Baptism is the initial and essential mystery and an absolute, decisive action for the Christian. The benefits of Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection are mediated to the believer through Baptism. Baptism engraves upon and imparts to each person afresh the image of God distorted by the effects of sin.

The baptismal font becomes at once a tomb and a womb: "at the self-same moment you die and are born; the water of salvation is at once your grave and your mother." The triple immersion in and emersion from the baptismal waters is laden with meaning. Baptism is both a death and a new birth. The water destroys one life and it begets another. It drowns the old man and raises up the new. The liturgical act gives expression to two realities: the death of the old man, who in solidarity with Adam, is subject to sin and death, and the birth of the new man, who in his union with Christ, is provided with new members and faculties in preparation for the life to come.

Baptism unites the believer not only with Christ but also with his people, the Church. One is baptized into the community of faith to share in life, its values, and its vision. Baptism, by bringing us into the glorified life of Christ and making us part of his deified humanity, integrates us into the Church, his body, where the business of dying and rising is daily experienced in ascetic discipline in the life of prayer and in the Eucharist.

The Rite of Baptism

The first part is preparatory in nature. It is usually referred to as the catechesis. It contains the prayer for the making of a catechumen; prayers of exorcism; the renunciation and condemnation of the devil; the acceptance of Christ; the recitation of the Nicene Creed; and the call to baptism.

The second part is the Service of Baptism proper. It focuses almost entirely on the baptismal font. It includes a series of petitions; a prayer of invocation for the consecration of the baptismal waters, so that they may be given the power of spiritual fecundity; and an anointing of the candidate with the "oil of gladness." In the case of the candidate the anointing is both a sign of healing of his fallen nature and of his becoming an athlete for Christ. In the case of the font, the anointing is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the baptismal waters.

When these rites have been completed the candidate is baptized with three immersions and emersions in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The newly illumined Christian is then robed in a white garment, the symbol of regeneration, newness, kingship, and future immortality. The white garment, which is the color of royalty, symbolizes the gifts of baptism and reminds the neophyte of his responsibility to remain whole and be faithful to the baptismal pledge.

At this point the mystery of the holy Chrism (Myron) is administered. The candidate is anointed with the consecrated oil. Chrism is applied on the body in the pattern of the Cross, signifying the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit takes the candidate beyond the restoration of the fallen nature.

The continuous presence of the Holy Spirit makes possible the constant, progressive, personal growth of the Christian into the image and likeness of God.

In the ancient Church baptism was immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. The newly baptized Christians, holding lighted candles proceeded from the baptistery with the clergy to the nave of the Church to join the faithful for the Eucharist. Newly baptized then receives Holy Communion.

Written by Tenny Thomas

[1] Cyril of Jerusalem in Lawrence J. Johnson, ed., Worship in the Early Church: An Anthology of Historical Sources, vol. 2, (Collegeville, 2009).
[2] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, (New York, 1974).
[3] Ibid. Also refer to Alexis James Doval, Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogue: The Authorship of the Mystagogic Catecheses, Patristic Monograph Series 17 (Washington DC, 2001).
[4] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, 2008).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, (New York, 1974).
[7] Sebastian Brock, The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition (New Jersey, 2008), pp. 20-21, 49-50, 114-33.
[8] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism (Collegeville, 1992).