The Significance of Baptism

I was introduced to the Eastern Orthodox Church during a time in my life when it was desperately needed. As mentioned in previous posts, I was brought up in the Western Traditions, both Catholic and Protestant. During this time, I was attending what one might consider an Evangelical Community Church. After being introduced to Orthodoxy, I immediately started reading, a habit I wasn’t accustomed to at this time. My first book was, “The Orthodox Church,” by Bishop Kallistos Ware. This made me even more excited to go to Church and to tell everybody about my new discovery. One such person with whom I shared this information was my landlord. He was Baptist and skeptical of my new, odd-sounding ideas. He curtly asked, “What is this church’s doctrine.” “Oh,” I said, “I’ll read it to you.” From the prayer book, I read the Nicene Creed to him. When I reached the part about baptism, he reacted angrily and insisted that I run, not walk, from this establishment. Well, I liked and respected him, so this caused me pause. Had I made a grave error in judgement? After all, I hadn’t met too many Orthodox Christians in my parts–that is to say, none. The phrase that he took issue with was as follows: “we acknowledge One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

After my first daughter was born, I inquired at the Protestant church I was attending at the time about having her baptized. As a Presbyterian, my father had me baptized as an infant by his father, a minister, and I knew that I wanted my daughter to be baptized too.  They rejected my request and instead had a small ceremony for which new parents “dedicated” their children to God.  This is fairly typical in many Protestant circles today.  This church taught that baptism was for believers and that children have not yet reached this age of accountability.

Maybe I was wrong about all of it. So, I began doing some research. While reading the Bible, I read that St. John the Baptist preached a baptism for the remission of sins. But, my friend said this was before Jesus was crucified, so it didn’t count. “Oh,” I said. I kept reading and found another interesting verse in the book of 1 Peter, Chapter 3, which reads as follows: “…God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”

After reading this, I wondered if my well-meaning landlord had it wrong and if Orthodoxy had it right. What he was taught, and many others I found out, was that Baptism, to them, is simply an act of obedience: there is no other significance to the event. What follows is a short essay on the Church’s teaching on Baptism and how it relates to Holy Communion, the Eucharist, according to Orthodox Teaching. I must add a disclaimer–I am only a layperson and what follows reflects my understanding of the Church’s teaching. I found out that the Ancient Church of Orthodoxy holds a much different perspective.

The Ancient Church is not “age-restrictive” in Its baptism, people of any age can be grafted into the Body of Christ.  This is something that is clear through tradition.  This is a difference that is obvious and easy to notice coming from Western traditions.

My priest quickly pointed out to me that there are several Biblical cases in the book of Acts when entire families were baptized at once and there is no mention of the exclusion of those who haven’t reached an “age of accountability”.  Baptism is the beginning of a ‘Life in Christ’ and there is an entire life for one to live in the Faith.

Because there is no age restriction for Baptism, there is no age-restriction for confirmation of faith or partaking in the Eucharist.  It is a contrary argument to baptize a child and not let that child fulfill the sacraments in their entirety with the Eucharist.  How can it be argued that the infant can be grafted into the Church, but then rejected from the Lord’s table.  The Lord said, “Let the little children come to Me”.

I abruptly had my child Baptized, Chrismated, and Communed in the tradition and fullness of Christ’s Church.  We prove to be humbled each week as the faithful draw near to the Holy Cup in humility.  The children come with arms crossed and partake of the fulfillment of the Liturgy with a Faith I continue to reach for continually.  Perhaps the most beautiful part of the Liturgy for me is to see Its fulfillment be appreciated by the children that will one day be our Priests and teachers.

Before there was any life on the Earth, there was water.  Water is the very necessity that sustains life on Earth.  Without water all life would parish.  Another of the necessary components for life is light.  The combination of light and water work together in an action known as photosynthesis.  This is the beginning of the cycle that grows plants, and from which the life cycle feeds.  It is in such beautiful metaphoric language that we see the Baptism of our Lord.  Our Lord goes down into the water and blesses it for the rest of the world.  The Lord, who we often refer to as “the Light”, combines with the water for the life of the world.  The Christ is the Light that sanctifies the water.  Those of us who choose to go down into the waters of Baptism partake in this divine life-giving process.  Likewise, our Lord tells us that unless we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we have no life in us.

