priests who, in imitation of Christ, are to offer up ourselves as "a living sacrifice pleasing to God" (Rom 12:1; cf. Phil 4:18), and as prophets who are to call down upon ourselves and upon our world the fire from heaven which transforms (cf. I Kg 18:36-39; Mt 3:11; Lk 12:49). Also in baptism, we believe that we recover the royalty of Adam in Paradise, and that, as "having been clothed with Christ" (Rom 13:14), we are called to become ourselves the "christs" - the "anointed ones" - of God.

  2. Baptism within the Rites of Initiation
    1. One Moment in a Single Action: In ancient times, initiation into the Church was understood as a single action with different "moments." Thus in Acts 2:38-42, we find baptism with water directly followed by the reception of the Holy Spirit and "the breaking of bread" (Eucharist) by the community; other texts in Acts present the gift of the Spirit as preceding baptism (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-17). This continuity between the various stages of initiation is consistently reproduced in the oldest liturgical texts and in early patristic witnesses: baptism with water in the name of the Trinity, a post- (or pre-) baptismal anointing and/or laying-on of hands invoking the Spirit, and participation in the Eucharist. The present-day ordering of the Eastern Christian rites of initiation and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Roman liturgy preserve this unity. In the case of infant baptism, medieval Latin practice separated this unity of action, deferring confirmation by the bishop and Eucharistic communion to a later date. Indeed, the distinction which is customarily made today in both churches between baptism and chrismation, or confirmation, was never intended to separate the reception of the Spirit from incorporation into the body of Christ, whose quickening principle is the same Spirit (see, e.g., Rom 8:9-11, as well part III, B5 below).

    2. The Method of Baptism: In ancient times, and in the contemporary Orthodox Church, baptism is administered as a threefold immersion in water hallowed by prayer and oil, while the baptizing minister invokes the Holy Trinity. In the Roman rite of the Catholic Church since the later Middle Ages, baptism has usually been administered by the infusion or pouring of water sanctified by prayer and the sign of the Cross, accompanied by the Trinitarian invocation. In past centuries and even today, some Orthodox have protested against infusion as being an invalid form of baptism, basing their protest on the mandate of baptismal immersion implied in such Biblical passages as Rom 6.4 ("We were buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life") . This criticism, however, should be measured against the following considerations: a) "immersion" in the ancient church did not always mean total submersion--archaeological research indicates that many ancient baptismal pools were far too shallow for total submersion; b) the Orthodox Church itself can and does recognize baptism by infusion as valid in cases of emergency; c) for most of the past millennium, the Orthodox Church has in fact recognized Catholic baptism as valid (see our discussion in Part II below).

    3. The Symbolism of Baptism: Baptism is at once a death and a new birth, a washing-away of sin and the gift of the living water promised by Christ, the grace of forgiveness and regeneration in the Spirit, a stripping-off of our mortality and a clothing with the robe of incorruption. The baptismal font is the "tomb" from which the newborn Christian rises, and, as the place of our incorporation into the life of the Church, the "womb" and "mother" of the Christian, the pool of the divine light of the Spirit, the well-spring of immortality, the gate of heaven, entry into the kingdom of God, cleansing, seal, bath of regeneration and bridal chamber. All these are meanings the Fathers saw in this sacrament, and all of them we continue to affirm.

    4. The Non-Repeatability of Baptism: It is our common teaching that baptism in water in the name of the Holy Trinity, as the Christian's new birth, is given once and once only. In the language of fourth-century Fathers of East and West, it confers the indelible seal (sphragis, character) of the King. As the definitive entry of an individual believer into the Church, it cannot be repeated. To be sure, the grace of baptism may be betrayed by serious sin, but in such cases the modes prescribed for the recovery of grace are repentance, confession, and -- in the Orthodox usage for apostasy -- anointing with the sacred chrism; reconciliation with the Church is never accomplished by baptism, whose repetition we have always recognized as a sacrilege.

