The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON BAPTISM
A PRIVATE OR PUBLIC EVENT?
28th JANUARY 2010
“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that on the day of Pentecost after the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the first Christian community was established with the Baptism of three thousand men and women. Thus from the very beginnings of the newly formed Church we see that Baptism was not a private affair but involved the participation of the whole Church. There are of course instances in the Acts where we are told of isolated Baptisms like Paul’s Baptism by Ananias (Acts 9:18) and the Baptism of Queen Candice’s eunuch who was baptised by the Apostle Philip (Acts 8:38), but in general Baptism was administered in groups. As the Church grew and became established, so also, an order was established regarding the preparation of the candidates and their initiation into the Church.
From the fourth century works of Sts. John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem we have a clear picture of how the candidates were prepared for Baptism and also when Baptisms took place. Before Baptism, instruction in the faith was a necessity for adults and it was not unusual for the entire time of preparation to last two or three years. Preparation was usually in two parts. The first involved those making a remote preparation and were obliged to attend the sermons and the catechism classes. Having been through this preparation, they were then admitted as direct candidates for baptism with a more intense period of training in Christian morals and the Mysteries. For St. John Chrysostom, this second period was a total of thirty days. In his discourses on Baptism, he says the following concerning the thirty days period: “Yet thirty days and the King of heaven will restore you to your true country above, to the free Jerusalem, to the City in Heaven”. Again to stress the importance of this period of instructions he says: “So also for you, these thirty days are like the practice and bodily exercises in some wrestling school. Let us learn during these days how we may gain the advantage over that wicked demon.” The thirty days began during Great Lent and ended with the last instructions on Holy and Great Thursday. Baptism was administered on Easter night and was joined to the Pascal celebration of the Eucharist. Baptisms were of course performed during other seasons like Theophany and as Chrysostom says: The grace is always the same grace and it is not hindered by the season, for the grace is from God”. But during Chrysostom’s time it was already established that the proper season for Baptism was Easter and Chrysostom points this out by saying: Our fathers ordained the celebration of this season first in order to remind you of the Master by the season of his victory and also that you might be the Master’s partner throughout the season. Thus Baptism involved participation in the Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion, his death and his Resurrection.
On Holy and Great Friday the Candidates made their renouncement of Satan and the covenant with Christ. There is evidence that originally this took place on Saturday afternoon, but to accommodate the large number of candidates it was moved to Friday at the Ninth Hour. The Catechisms just like the Baptisms were not private, but involved everyone together. In his instructions Chrysostom continues to say that: “When you have all entered the Church, then must you all together – for you must observe this, that all these gifts are given to all of you in common, so that the rich man may not look down on the poor man, nor the poor man consider that he has any less than the rich man; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female, there is no Scythian, no barbarian, no Jew, no Greek; not only is there no difference of age or nature, but even every difference of honour is cancelled out; there is one esteem for all, one gift, one brotherhood binding us together, the same grace.”
So how were Christians received into the Church during those early centuries?
The baptismal service was joined to the Divine Liturgy, or rather the celebration of the Pascal Eucharist, thus all the congregation, the whole body of the Church was present and received Holy Communion together with the new members. The actual Baptism though, was not seen by all the congregation. Churches had special baptisteries equipped with pools for adults. The baptisteries were curtained off to form dressing rooms where the candidates could get undressed and prepared for Holy Baptism. All candidates were stripped naked and the Priest would then anoint the forehead with exorcised oil. If the candidate was a woman, her body would still be covered at this stage [for at no time during the service would the Priest look upon her naked body] and when the Priest had turned away, a deaconess [women appointed to help at Baptisms] would anoint the whole body with the oil before leading the candidate into the water to be baptized. The same woman would also help with dressing the newly baptized with her bright baptismal garments. The same was done with the male candidates, only the candidate; the Deacon [possibly also the sponsor] and the Priest were present at the actual baptism.
After all the candidates had been baptized, anointed with the Holy Myron and dressed, they were led by the Clergy into the main part of the Church where the whole congregation waited to receive them and celebrate with them the event of their salvation and to receive together with them Holy communion in the service of the Divine Liturgy.
Witnesses to the union of the Baptismal rite with the Divine Liturgy reach almost as far back as the apostolic age. The oldest of these witnesses come from Justin Martyr in the 2nd century who says that immediately after the Baptism of the Neophylite, he is led to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that they may offer hearty prayers in common for themselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, so that immediately would follow the Divine Liturgy and the communion of the Newly Enlightened and all the faithful (1st Apology 65). The descriptions we receive from the various ancient liturgical and canonical works all testify to the union of the Baptismal rite to the Eucharist. Immediately after their baptism in the baptistery, they were led to the temple with the singing of: “As many of you as have been Baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia” followed by the appropriate New Testament readings and then the offering of the gifts, the anaphora, the Epiclisis and participation in the Holy Mysteries.
