Baptism in the Life of the Church

Baptism is the beginning of life in Christ. In this article, we look at how baptism is expressed and lived in the liturgy.

The great feasts of the Church's year are days of baptism

Pascha, the feast of the Lord's resurrection, is also the original day of baptism in the Church. As believers celebrated the Paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, associating it symbolically with the Passover of the Lord and the deliverance of Israel by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, they led new Christians up out of the waters of baptism where their sins had been put to death.

Other feasts connected with principal events in the life of Christ and the Church were also chosen as baptismal days: notably, Christmas, Theophany, and Pentecost. In some places Lazarus Saturday was a baptismal day as well, so that new believers could spend Holy Week as baptized Christians. On all of these days, and during all of Bright Week, the hymn of baptism replaces the Trisagion as the song at the clergy's entrance in to the sanctuary: "All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Alleluia!"

Christ's baptism and ours

On the feast of Theophany, Christ's baptism in the Jordan River is celebrated with a solemn blessing of water in the church, which is sometimes followed by a procession to, and blessing of, a nearby river or other body of water. The prayers of blessings contain a whole theology of baptism, showing how it was Christ's descent into the water that purified and blessed it so that it could in turn sanctify the world.

The catechumenate - our preparation for baptism

Unlike Christ, those to be baptized (called catechumens, or those undergoing instruction) came to the Church with their own histories and their own sins. Therefore a lengthy preparation for baptism took place, so that those who desired to become Christians could learn to reject sin and follow Christ. The catechumenate took place in stages, culminating in baptism at Pascha or another feast. Until that time they had some but not all of the privileges of believers, and it is for this reason that, at the transition from the readings of the Divine Liturgy to the commemoration of the Lord's Supper, the catechumens were dismissed. That is why the deacon calls out, "The doors! The doors!" This is a remnant of a longer explanation: "Let all catechumens depart! Let no catechumens remain!" and a call to close and guard the doors of the Church, so that the baptized could pray together in unity.

The preparation of the catechumens, and the prayer and fasting of the baptized on their behalf, eventually developed into the Great Fast. Specific prayers and exorcisms for the catechumens are still appointed during the course of the Fast. This is also why we hear readings from Genesis and Proverbs during the Great Fast: this is a reminder of our 'family story' and an exhortation to virtue.

Baptism equips us for ministry

We sometimes think of ordination (of a priest, deacon, or bishop) as the dividing line in the Church between leaders and followers. But in fact, it is baptism that equips the Christian for ministry, and enables us as followers of Christ to take on (each in our own way) his mantle as priest, prophet, and king. In this way, we have real authority over nature (as Adam did), and even more, we have authority over ourselves: freed from sin, we can choose to follow Christ.

The white garment in which the newly baptized is clothed is the most fundamental liturgical vestment, and the cutting of the hair (called tonsure) at baptism is a sign of submission and service to God. All further liturgical vestments and tonsures (these take place at ordinations) are reminders of baptism. The step made at baptism is far larger and more important than any distinction between those within the Church.

Renewal of baptism

There are ways in which baptism is renewed within the church:

Both of these services were seen by the Church Fathers as a "second baptism." And spiritual writers also placed a high value on the tears of repentance that bring us the desire to be reconciled with God.

The Paschal season reminds us of our baptism

In the middle of the fifty day feast that runs from Pascha to Pentecost, the Church celebrates the feast of Mid-Pentecost. On this day, and during the week that follows, the reading and prayers return again and again to symbols and foretellings of baptism. The Sunday within this week-long feast of Mid-Pentecost is the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, who asked Christ for the gift of the "living water" that only He could give.

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