  3. The Results of our Investigation: "We Confess One Baptism"

    The Orthodox and Catholic members of our Consultation acknowledge, in both of our traditions, a common teaching and a common faith in one baptism, despite some variations in practice which, we believe, do not affect the substance of the mystery. We are therefore moved to declare that we also recognize each other's baptism as one and the same. This recognition has obvious ecclesiological consequences. The Church is itself both the milieu and the effect of baptism, and is not of our making. This recognition requires each side of our dialogue to acknowledge an ecclesial reality in the other, however much we may regard their way of living the Church's reality as flawed or incomplete. In our common reality of baptism, we discover the foundation of our dialogue, as well as the force and urgency of the Lord Jesus' prayer "that all may be one." Here, finally, is the certain basis for the modern use of the phrase, "sister churches." At the same time, since some are unwilling to accept this mutual recognition of baptism with all its consequences, the following investigation and explanation seems necessary.


II. Problems in the Mutual Recognition of Baptism

  1. Inconsistencies in the Reception of Adults into Ecclesial Communion

    1. The centralized administration of the modern Catholic Church, and the absence of any office resembling the papacy in the modern Orthodox Church, helps to explain the contrast between the diversity in modes of reception of Catholics practiced by local Orthodox churches and the (relatively) unitary practice of the Catholic Church over the past five hundred years in receiving Orthodox. From the fifth-century writings of St. Augustine on the Donatist Schism, the Latin tradition has been able to draw on a clearly articulated rationale for recognizing the validity, though not necessarily the fruitfulness, of trinitarian baptism outside the bounds of the visible church. This does not mean, however, that the rebaptism of Orthodox has never occurred in the Catholic Church; it appears, in fact, to have occurred rather frequently in the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander VI affirmed the validity of Orthodox baptism just after the turn of the sixteenth century, and Rome has periodically confirmed this ruling since then. Nevertheless, rebaptism continued to be practiced on the eastern frontiers of Catholic Europe in Poland and the Balkans - contrary to Roman policy - well into the seventeenth century. In addition, the practice of "conditional baptism," a pastoral option officially intended for cases of genuine doubt about the validity of a person's earlier baptism, was also widely - and erroneously - used in the reception of "dissident" Eastern Christians up to the era of Vatican II itself, and afterwards was practiced occasionally in parts of Eastern Europe. Vatican II, however, was explicit in recognizing both the validity and the efficacy of Orthodox sacraments (Unitatis Redintegratio 15; cf. Ecumenical Directory [1993] 99a).