This union of Baptism with the Divine Liturgy was characteristically more splendid on the pre-eminent of all baptismal days, Holy and Great Saturday. As the Patriarch, Bishop or Priest went to the baptistery to perform the baptism of the catechumen, the readings from scripture began. These were many so that the necessary time was given for the baptisms. These readings have remained as part of the Vespers Resurrection Service of Holy and Great Saturday till this day, thus bearing witness to the baptismal character of the Pascal Service. Fifteen long readings are appointed but in the present practice we only read three. When the clergy returned with the Newly Baptized the choir sang “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ” and the Liturgy continued from this point. The entrance of the Newly Baptized all dressed in the white gowns and holding lighted candles in their hands must have been a wonderful image to look upon. The atmosphere must have been heavenly with the cheerful singing, the greetings and brotherly exchanges of the faithful, who greeted them into the church and to the common Eucharistic gathering, where for the first time the Newly Enlightened were to become partakers. They were given a place of honour and the first places near to the Sanctuary and first to approach for Holy Communion. Throughout Renewal Week the Divine Liturgy was served daily and the Newly Enlightened always wearing their white robes together with the older members attended and partook of the Holy Mysteries as decreed by the 66th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council which says: “that from the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection until the New Sunday, meaning Thomas Sunday, the faithful are required to spend the entire week in church taking cheer and celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs paying attention to the words of divine scripture and partaking of the divine Mysteries.”
Thus the various stages of initiation into the body of the Church was complete. It involved ascending stages beginning with Catechism, Exorcism, renunciation of Satan and the free acceptance of Christ followed by the Confession of faith, then Baptism and Chrismation which led to their full membership with the body of the Church through their first participation in the precious gifts.
Today the baptismal service has been severed and isolated from the Divine Liturgy and individual Baptisms are performed. The main reason for this separation was the prevalence of infant baptisms. The fear of infant death in an age when infant mortality was high, brought about a need for very early baptisms so that the infant would not die without enlightenment. This had as a result the individualisation of baptism and the abandonment of the old group and festive baptisms during the Greatest Feasts. The dangers of war and barbaric invasions also contributed to the severing of the two mysteries. In spite of this, for a long period after, the tradition remained fairly resilient. It saved, if not the Liturgy, then at least the communion of the Newly Baptised from the reserved presanctified gifts. In many manuscripts of that period and in the new Euchologia, the order of Baptism comes to an end with a hardly noticeable rubric saying the Newly Baptized is given to partake of the Holy Mysteries. In fact this is how the first communion of the newly Baptized is now celebrated – unnoticeable. In the Constanmonitou codex of the 16th century, in an attempt to make this first communion not go completely unnoticed, it is placed in a kind of Presanctified Liturgy. After the Baptism and Chrismation, the child is brought into the Church and the Choir sing “As many of you as have been Baptized into Christ.” The Priest then says the exhortation from the Liturgy “And vouchsafe, O Lord, that boldly and without condemnation we may dare to lift our voices unto Thee, O heavenly God and Father, and say: and there follows the Lord’s Prayer. The Priest then says: “Let us give heed. The Holy Things unto the holy” and the choir respond with: “One only is holy, one only is the Lord…” The child is then given Holy Communion from the reserved Presanctified Gifts while the Choir again sing “As many of you as have been Baptized into Christ.” The short service comes to an end with the first Ablution prayer “O Thou, who through Holy Baptism, hast granted forgiveness of sins…” as a kind of Behind the Pulpit prayer.
In his book “The life in Christ” Nicholas Cabasilas (+1395) insists that the completion of the initiation of the baptized and his perfection is brought about by his approach to Holy Communion. (Fourth Book). The author of the Pedalion St. Nicodemus the Agiorite insists that not only is Holy Communion essential immediately after Baptism, but that it should once again be rejoined to the Divine Liturgy according to the ancient practice. In the footnote to the 31st canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council he says: “For just as nature had milk ready for the nourishment of the body of the infant directly when it was born physically, so and in like manner grace prepares divine Communion ready for the spiritual nourishment of the infant directly when it is reborn spiritually through baptism.”
From the beginning and throughout the centuries Baptism was always associated with the Sacraments of Chrismation and the Eucharist and it was inconceivable to think of Baptism without the other two Sacraments. Today, even though the Sacrament of Baptism has been severed from the Divine Liturgy we can still see the close connection of the three Sacraments in the Baptismal service. But before we look at the actual Baptism service it would also be beneficial to look at the Catechism prayers which precede it.
In our days, the Exorcism prayers and confession are said immediately prior to the Baptism service. In older times, the pre-baptismal offices were done on repeated gatherings of the catechumen and were said everyday for at least eight days. On each day for seven days it was said by the Priest responsible for the catechism of the candidates and again on the eighth day by the Bishop or the Priest who was to carry out the Baptisms. Later, when this was concentrated into the one day, all the five prayers were said many times, just as today the rubrics of the service tell us that the Symbol of faith is to be said three times. According to the codices of Sinai 996 and Koutloumousiou 343, the five preparatory prayers were said eight or ten times. St. Symeon of Thessalonica mentions that in the Euchologion of his time it was written that the prayers were to be said eight or ten times. When the Baptismal practices were concentrated into one day, the eight and ten times of the ancient Euchologia began to be reduced to many times (if there was time) then to three and finally to once. This is what finally prevailed and with a Synodical decision in the time of the Patriarch of Constantinople John (1376) it was endorsed that the prayers must be said only once.
