The Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) are the most important means of our salvation, which were established and entrusted to the Church by Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There are seven such sacramental mysteries administered by the Byzantine Rite Church (ct. Byzantine Leaflet Series, 1989, No. 47). the first being the Holy Mystery of Baptism, by which we become regenerated into the divine life of God’s children in Jesus Christ and become living members of His Church.
The term – baptism is a Greek term and literally means bathing or washing, as suggested by St. Paul : ” He (Jesus) saved us by means of the cleansing water (bath) of regeneration, renewing us by the Holy Spirit.” (Tit. 3:5) St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) remarks: “This mystical cleansing (baptism) is also called the bath of regeneration.” (et. Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instructions, IX, 12).
Baptism is also called – Christening, since it makes us Christians, the followers of Christ (Acts 11 :26). for “all who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) Being mystically united by Baptism to Christ, we do not belong anymore to ourselves, we “belong to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:7)
1. Before His Ascension Our Lord commissioned His disciples, and through them His Church, to teach all nations and make all of them Christians, saying : “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). and only those “who will believe and be baptized w ill be saved.” (Mk. 16:16)
The institution of Baptism comes directly from Our Lord Jesus Christ, who at the beginning of His public ministry solemnly proclaimed : “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a man is born again (regenerated) of water and (Holy) Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (In. 3:5) The Church then recognizes Baptism as a new birth by the Holy Spirit, which marks the beginning of our divine life in Christ Jesus, as testified by St. Irenaeus (d. 202):
“Baptism is the seal of eternal life and our rebirth in the Spirit of God, so that we become not only the children of men but also the children of the Eternal God.” (cf. his Apostolic Demonstrations, Excerpts).
2. When, on the day of Pentecost, the Jews were asking Peter what they must do to be saved, he answered: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (i. e. by the Baptism instituted by Jesus Christ – Acts 19:5) for forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (through Confirmation). Scripture assures us that those who accepted Peter’s advice “were baptized, about three thousand of them.” (Acts 2:37-38, 41) The apostles and their successors did not fail to baptize all those who believed in Jesus Christ and promised to abide by His teachings. Thus they were initiated into Christian community, as witnessed by the second century martyr, St. Justin (d. 156): “Those who believe in the truth of our teachings and undertake to live accordingly. .. , are led by us to a place where there is water to be regenerated (baptized) in the same way as we were – in the name of God the Father, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” (cf. his First Apology, 61).
3. Initially the baptismal ritual was very simple as described to us by the first century document, The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, generally known by its Greek title – Didache (teaching), written about 90 A.D. :
“Concerning Baptism – baptize in running water. But if you do not having running water, use whatever is available. Pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (cf. Didache, 7).
But with time, as the liturgical life of the Church was developing, the administration of Holy Baptism became more and more elaborate, being constantly enriched by highly impressive and symbolic ceremonies in imitation of the pomp and splendor of the Imperial Court. After all, the Church did indeed represent God’s kingdom on earth. By the middle of the fourth century the baptismal ritual in the Byzantine Church reached its full development as testified by the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, which he delivered during the Lent of 348 A.D. in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Another authority on the development of the baptismal ritual is St. John Chrysostom who delivered his Baptismallnstructions in Antioch, between 388-390 A.D.
4. In these patristic instructions we can clearly trace all the integral parts of the present baptismal initiation, namely: 1) Reception of the candidate for baptism (catechumenate), who had to be presented by a sponsor; 2) exorcism – since in consequence of original sin the candidates were subject to a certain degree to the hostile power of the evil spirit (et. Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, 11,12-14); 3) renunciation of the devil and adherance to Christ, referred to by Chrysostom as the ” contract of faith” (Ibid., XI, 19-26); 4) profession of faith , called by St. Cyril the ” saving confession” (et. Catecho Lectures, XX, 4); 5) anointing with the oil of catechumens, making us the ” athletes of Christ” (et. Chrysostom, Bapt. Instr. , II , 23); 6) baptism by ” water and the Holy Spirit” (In. 3:5), restoring in us the image of God (Gen . 1 :26) ; 7) clothing with a white garment, called the ” robe of justice,” symbolic of the soul’s righteousness, free from ” every blemish” (et. Chrysostom, Bapt. Instr., VII, 24); and, finally 8) handing the burning candle as a reminder to the baptized to “shine brightly with the light of faith and good works” during his or her entire life. With these ceremonies we actually conclude the administration of Holy Baptism, although in our Byzantine Rite the priest continues the ritual by imparting the Holy Mystery of Chrismation (Confirmation), which will be treated in a separate leaflet.