    2. In the Orthodox Church, a consistent position on the reception of those baptized in other communions is much more difficult, though not impossible, to discern. On the one hand, since the Council in Trullo (692), the canonical collections authoritative in Orthodoxy have included the enactments of third-century North African councils presided over by Cyprian of Carthage, as well as the important late-fourth-century Eastern collection, The Apostolic Canons. Cyprian's position, supported by his contemporary bishop Firmilian of Caesaraea in Cappadocia, was that salvation and grace are not mediated by schismatic communities, so that baptism administered outside the universal apostolic communion is simply invalid as an act of Christian initiation, deprived of the life-giving Spirit (see Cyprian, Epp. 69.7; 71.1; 73.2; 75.17, 22-25). Influential as it was to be, Cyprian and Firmilian both acknowledge that their position on baptism is a relatively new one, forged probably in the 230s to deal with the extraordinary new challenges presented by Christian sectarianism in an age of persecution, but following logically from a clear sense of the Church's boundaries. The Apostolic Canons, included in the larger Apostolic Constitutions and probably representative of Church discipline in Syria during the 380s, identifies sacraments celebrated by "heretics" as illegitimate (can. 45 [46]), although it is not clear in what sense the word "heretic" is being used; the following canon brands it as equally sacrilegious for a bishop or presbyter to rebaptize someone who is already truly baptized, and to recognize the baptism of "someone who has been polluted by the ungodly." Both Cyprian and the Apostolic Canons, in any case, draw a sharp line between the authentic visible Church and every other group which exists outside its boundaries, and accords no value whatever to the rites of those "outside." On the other hand, continuing Eastern practice from at least the fourth century has followed a more nuanced position. This position is reflected in Basil of Caesarea's First Canonical Epistle (Ep. 188, dated 374), addressed to Amphilochius of Iconium, which–claiming to follow the practice of "the ancients"--distinguishes among three types of groups "outside" the Church: heretics, "who differ with regard to faith in God;" schismatics, who are separated from the body of the Church "for some ecclesiastical reasons and differ from other [Christians] on questions that can be resolved;" and "parasynagogues," or dissidents who have formed rival communities simply in opposition to legitimate authority (Ep. 188.1). Only in the case of heretics in the strict sense—those with a different understanding of God, among whom Basil includes Manichaeans, Gnostics, and Marcionites--is baptism required for entry into communion with the Church. Concerning the second and third groups, Basil declares that they are still "of the Church," and as such are to be admitted into full communion without baptism. This policy is also reflected in Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo, which distinguishes between "Severians" (i.e., non-Chalcedonians) and Nestorians, who are to be received by confession of faith; schismatics, who are to be received by chrismation; and heretics, who alone require baptism. Thus, in spite of the solemn rulings of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils against their christological positions, "Severians" and Nestorians are clearly reckoned as still "of the Church," and seem to be understood in Basil's category of "parasynagogues;" their baptisms are thus understood--to use scholastic language--as valid, if perhaps illicit.

    3. The schism between Catholics and Orthodox, unlike the schisms of the Non-Chalcedonian and East Syrian Churches, came into being much later, and only very slowly. Relations between Catholics and Orthodox through the centuries have been, in consequence, highly varied, ranging from full communion, on occasion, well into the late Middle Ages (and, in certain areas, until later still), to a rejection so absolute that it seemed to demand the rebaptism of new communicants. There are, however, in the Orthodox tradition two important synodical rulings which represent the continuation of the policy articulated by Basil, and affirmed by the Synod in Trullo and later Byzantine canonists, rulings which we believe are to be accorded primary importance: those of the Synod of Constantinople in 1484, and of Moscow in 1667. The first ruling, part of a document marking the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate's formal repudiation of the Union of Ferrara-Florence (1439) with the Catholic Church, prescribed that Catholics be received into Orthodox communion by the use of chrism. In the service for the reception of Catholic converts which the Synod published, this anointing is not accompanied by the prayers which characterize the rite of initiation; we find instead formulas of a penitential character. The rite therefore appears to have been understood as part of a process of reconciliation, rather than as a reiteration of post-baptismal chrismation. It is this provision of Constantinople in 1484, together with Canon 95 of the Synod in Trullo, which the Council of Moscow in 1667 invokes in its decree forbidding the rebaptism of Catholics, a decree that has remained authoritative in the East Slavic Orthodox churches to the present day.


    B. Constantinople 1755, the Pedalion of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and "Sacramental Economy"

    1. Constantinople 1755: In an atmosphere of heightened tension between Orthodoxy and Catholicism following the Melkite Union of 1724, and of intensified proselytism pursued by Catholic missionaries in the Near East and in Hapsburg-ruled Transylvania, the Ecumenical Patriarch Cyril V issued a decree in 1755 requiring the baptism of Roman Catholics, Armenians, and all others presently outside the visible bounds of the Orthodox Church, when they seek full communion with it. This decree has never been formally rescinded, but subsequent rulings by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (e.g., in 1875, 1880, and 1888) did allow for the reception of new communicants by chrismation rather than baptism. Nevertheless, these rulings left rebaptism as an option subject to "pastoral discretion." In any case, by the late nineteenth century a comprehensive new sacramental theology had appeared in Greek-speaking Orthodoxy which provided a precise rationale for such pastoral discretion; for the source of this new rationale, we must examine the influential figure of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1748-1809).