Baptism is the event of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ.  As the catechumen, a person who is going to be received as a member of the Church, is going down into the water, he is participating in the death on the cross of Christ.  The catechumen is effectively dying or putting away his old life.  As the catechumen is being raised from the water he is being raised and is participating in the resurrection of Christ and being born anew into his Christian existence.  As the catechumen gives up his old life of sin, he takes on a new life in Christ.  The water is a washing away of sin just as the water washed the world from the sinners in the time of Noah.  After the catechumen has been brought into the church through the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation, he is free to partake of the sacrament that is a fulfillment of all other sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.  When one is integrated with the Church in Baptism, the essence of the Church is not revealed until he receives the mystery of the Eucharist.  One is dying and raised again into new life.  Baptism is actually a participation in the death on the Cross.  In the same manner, as often as one partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, he “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor. 11:26).  Every Baptism tends toward the Eucharist, and finds its fullness in it.  Baptism has the Eucharist as its very mission.  A Baptism that sees no fulfillment in the Eucharist is like a pregnant woman who never gives birth. The Eucharist unites the body, as Baptism the soul, to God. Our bodies, having received poison, need an Antidote; and only by eating and drinking can it enter. One Body, the vessel of divine being, is this Antidote, therefore received.  If the Church is gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and the catechumen is baptized to be a member of the Church of Christ, then the catechumen is baptized to enter into the Eucharist, which Itself is the Body of Christ, as is the Church.

“They were baptized so that having died with Christ they may partake of His Risen Life, and it is this Risen Life that the Eucharist manifests and communicates in the Church, making Her members into witnesses into things to come.”  (Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, 119)

In this same manner, St. Paul tells us “Therefore brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another”(I Cor. 11:33).  Baptism as part of the Liturgy, work of the people, is a matter that includes all of the members of the church.  Baptism is the initiation that joins or grafts a person to the Church of Christ.  Blessed Augustine says, “Without Baptism and without partaking of the Body of the Lord, the little children have no Life.”

There is an intimate working relationship between the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.  Baptism is the Paschal event that happens but once in our life.  We are then liberated and sealed with our Gift, The Holy Spirit.  The Eucharist makes conscience the commemorative event of our salvation.  What begins in us at Baptism and grows in us from repetition of The Eucharist is participation in divine life and divine nature.  The Eucharist is the central movement of the Church’s worship to the Trinity.  The Eucharist is the strongest spiritual identity of the Church.  The Church is liturgical and Trinitarian, and liturgics of the Church is fulfilled with the Eucharist.  It is actually in the Eucharist that one is revealed the nature of the Trinity.  There is a relationship in the Eucharist that shows that because the Incarnation of the Word of God, there is no longer a distance between God and man.

Since the Father is light and the Son is His splendor, one can perceive in the son, the Spirit by whom we are illumined.  Likewise, since the Father is the source and the Son is called Stream, we are said to drink the Spirit.  Again, quenched by the Spirit, we drink Christ, for they “drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and the rock was Christ”(I Cor 10:4) St. Athanasius, Epistola I ad Serapionem

After the catechumen is baptized, he is led in a procession into the church along with the Church as a community affair and together with them continues to celebrate the Eucharist.  This entrance is where the community embraces the new Christian into their community, The Church of Christ.  The very definition of the Church, or Ecclesia, is “gathering” or “assembly”.  This “assembly”, the Church, is the icon of The Kingdom of God.  When the believers celebrate the Eucharist, he takes part in the divine Table of Heaven.  As a public ecclesiastic event, he becomes a citizen with the saints of God.   At Jesus’ death, blood and water flowed from his side, symbolic of baptism and Eucharist, now the channels of salvation and life in the Church!

St. Paul teaches us that the Body is not one member but many.  He then tells us how each member is so important to the whole of the body.  He compares the Body of Christ to a human body.  It is easy to think that one member can get lost in the context of the whole body.  Though eyes are an important part of the body, the body isn’t the same without ears or hands.  The point is that the body should be wholly present to welcome a new eye or arm.

In one of the texts by Fr. Schmemann, he teaches that the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist are really inseparable.  The sweetness of the infant child with no lack of faith partaking of the Risen Christ is an amazing spectacle.    The beauty of the Liturgy and Its fulfillment in the Eucharist is the most beautiful of Traditions I have yet to come across.  I can now see why St. Vladimir’s dignitaries said of Hagia Sophia, “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or Earth”.

Further Reading:

Of Water and the Spirit, Schmemann, SVS Press 1974

Common Ground, Bajis, Light and Life Publishing 1996

The Eucharist, Schmemann, SVS Press 1987

The Mystery of the Trinity, Bobrinskoy, SVS Press 1999

Introducing the Orthodox Church, Coniaris, Light and Life Publishing 1982

The Eucharist in the New Testament, Kodell, The Liturgical Press 1988


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