What is baptism?
Baptism is a Christian mystery in which a catechumen (student) is united with Christ.
In Orthodoxy, if someone asked what is going on in Baptism, the best answer would likely be, “Everything.” To get a sense of what this means, let’s look at what the priest says within the Baptism Liturgy:
But show this water, O Master of all, to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life. For You have said, O Lord: ‘Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.’ You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her), he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Priest applying the Holy Chrism
to a baptismal candidate
As far as I can tell, that is pretty much everything. For good measure, just after the Chrism is wiped off the newly-illumined, the priest says:
You are justified. You are illumined. You are sanctified. You are washed: in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God.
I have heard various accounts of Baptism that stress one of the various verbs above, but never (outside of Orthodoxy) all of these operative verbs. A legitimate question would be, “What is it about Baptism that makes it all of these things?”
In short, it is our union with the death and resurrection of Christ.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
— Rom 6:3-5
At Holy Baptism a mystical transformation takes place in which we experience a new birth in God. The image of God within us — which has become clouded through Adam’s sin — is polished, and there is now a renewed potential to partake of the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4).
Let’s learn more about baptism in the Orthodox Church.
Candidate emerging from the waters
Baptism is the door through which we become members of the Church. The waters of baptism symbolise cleansing.
Baptism brings freedom from the power of the devil, but the person being baptised is not a passive participant: he/she must strive to put to death the wrong desires within and do battle with them in order to live a life of selfless love. This putting off of the old nature has been described as being like the “discarding of old clothes.”
The Holy Services of the Church transmit the grace (divine energy) of the Holy Spirit.
We pass from corruption to incorruption
Following Baptism and Chrismation we begin our journey called the Christian life, made possible through the Holy Spirit working within us. Our orientation is now towards God and we re-evaluate our way of thinking and our opinions. This conversion Godward is a return to our “natural state,” the passions provoked by the ungodly world around us lead to an “unnatural state.” So the modern trend to make “sin” seem “natural” is actually a deception.
One True Baptism
Baptism is regarded as a mystical moment that can never be repeated. In the majority of Orthodox jurisdictions, anyone already baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in any of the historic Western churches is not re-baptised upon electing to join the Orthodox Church.
Over the course of history there evolved different Christian denominations with altered rites and ecclesiastical traditions. Most Western confessions have modified, and in some cases even abandoned, the sacraments. For instance many Western Churches have abandoned the ancient practice of Baptism by immersion in favour of pouring water over the candidates forehead or sprinkling their bodies with Baptismal water.
Baptismal candidates process around a table following the priest who carries the Gospel book, signifying their commitment to following Christ for the rest of their lives.
In the case of Chrismation (known as confirmation in Western Churches) Western confessions have severed it from its historical practice by postponing the sacrament to age 6, 12 or even later. Orthodox Christianity holds fast to an interpretation of the essential meaning of each sacrament as defined from the Gospel and according to the Great Fathers of the Church. This is why the first thing you see in an Orthodox Liturgy at the time of communion is all the children lining up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. They are full members of the church from baptism even though their understanding is limited. But then, our understanding of the great mystery of salvation is also limited too!
Newly baptised Christian with
As described in the Gospel the Orthodox practice adheres to the original triple immersion in water re-enacting the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. However, provision is made for pouring water over the head as an alternative when circumstances necessitate this. As the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost the newly baptised also receives the sacramental grace and diverse gifts of the seal of the Holy Spirit during Chrismation.
The Baptism of infants
In the Gospel according to Matthew Christ proclaimed, “Let the little children come to Me and do not forbit them; for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 19:14). Responding to that command the Orthodox Church Baptises and Chrismates infants, not because they believe, but rather, in order that they might believe. They are baptised because they are human beings, full persons entitled to full recognition and acceptance into the Body of Christ. Like a precious gift Baptism confers upon infants the full extent of God’s love regardless of their physical or intellectual maturity or the ability to reason.
An infant baptism
A study of early Church literature makes it clear that the baptism of infants was affirmed from the beginning. St. Irenaeus (130–202) received his faith from St. Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John. The following words were written by St. Irenaeus in his work entitled Against Heresies:
For [Christ] came to save all through means of Himself, all, I say, who through Him are born again to God, infants and children, and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them as an example of piety, righteousness, and submission.
Writing just a few years after Irenaeus, Origen (182–251) says:
Could a child who has only just been born commit a sin? And yet he has sin for which it is commanded to offer a sacrifice, as Job 14:4 and Psalm 51:5-7 show. For this reason the Church received from the Apostles the tradition to administer baptism to children also. For the men to whom the secrets of divine mysteries had been entrusted knew that in everyone there were genuine sinful defilements, which had to be washed away with water and the Spirit.
Saint Cyprian (200–258) wrote these words on the subject:
We all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to anyone born of man... no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, Who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born person, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy.
“Let the little children come to me,” says Jesus (Matthew 19:14).
A portion of this article was excerpted from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s Glory to God for All Things blog.