    2. Nicodemus and the Pedalion: The Orthodox world owes an immense debt to this Athonite monk, who edited and published the Philokalia (1783), as well as numerous other works of a patristic, pastoral, and liturgical nature. In the Pedalion (1800), his enormously influential edition of - and commentary on - canonical texts, Nicodemus gave form and substance to the requirement of rebaptism decreed by Cyril V. Thoroughly in sympathy with the decree of 1755, and moved by his attachment to a perceived golden age in the patristic past, he underscored the antiquity and hence priority of the African Councils and Apostolic Canons, and argued strenuously, in fact, for the first-century provenance of the latter. Nicodemus held up these documents, with their essentially exclusivist ecclesiology, as the universal voice of the ancient Church. In so doing, he systematically reversed what had been the normative practice of the eastern church since at least the 4th century, while recognizing the authority of both Cyprian's conciliar legislation on baptism and the Apostolic Canons. Earlier Byzantine canonists had understood Cyprian's procedure as superseded by later practice, and had interpreted the Apostolic Canons in the light of the rulings of Basil the Great, the Synod in Trullo, and other ancient authoritative texts.

    3. "Sacramental Economy" according to Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain: Nicodemus was clearly obliged, however, to reckon with the approach of Basil the Great and the ecumenically-ranked Synod in Trullo to baptism "outside" the visible Church, different though it was from that of Cyprian. His attempt to reconcile his sources with each other drew on a very ancient term, oikonomia, used in the New Testament and patristic literature to denote both God's salvific plan and the prudent "management" of the Church's affairs, and employed in later canonical literature as roughly the equivalent of "pastoral discretion" or stewardship. In adapting this term to differentiate between what he understood as the "strict" policy (akriveia) of the ancient Church and the apparently more flexible practice (oikonomia) of the Byzantine era, Nicodemus inadvertently bestowed a new meaning on the term oikonomia. By means of this new understanding, Nicodemus was able to harmonize the earlier, stricter practice of Cyprian with that of Basil and other ancient canonical sources; so he could read the fathers of the 4th century as having exercised "economy" with regard to baptism by Arians in order to facilitate their reentry into the Church, just as the Synod in Trullo had done with respect to the "Severians" and Nestorians, and could interpret the treatment of Latin baptism by Constantinople at the Synod of 1484 and later Orthodox rulings as acts of "economy" designed to shield the Orthodox from the wrath of a more powerful Catholic Europe. In his own day, he argued, the Orthodox were protected by the might of the Turkish Sultan, and so were again free to follow the perennial "exactness" of the Church. Latins were therefore now to be rebaptized.

    4. Varying Understandings of the Phrase, "Pastoral Discretion": After the publication of the Pedalion in 1800, backed by Nicodemus's formidable personal authority, the opposed principles of akriveia and oikonomia came to be accepted by much of Greek-speaking Orthodoxy as governing the application of canon law in such a way as to allow for either the rebaptism of Western Christians (kat'akriveian), or for their reception by chrismation or profession of faith (kat'oikonomian), without in either case attributing to their baptism any reality in its own right. This is the understanding that underlies the "pastoral discretion" enjoined by the Synod of Constantinople of 1875, as well as by numerous directives and statements of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since then. In the work of some modern canonists, oikonomia is understood as the use of an authority by the Church's hierarchy, in cases of pastoral need, to bestow a kind of retroactive reality on sacramental rites exercised "outside" the Orthodox Church - rites which in and of themselves remain invalid and devoid of grace. The hierarchy is endowed, in this interpretation, with a virtually infinite power, capable, as it were, of creating "validity" and bestowing grace where they were absent before. This new understanding of "economy" does not, however, enjoy universal recognition in the Orthodox Church. We have already noted that the East Slavic Orthodox churches remain committed to the earlier understanding and practice of the Byzantine era, which does not imply the possibility of making valid what is invalid, or invalid what is valid. Even within Greek-speaking Orthodoxy, "sacramental economy" in the full Nicodemean sense does not command universal acceptance. As a result, within world Orthodoxy, the issue of "sacramental economy" remains the subject of intense debate, but the Nicodemean interpretation is still promoted in important theological and monastic circles. Although these voices in the Orthodox world are significant ones, we do not believe that they represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church on the subject of baptism.


