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Baptism & Theophany: Holy Scripture and the Witness of the Orthodox Church
Typological and direct references to baptism in the Bible & How Orthodox Christians understand them
The Mystery of Holy Baptism is replete in scripture. It is paralleled in the creation story where the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters (Genesis 1:1-2), the story of Noah (Genesis 6:9-18; 1 Peter 3:18-21), the washing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19),1 the priestly purification rites (Exodus 30:17-21; Numbers 19:11-13); it is prefigured in the Israelites’ passage through Red Sea (Exodus 14; 1 Corinthians 10:1-2)2 and the crossing of the Jordan river (Joshua 3).
Baptism is described in the New Testament as the circumcision of Christ (Colosians 2:11-12), and a washing of regeneration (Titus 3:4-8) for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38-39). Baptism is our uniting with Christ (Romans 6; Galatians 3:26-29), our grafting into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)—the Church. For this reason, Paul warns baptized persons against uniting Christ with a harlot (1 Corinthians 6:15).
Baptism is for remission of sins (Acts 2:38-39); it saves us (1 Peter 3:18-21).3 Just as infants were circumcised and grafted into the promise of Abraham, so infants should be baptized (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 11:13-14; Acts 2:38-39 ). We are to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
Baptism is the beginning of our Christian journey—it is not the end—and is a Mystery that we are implored to readily renew through our tears in confession.
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How the Orthodox Church practices Baptism
In the Orthodox Church we submerge three times whenever possible;4 immediately after Baptism, the newly illumined is Chrismated (anointed with oil) and tonsured (the priest cuts of four sections of hair in the shape of a cross, one of which is placed in the censer as his first offering to God). The newly baptized then approaches the chalice for the first time as a communicant—yes, even infants. Baptism and the Eucharist are intricately connected and together form the initiation and consummation of the Christian journey (1 Corinthians chapters 10-12)—a journey that is dynamic, not static.
Orthodox Christians celebrate the Feast of Theophany (the baptism of Christ) every year on January 6th—and every year, as we take home small bottles of Holy Water, we are reminded that Christ was baptized not only as an example for us, but in order to sanctify the waters of the world. In this lies a great mystery: the physical and spiritual realities are not opposed to one another; God works in the world and through the world. God uses the physical world to effect our salvation.5 This is a reality that can also be heard over and over again in scripture and patristic voices.
One could speak for hours about the Sacrament of Holy Baptism within the Orthodox Church: the role of the godparent, the prayers of exorcism, the renouncing of the devil (which includes spitting out the back of the church), the sign of the cross made over the child’s body, and the water, the oil, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, the naming, the three candles on the baptismal font, the water, the clothing in white, and the tonsuring. It is a truly beautiful service—one filled with prayers that will bring tears to your eyes.
Baptism is, without a doubt, at the the heart of what it means to enter the Church as a Christian.6 The Christian Church is a family, an organic body, and just as we do not make a rational choice to be born into our biological families, the child does not need to make a rational choice to be grafted into the body of Christ. But just as Esau rejected his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34) and the Prodigal Son left his Father’s house (Luke 15:11-32), baptized infants have a choice to remain in the family of God or reject it later on.
You have bestowed upon us regeneration from on high by water and the spirit. Manifest Yourself, O Lord, in this water, and grant that he (she) that is to be baptized may be transformed therein to the putting away of the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and to the putting on of the new, which is renewed according to the Image of Him that created him (her).That, being planted in the likeness of Your death through Baptism, he (she) may become a sharer of Your Resurrection; and, preserving the Gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increasing the deposit of Grace, he (she) may attain unto prize of his (her) high calling, and accounted among the number of the first-born, whose names are written in Heaven, in You our God and Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be all Glory and Might, together with Your Eternal Father and with Your All; Holy, Good, and Life; creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.
-Prayer from the service of Holy Baptism
Interested in more reading on baptism? You may like, Rebaptism: Patristic Consensus or Innovation?
In Old Testament typology (something the Church Fathers were prone to talk about), leprosy is a type for sin. Seen in this light, Naaman is prefiguring/paralleling baptism as a remission of sins.
The crossing of the Red Sea is in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church as a type for Baptism. John Chrysostom (among others) spoke about Egypt as a type for slavery to sin and the journey of the Israelites a type for the Christian journey from slavery (Egypt) to freedom in Christ (Promised Land). The crossing of the Red Sea is our baptism, where the trespasses and passions are destroyed, like the Egyptians. But not without scars, as St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite is sure to point out in his Exomologetarian.
Some may have a problem with this kind of language, “baptism saves,” especially if they believe that a person is once saved, always saved. They argue that the infant has no choice and is, therefore, passively saved. This kind of conclusion is erroneously constructed, typically without fully understanding the role of baptism, the Holy Spirit, and the person’s choice. Just like Esau could reject his birthright (Genesis 25:34), so we, too, can reject our baptism for something as menial as a bowl of lentil soup. But even more than that, our salvation should not be considered a one time event but rather an ongoing journey.
As it says in the Didache, chapter 7, on certain occasions this may not be possible. And as Saint Paisios himself says in his Spiritual Counsels, in emergencies, even a layman can lift up a newborn and make the sign of the Cross, in the Name of the Holy Trinity.
This has to be affirmed by every Christian, at the very least, because of the Incarnation.
I am not here making any claim about how previously baptized converts are to be received.