Word Magazine January 1989 Pae 4-6



by Laura E. Woolsey

Beloved in Christ, I would like to share with you what I have come to know and understand about Baptism. For a long time I was under the sorry assumption that being baptized meant you had a “free pass” to heaven. And that your Godparents were an extra set of parents who gave you an extra set of presents at Christmas, birthdays, Easter and any other feast. I knew that being baptized was something one had to do, but I wasn’t quite sure why?

Why infants — they have not had any time to commit any sins? Why use water? Why total immersion? Why the new clothes? Why the oil, the candles and why does the priest cut the hair of the newly-baptized infant? And why be confirmed if you were just baptized to Christ? The answers begin to unfold as one looks at the event in the life of Jesus Christ; one of which is considered the beginning of His official dedication to His Divine Mission in the presence and manifestation of the Triune God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This celebration is called Epiphany (which is a combined Greek word meaning: to show forth, or to shine upon). This Feast includes the Birth of Jesus Christ, His Baptism and the appearance of the Father and the Holy Spirit — the first and only united appearance of the true God. When Jesus had been baptized. . . behold the appearance of the Holy Trinity took place; the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily shape with a dove, and a voice came from heaven which said, “Thou art my beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased.”

In the early centuries, the celebration of Epiphany or Theophany had many transformations but essentially its significance is not merely a memory of history. The recurrent celebration of Epiphany has great spiritual significance far beyond the attractiveness of lights, music and poetry. It’s like all the events that occurred to Christ, that we as Orthodox Christians take to heart with the knowledge that He is present with us here and now, our inseparable Companion and Comforter. Epiphany, like Baptism and all the other sacraments, is a spiritual renewal of how much God loves us and is a part of our daily lives.

Through baptism Christ washes away sin as separation and division. He restores unity between man and God. We are attached to Christ. We become His eyes, His hands, His feet, His tongue . . . Christ told His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Why does the Church use water to baptize? Well, to begin with water is essential to all life on this earth. We began from water in the womb and we live by water now. It refreshes and revives us. We need it when we are thirsty and we use it to remove dirt and clean what is soiled. This most basic of all elements to human life has been selected by God to be the instrument of our spiritual re­birth. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

Why does the Church baptize infants? In a family, each member is loved and cared for. We share our lives with each other and a family does not exclude one of their members from being loved.

Baptizing infants before they know what is going on is an expression of God’s great love for us. It shows that God loves us and accepts us before we can ever know Him or love Him. Father Anthony Coniaris states in his book THESE ARE THE SACRAMENTS that “it shows that we are wanted and loved by God from the very moment of our birth. To say that a person must reach the age of reason and believe in Christ BEFORE he may be baptized is to make God’s grace in some way dependent on man’s intelligence. But God’s grace is NOT dependent on any act of ours, intellectual or otherwise; it is a pure gift of His love”.

We bring infants to baptism not because they believe but in order that they might believe. Baptism is like the plant­ing of the seed of faith in the human soul. Nourished and fed by Christian training, in the family and in the church school, the seed of faith will grow to produce a mature Christian. Baptism introduces the child to the love of God and opens him to the grace of the Holy Spirit. These are great riches even if the child is unaware of them at the beginning. To deny a child baptism is to deprive him of this inner grace that is so necessary to Christian growth. In cases of emergency, a baptized Christian may baptize a dying infant by sprinkling water three times on the child and saying, “The servant of God, (their name), is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Baptism in the Orthodox Church is far more than for the remission of sins. The dominant theme of baptism is positive. As a fourteenth century Byzantine theologian pointed out —Look at all the positive terms and scriptural meanings:





Theodoret of Cyrus writes: “If the only meaning of baptism were remission of sins, why would we baptize newborn children who have yet tasted of sins? But the mystery of baptism is not limited to this, it is a promise of future delights; it is the type of future resurrection, a communion with the Master’s passion, a participation in His resurrection, mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or rather it is light itself”.

Now that made a lot of sense to me after thinking about that. So many people of other faiths would question me about infant baptism and the answer is so clear! Those people were seeing baptism as a negative gesture or something that had to wait until you knew what you were getting yourself into! When in fact it is a positive gesture. Baptism is a joyous event. It’s our own personal Easter. We share in Christ’s death and resurrection.

There are many examples of God’s love for us in the service of the Sacrament of Baptism in the Orthodox Church. And each example has a significant meaning. First of all, the first part of the baptismal service begins in the entrance of the church which means that the one being received is not yet a member of the Church, thus the purpose of baptism is to bring him or her into the church. To enter into the temple of God is to be with Christ, to become a member of His body.

Next, there is the exorcism in which the sponsors renounce the devil. It is to acknowledge its existence, for no one can be Christ’s until he has first faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it! The exorcisms announce the forthcoming baptism as an act of victory.

The sign of the cross is repeated over the child’s body several times during the service. The cross is the sign of victory which puts the devil to flight, it brands us as belonging to Christ. This will be the first act this child will learn. Once this act is learned it is never unlearned, never changed; and often it is the last conscious act made before departure from this life.

The Creed is read by the Godparents in order to confess faith in Christ on behalf of the infant. The reciting or reading of the Nicene Creed was a true symbol or sign of recognition among the early Christians.

The naming of the infant is done after the child is received into the church. He is given his own particular name by which he shall be distinguished from every other child of God. This expresses our belief that the child has the dignity of his own self-hood in the eyes of God.

The baptismal font in the language of the Church Fathers is the Divine womb so we receive the second birth as children of God. Baptism is truly a birth. The baptismal font is not only a womb where we become “alive to God” but also a tomb where we become “dead to sin”.