But now let’s see the structure of our Baptismal service we use today. There are enough elements which show the close connection Baptism had with the Divine Liturgy. Firstly it begins with the same opening blessing “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” This is the blessing that originally belonged only to the Divine Liturgy. I have heard others say that it is the opening blessing for a sacrament, but this is not entirely correct because there are sacraments like the Sacrament of Confession and the Sacrament of Chrismation, when it is served on its own, which do not have this opening blessing but the more usual “Blessed is our God…” Through Christ, the Divine Liturgy is the revelation of the Kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. With the coming of Christ the door of the Kingdom was opened to man and with the Divine Liturgy we enter this door of the Kingdom and pre-partake of her good things. The Divine Liturgy transcends our earthly time and becomes the banquet that the faithful shall enjoy at the Second Coming of Christ. Thus the opening blessing “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” truly belongs only to the Divine Liturgy. Its use for the beginning of the Baptismal rite comes and testifies that Baptism was once united to the Divine Liturgy just as it does also for the Marriage ceremony which was also once united to the Liturgy.
Immediately after the opening blessing we have the Great Litany which again follows the order of the Liturgy and in fact it is the Litany of the Liturgy, but with some extra petitions added appropriate for the Baptism service. The prayer that immediately follows is said silently by the priest and precedes the prayer for the Blessing of the waters. Here again we have a similarity with the Divine Liturgy, where before the Great Entrance and the Sanctification of the Holy Gifts, the Priest says silently the prayer of the Cherubicon. In both situations he says the prayer on behalf of himself, recognising and confessing his unworthiness at the greatness of the mystery which he is called to serve. After the Blessing of the waters, the anointing with the Exorcised oil and the Baptism we then have the Sacrament of Chrismation, which although it is a separate Sacrament, it is given immediately after Baptism. In the prayer of Chrismation we can see the link between the three Sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist. In short it reads: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord God Almighty, who has granted unto us, though we be unworthy, the blessed cleansing in Holy Baptism, and divine sanctification in the life-giving Anointing… do Thou also grant upon him/her the seal of the gift of Thine omnipotent and venerable Spirit, and the communion of the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Thy Christ.”
The next testimony we have that Baptism was closely connected to the Divine Liturgy is the singing of: “As many of you as have been Baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” As mentioned earlier this was the hymn that was sung in older times when the Newly-Baptized came in procession from the Baptistery into the main Church where the whole congregation waited to receive them and for the Divine Liturgy to begin which would unite them as one body through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Today this procession is symbolically remembered by going around the font three times while the hymn is sung. Next follows the New Testament readings, that is, the Apostle and Gospel readings again following the order of the Divine Liturgy. The appointed readings are in fact the same as the readings for the Vespers Resurrection Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday showing again that the Resurrection service was baptismal in character.
The service should them come to an end with the closing prayers, the dismissal and Communion of the Holy gifts. Instead we find in the Small Euchologion certain prayers after the reading of the Gospel which shouldn’t actually be there and in the Great Euchologion they do in fact constitute a separate service. They are the prayers of Ablution and the tonsure which in older times were said on the eighth day after Baptism. As we saw earlier, the Newly Baptized lived the Resurrection everyday of Renewal week until the eighth day which even today we do the same. On the eighth day they returned to the Baptistery where they were washed from the oils and Chrism of the Baptism and where the Priest would perform the tonsure, which is the cutting of the person’s hair in a crosswise fashion. This has a symbolic meaning similar to the first-fruits one would offer God as a thanksgiving for the good harvest. The hair of course does not represent fruit, but an offering of ourselves, the beginning of a new start and a sacrifice of our whole life to Christ our God.
Today the tonsure is performed immediately after the anointing with the Holy Chrism and the prayers of Ablution and the tonsure are read silently by the priest in anticipation during the drying and dressing of the infant. Although this is the practice that has come down to us for infant Baptisms, I personally feel that it is wrong when we apply the same practice for adults. The adult should hear the prayers and understand what is being done to him. I am responsible for giving Catechism lessons and Baptizing English speaking adults who with to join the Church and on average I Baptize 25 adults a year. In recent years I have tried to return to the ancient order of Baptism with the exception of its reunion with the Divine Liturgy. I do not say the prayers of Ablution and the tonsure during the Baptism, and after the Baptism service, the person is washed in an appropriate place where the waters do not run into the common sewage. Then I read them the prayers of Ablution and the tonsure and follow with the actual tonsure.
To finish I would like to compare the practice of the Orthodox Church with that of the main Western churches. The West, for various practical reasons has separated the three Sacraments and offers them at different stages of a person’s life, thus a person is not a full member of their church until he or she reaches an “age of reason”. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church has remained steadfast in her requirements to stay within the traditional and theological unity of the three Sacraments which are necessary for the completion of the Christian initiation.