Baptism and Chrismation

The service of baptism has undergone a long and profound development. In the early days of the Church’s history, those desiring to become Christians were first enrolled as catechumens and continued in that state for some months or even years. Their baptism came as the culmination of a lengthy preparation. In the Christian east, the children of Christians were often enrolled as catechumens in infancy and later baptized as children. Eventually however, the practice of baptizing children of Christians during their infancy came to prevail in the east as it had in the west, and our current baptismal service reflects this practice of infant baptism.

From the days of the apostles, the rite of baptism was liturgically two-fold, consisting of a triple immersion in water, and an anointing with oil, often accompanied by a laying on of hands. In the west, the immersion became separated from anointing, which took on a liturgical life of its own as “the Sacrament of Confirmation”. In the east, the original integrity of the total rite has been preserved, with the immersion and the anointing remaining part of a single service. We can distinguish the baptismal immersion from the anointing (and call the latter “chrismation”), but the baptismal service consists of both elements.

This baptismal service is the way that people have always become Christians, ever since the days of the apostles. In the New Testament, baptism is the way that God bestows new birth and the forgiveness of sins. As we have seen in chapter 6, this new birth, in the few times it is mentioned in the New Testament, is always linked with baptism.1 Baptism is the only way that we “put off the old man”2 and, as St. Paul writes that we “put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). It is the gateway to the Church. Not surprisingly, therefore, Peter writes that “baptism now saves you” (1 Pet 3:21). The teaching of the Lord and his apostles is clear: through baptism, one is offered forgiveness of sins, rebirth, newness of life, and Christ Himself. Baptism is how one becomes saved. This inseparability of baptism with salvation is presupposed in the phrase found at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

Through triple immersion in water in the name of the Trinity, God gives the candidate a new birth to eternal life and the cleansing forgiveness of sins. Through the anointing with chrism (i.e., with fragrant and perfumed oil), God gives the candidate the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In the early third century, Tertullian witnesses to this understanding of the two parts of the single initiation. In his little book On Baptism, he writes about the sequence of immersion and anointing: “Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water… we are cleansed and prepared for the Holy Spirit” (Ch. 6). This distinguishing of function between the immersions and the anointing is why the anointing can be detached from the service, if pastoral necessity demands, and administered by itself as the Sacrament of Chrismation.

The Church may administer the sacrament of chrismation apart from baptism when receiving heterodox Christians into the Church.3 If a person has been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they are not baptized again, but, having put aside former doctrinal errors, and having renounced the devil and all of his machinations, they receive the anointing with oil, which is “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.4 If baptism is a personal participation in Pascha, chrismation is a personal participation in Pentecost.5 We should be careful to note however, that there is no baptismal ritual without chrismation and there is no chrismation without baptism, even if the two parts of the whole are separated by some time.

We see, therefore, that the sacramental mystery of baptism is the instrument Christ uses to bestow new life upon the candidate who comes seeking to become his disciple.

But is Christ willing to bestow this new life and give his Spirit to infants also? We already find a precedent in John the Forerunner’s baptism. And John’s baptism is rooted (many say) in Jewish proselyte baptism. This latter baptism was often given to all the members of a household. When the head of a Gentile household wanted to convert to Judaism, his entire household would usually follow his lead. The males of the household would be circumcised, and then the entire household—men, women, children, and even infants— would be baptized, to wash away the stain of the Gentile world. Then, they were then considered to be Jews. The point is that such baptism was given even to infants, and it is this baptism which John used as his model, and which Christ in turn used as his. Not surprisingly then, the apostles were prepared to practice household baptism,6 which would have included infants.

It is not so hard to believe that Christ’s grace extends even to the youngest. He who said that the Kingdom of God belonged to such as children and who blessed even infants (Luke 18:15–16) is willing to pour his grace into the hearts of the youngest who are brought to him. If John the Forerunner could be filled with the Holy Spirit even while yet in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), it must surely be possible for newly-born infants to receive the Holy Spirit as well. As they mature, they must treasure the gift given to them and seek to grow in the Holy Spirit to finally be saved, just as adults must seek to grow and cultivate the baptismal gift they were given. But the necessity for growth after baptism does not mean that grace was not already freely given in baptism. Of course, grace was freely given; that is what “grace” means.


Footnotes

  1. John 3:3–5; Acts 2:38, 22:16; Romans 6:4; Ephesians 5:26 and Titus 3:5

  2. Ephesians 4:22; Galatians 3:9

  3. Archimandrite Ambrosius (Pogodin) “On the Question of the Order of Reception of Persons into the Orthodox Church, Coming to Her from Other Christian Churches” (opens in a new tab), Originally published in Russian in Vestnik Russkogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniya, Chapter 1. Accessed 10/10/2022.

  4. See Romans 8; 1 Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1.21–22

  5. Hopko, Thomas, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. II: Worship (opens in a new tab). Accessed 10/10/2022.

  6. Acts 11:14, 16:15, 16:33