III. Conclusions and Recommendations

  1. Conclusions

    The "inconsistencies" to which we referred at the beginning of our second section turn out, on closer inspection, to be less significant than they might appear to be. Granted, a vocal minority in the Orthodox Church refuses to accord any validity to Catholic baptism, and thus continues to justify in theory (if less frequently in fact) the (re)baptism of converts from Catholicism. Against this one fact, however, we present the following considerations:

    1. The Orthodox and Catholic churches both teach the same understanding of baptism. This identical teaching draws on the same sources in Scripture and Tradition, and it has not varied in any significant way from the very earliest witnesses to the faith up to the present day.

    2. A central element in this single teaching is the conviction that baptism comes to us as God's gift in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. It is therefore not "of us," but from above. The Church does not simply require the practice of baptism; rather, baptism is the Church's foundation. It establishes the Church, which is also not "of us" but, as the body of Christ quickened by the Spirit, is the presence in this world of the world to come.

    3. The fact that our churches share and practice this same faith and teaching requires that we recognize in each other the same baptism and thus also recognize in each other, however "imperfectly," the present reality of the same Church. By God's gift we are each, in St. Basil's words, "of the Church."

    4. We find that this mutual recognition of the ecclesial reality of baptism, in spite of our divisions, is fully consistent with the perennial teaching of both churches. This teaching has been reaffirmed on many occasions. The formal expression of the recognition of Orthodox baptism has been constant in the teaching of the popes since the beginning of the sixteenth century, and was emphasized again at the Second Vatican Council. The Synods of Constantinople in 1484 and Moscow in 1667 testify to the implicit recognition of Catholic baptism by the Orthodox churches, and do so in a way fully in accord with the earlier teaching and practice of antiquity and the Byzantine era.

    5. The influential theory of "sacramental economy" propounded in the Pedalion commentaries does not represent the tradition and perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church; it is rather an eighteenth-century innovation motivated by the particular historical circumstances operative in those times. It is not the teaching of scripture, of most of the Fathers, or of later Byzantine canonists, nor is it the majority position of the Orthodox churches today.

    6. Catholics in the present day who tax the Orthodox with sins against charity, and even with sacrilege, because of the practice of rebaptism should bear in mind that, while the rebaptism of Orthodox Christians was officially repudiated by Rome five hundred years ago, it nonetheless continued in some places well into the following century and occasionally was done, under the guise of "conditional baptism," up to our own times.

  2. Recommendations

    On the basis of these conclusions we would like to offer to our churches the following suggestions:

    1. That the International Commission begin anew where the Bari statement of 1987, "Faith, Sacraments, and the Unity of the Church," came to an abrupt conclusion, simply recognizing similarities and differences in our practice of Christian initiation, and that it proceed to reaffirm explicitly and clearly, with full explanation, the theological grounds for mutual recognition by both churches of each other's baptism;

    2. That our churches address openly the danger that some modern theories of "sacramental economy" pose, both for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue and for the perennial teaching of the Orthodox Church;

    3. That the Patriarchate of Constantinople formally withdraw its decree on rebaptism of 1755;

    4. That the Orthodox churches declare that the Orthodox reception of Catholics by chrismation does not constitute a repetition of any part of their sacramental initiation; and

    5. That our churches make clear that the mutual recognition of baptism does not of itself resolve the issues that divide us, or reestablish full ecclesial communion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, but that it does remove a fundamental obstacle on our path towards full communion.

Crestwood, NY
June 3, 1999



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