5. In order to enter into the kingdom of heaven we must be baptized (In. 3:5). Since infants are born in the state of original sin (Rm. 5:12-14) and many of them die before reaching maturity, infant baptism was introduced in the Church since apostolic times, as witnessed by famous teacher of Alexandria, Origen (d. 253), in his Commentary on Romans, V, 9. The Apostles remembered the admonition of our Lord: ” Let the children come to Me and do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Lk. 18:16) The second century Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus, insisted that Jesus Christ “came to save all who through Him are born again unto God: infants and children, boys and girls, young and old.” (et. his Against Heresies, II, 22,4). St. John Chrysostom gives the following explanation : “We baptize the infants, although they do not have (personal) sins, that they be given the gift of sanctification, righteousness, filial adoption and inheritance (of heaven), and that as members of Christ (i. e. the Church) they become a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.” (et. 8apt. Instr., III, 6)
During the fourth century, when some Christian parents began to postpone the baptism of their children to a mature age, many of the Church Fathers, like St. Basil the Great (d. 379)’ St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 389), St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), just to mention a few, vigorously tried to eradicate such an abuse. Finally, the pristine custom to baptize little children prevailed.
6. Since the baptismal ritual in the Byzantine Rite is constructed in such a way that the candidate must take an active part in it and answer some questions of the priest (like the renunciation of Satan, the promise to belong to Christ, the profession of faith etc.), the institution of sponsors became necessary. The sponsors bring the child to be baptized into the church and, in the name of the infant, give necessary answers as the baptismal ritual proceeds.
The main responsibility of sponsors is to secure a Christian education of their ” spiritual children” and extend to them guidance in their spiritual life. St. John Chrysostom calls them “spiritual parents,” since they “ought to show their paternal love by encouraging, counseling and correcting those they sponsor.” (cf. Bapt. /nstr. , 11 , 15-16) Such practice was already confirmed by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, assembled in 325 A.D. (Canon 22).
At the beginning there was only one sponsor required. But later, in the Middle Ages, a custom to have two or more sponsors was introduced. Finally, since the 15th century, the custom of having two sponsors, male and female, prevailed, making some resemblance between natural and spiritual parents of the baptized . The Godparents also become the official witnesses of the baptism and their names are entered into the Baptismal Register.
7. At baptism the candidates also receive their Christian name. In the f irst three centuries they were baptized by their birth-names. Only after 313 A.D., when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire, the Church Fathers began to enforce the custom to change the pagan names of the baptized into Christian names. The First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) already legislated to this effect: “The faithful ought not to give pagan names to their children, but let the Christian people use their own names.” (Canon 30)
The Christian names were considered those of the Apostles, Martyrs and Confessors, who would “secure for the baptized their heavenly protection” (ct. Theodoret of Cyrus, Sermon 8). Later biblical names were introduced, both from the Old and the New Testament. Also the names of Christian virtues, such as Charity, Pius, Grace, Justin, were considered Christian .
St. John Chrysostom explains: “Christian parents should always give to their children such names that would inspire them to a virtuous life and serve others as a reminder of a true Christian life.” (ct. his Homily in Genesis, 21)
8. On the fortieth day after child’s birth a special ceremony is prescribed, generally known as Churching of a Child, in imitation of the presentation of our Lord in the temple. (et. Byzantine Leaflet Series, 1979, No. 12) As the priest is leading the mother with the child into the church (hencechurching). he says: “Enter into the house of God and adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Adore Him who has granted to you that you should bear a child.” At the conclusion of the ritual a special blessing is imparted to both mother and child while the priest sprinkles them with holy water.
Originally the churching of the newly baptized had taken place right after the baptismal ceremonies, when they were led by the clergy in a solemn procession into the church where they were received with the joyous singing of the assembly: “All you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia .” (Gal. 3:27) After infant baptism was introduced the original churching ceremony had to be modified and developed into a special ritual (ct. Goar, Euchologion, p. 269). Nevertheless, the full development of churching took place during the 13th and 14th centuries, as testified by Simeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429): “On the fortieth day the infant again is brought to church by its mother, who offers her child to God as a gift.” Then he gives a complete description of the ceremonial (cf. Simeon’s On Sacraments, 60).