In the font we have the Triple Immersion. We believe that Christ died for our sins. To show that we, not Christ, are worthy of death because of our sins, we are immersed in the baptismal font. The immersion in the water symbolizes death, since a person cannot live long under water. The triple immersion symbolizes the three days our Lord spent in the tomb as well as the Holy Trinity, since the baptismal formula used in the Orthodox Church is: “The Servant of God, (name), is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

The infant is immersed in water and again the water is used for cleansing. In baptism it expresses the fact that through this sacrament Christ cleanses us from original and personal sin. During immersion, the infant is naked to denote that as we came out of the womb naked so do we emerge naked out of the womb of God — the baptismal font. The removal of all clothes basically means — the old sinful nature will be cast off entirely through baptism.

The infant is anointed with oil. The olive oil is blessed and then applied by the priest to the various members of the child’s body: the hands, feet, ears, mouth, in order to dedicate them to the service of Christ. The beginning of this custom began in ancient Greece, where their wrestlers anointed their bodies with olive oil to make it difficult for their opponent to maintain a grip on them. In baptism the child is anointed with olive oil to express our prayer that with Christ’s help the infant may be able to elude the grip of sin. This oil is called the “oil of exorcism”, because through the invocation of God’s name and the bishop’s prayer, “it is invested with power to repel the attacks of evil spirits”. After the anointing of oil the infant is given new clothes.

The new clothes signify the entirely new life that we receive after we are “buried with Jesus in His death”. In the early Church the newly-baptized put on a new white robe. The white robe expresses the purity of the soul that has been washed from sin. It recalls also the shining robe in which Christ appeared at the Transfiguration. There is now a likeness between the one baptized and the transfigured Lord, St. Paul calls it a putting on of Christ. Just as the priest and the Church sings, “For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ, Alleluia”. The book of Revelation (7:9-17) writes about the multitudes who are clothed in white robes from every nation standing before the throne of the Lamb.

The baptismal candles remind us, Christ is the light of the world. The baptismal candle is always kept by the one baptized. The same candle is lit on the anniversary of one’s baptism. When that person marries, the same candle may be used at the wedding. If ordained, he may light it at his ordination. When the final hour of life approaches it may be illuminated again as the soul goes forth to meet its Judge. It is a constant reminder for the Christian to live and die by the light of Christ.

The Sacrament of Chrismation (or confirmation) is next. It is considered the fulfillment of baptism. Chrismation is really our own personal Pentecost, his or her entrance into the life of the Holy Spirit, his or her ordination as truly and fully man. His whole body is anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to the new life: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”, says the priest as he anoints the newly baptized on the brow, and on the eyes, on the nostrils, on the lips, and on both ears, and the breast and the hands, and the feet. The whole person is now made the temple of God. The Greek word for Chrismation is “Chrisma” which means anointing. The one anointed with “Chrisma” becomes other Christs. Chrismation is the ordination of the laity. Through the Sacrament of Chrismation, we are baptized with the Holy Spirit even as Christ was baptized with the Spirit at Theophany or Epiphany, and the Apostles were on Pentecost.

The chrism used in Chrismation consists of olive oil mixed with precious balsams and perfumes. As the priest anoints the various organs of sense of the newly-baptized, he says at each anointing: “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. There is great significance of this seal:

The seal consecrates

The seal is God’s signature

The seal denotes origin and ownership

The seal means authority

The seal is a guarantee

“The Spirit we have now received is a guarantee that one day we will receive its full possession in the blessedness of God’s kingdom,” says St. Paul

The cutting of hair after confirming the child is very interesting. The priest cuts locks of hair from the child’s head which is an expression of gratitude from the child. He who has received an abundance of blessings through the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation and having nothing to give to God in return, offers part of its hair, which is symbolic of strength (this symbol is evident in the story of Samson in the Old Testament). The child, therefore, promises to serve God with all its strength.

The procession which is done at the time the infant is given the Sacrament of Communion is done with the sponsors holding the newly baptized infant and proceeding three times around the font with the priest. The priest sings, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, Alleluia”. The procession represents in early times how the newly baptized, wearing their white robes and carrying candles were led by the clergy to the church for the celebration of the Eucharist. Here they would receive their first Communion.

The Eucharist given in baptism is renewed again and again. As God provides milk for the nourishment of the infant after the birth, so God also provides Holy Communion for the infant immediately following baptism, in order to provide nourishment for the spiritual life this new convert has received through baptism.

Baptism demands a personal response on the part of the baptized child when it grows up. The child must accept what God did for him or her in baptism. For baptism is not a divine pass into heaven. Later in life the child becomes aware of faith in Jesus Christ. As he looks back, he or she realizes that something or someone led him to this act of faith. Eventually the child realizes that it all began back there in baptism when God came to him. To become truly a Christian, one must agree freely to be converted, to repent, to turn to Christ, and accept His Holy Spirit.

One does not become a Christian automatically. One must become aware of Christ and the Holy Spirit actively and consciously and throw away all of one’s adult reasoning and become accepting of God’s mysteries — become childlike. As the baptized Christian grows from child to adult, and participates in the Sacramental life of the Church, as he or she learns about Christ in church school, and has support from his or her parents and Godparents, he or she must personally renew his baptismal pledge. You belong to Christ. That’s why when deciding on Godparents for an infant, they really should be active zealous Orthodox who realizes he must keep in touch with him, set a good example and help him grow in the faith.

Spiritual growth comes from sharing in the Eucharist, daily prayer and fasting, and sincere efforts to live the kind of life Christ lived and preached. . . in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Laura E. Woolsey is a member of the St. Matthew Mission in Torrance, CA, where she delivered this lecture on Family Education Sunday, a program for lay ministry in her parish.