Baptism: The Sacrament of Regeneration

Baptism is the first among the seven sacraments of the Syriac Orthodox Church. It is usually known as the sacrament of regeneration through which one dies and resurrects in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – “Therefore we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4). Through the mystery of baptism one is integrated into the laos, people of God, the Church, to witness the epiphany of the reign of God. Due to the overtures of death and resurrection implicit in the sacrament of baptism, it was earlier known as a Paschal Sacrament. Fr. Alexander Schmemann remarks; “Not many Christians have been taught that Easter as a liturgical feast, and Lent as a liturgical preparation for Easter, developed originally for the celebration of baptism.”[1] The Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the three children in the furnace, Jonah in the whale’s womb are few of the ancient paradigms that foreshadow the sacrament of baptism.[2]

Baptism should also be understood as a cosmic (sacrament of New Creation), ecclesiological (sacrament of Church) and eschatological (sacrament of the Kingdom) act.[3] Despite being impregnated with such divine imageries and symbolisms, baptism today has been taken for granted. A sacrament, which forms the kernel of Christian piety, has fallen prey to the Western pseudomorphosis of Orthodox theology. Fr. Schmemann laments;

“Today it takes some fifteen minutes to perform in a dark corner of a church, with one ‘psaltist’ giving the responses, an act in which the Fathers saw and acclaimed the greatest solemnity of the Church: a mystery ‘which fills with joy the angels and the archangels and all the powers from above and the earthly creatures’, a mystery for which the Church prepared herself by forty days of fasting and which constituted the very essence of her paschal joy. A decadent liturgy supported by a decadent theology and leading to a decadent piety: such is the sad situation in which we find ourselves today and which must be corrected if we love the Church and want her to become again the power which transforms the life of man.”[4]     

A Brief History of Syriac Orthodox Baptism

The early Syrian Christians understood eight forms of baptism. St. Dionysius Bar Salibi comments;

“Gregory the theologian and the doctors say that there are five. But we say that there are eight: Firstly, the flood by which the sin was rooted out. Secondly, that of the people of Israel, when they crossed the Red sea, as Paul said: “Our Fathers were baptized in the sea…” (I Cor. 10:2). Thirdly, the washing (lit. baptism) of the vessels and the ablutions prescribed by the Law. Fourthly, that of John the Baptist. Fifthly, our baptism from water and Spirit. Sixthly, that of tears. Seventhly, that of martyrdom, and eighthly, the torture by fire that Gregory the theologian mentions.”[5]

One of the distinctive characteristics of the early Syrian baptism, especially in the third and fourth century, was that there were only pre-baptismal anointing(s). Furthermore the pre-baptismal anointing was such; oil was poured upon the head of the candidate replicating the anointing of the Old Testament Kings viz. Saul and Jehu (1Sam 10: 1-2; 2Kings 9: 6-11). It was in the “Apostolic Constitutions” – towards the end of fourth century – that post-baptismal anointing was introduced. It records;

But thou shalt first anoint the person with holy oil, and afterward baptize him with water, and finally with chrism; that the anointing of the oil may be a participation of the Holy Spirit, and the water a symbol of the death, and the chrism a seal of the covenants.”[6]

In the fourth century, the bishop began the anointing with a consignation of the forehead and deacons continued the rite with anointing the body.[7] Anointing of the forehead was interpreted as a ‘sign of an athlete’ and anointing of body was considered as a ‘sign of the garment of immortality’. One could probably suspect that in the midst of several Christological and Pnuematological heresies, the Syriac Orthodox Church would have introduced the post-baptismal anointing (‘sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit’) to have a much more credible baptismal theology. A post-baptismal anointing of the Holy Spirit emphasize the divinity of the Holy Spirit and His consubtantiality with the Father and the Son.[8] 

Baptism of Christ in Jordan is the prototype and the key to understand the meaning of baptism in the Syriac tradition. Ignatius of Antioch opined that the waters of Jordan and all the baptismal waters were sanctified through the baptism of Christ. St. Ephrem remarks; “Blessed Jordan, the small river in which the sea of holiness descended to be baptized by your waves, your waters were purified by the descent of the Holy One who instituted the baptism for the salvation of souls.”[9] St. Ephrem also places the following lines on the lips of Christ; “The waters are sanctified by my baptism, they received fire and spirit from me. If I am not baptized, they will not be capable of generating sons of immortality.”[10]

According to the Patristic tradition, the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ on the cross prefigured baptism and Eucharist. Cave of Treasures – an anonymous work – states;

“The blood and water flowed from the side of Christ and came down into the mouth of Adam (buried immediately below the cross on Golgotha) and they constituted for him the baptismal water, and he was baptized.”[11] 

Let us now very briefly look at few of the major elements of the baptismal liturgy.

1. Baptismal Font

The baptismal font represents a spiritual womb as well as the tomb of Christ. The prayer recited by the priest while mixing the cold and warm water explicates this;

“…We pray that this water may be mixed with the power and operation of Your Holy Spirit, so that this may be a spiritual womb and a crucible which brings forth incorruptibility. May this water be to Your servant, who is being baptized, the garment of incorruptibility and deliverance from the bonds of sins…”[12]

Fr. Baby Varghese elaborates further that “the mixing of the waters is to remind us how the Spirit of God, in the beginning of creation, through its brooding made the waters warm and thus a womb capable of generating life. Similarly the baptismal water is made warm and a womb signifying rebirth.”[13] The ‘old man’ is buried in the baptismal water so as to resurrect as the ‘new man’ in Christ. Moses Bar Kepha and St. Dionysius Bar Salibi comment on baptismal font symbolizing the resurrection of both Christ and Christian. The hymn after the mixing of water states;

“Who has ever seen noble sisters, such as these; Holy and pure Baptism and the Holy Church; One gives birth to spiritual children while the other nurtures these new ones; All those born from the water in Baptism, the Church receives and offers them unto the Lord; Halleluiah born in the Spirit.”[14]

2. Insufflation and Blessing

The breath of God was the principle of the creation of human beings (Gen 2:7). Since baptism is the rebirth of a human being from ‘water and spirit’ (John 3:5), the priest insufflates on the face of the candidate. Similarly the priest also breathes upon the water, before immersing the candidate, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the water. The priest sanctifies the water by signing three crosses over it as an act of exorcism. According to the Syriac Patristic tradition, baptism of Christ effected the exorcism of the waters of Jordan and all the waters in general. It is deduced that demons love to abide in water or in humid places. The demons led the swine into the sea (Mt. 8:31-32; 12:43). The Old Testament speaks of a ‘dragon’ which lives in the water (Ps 74:13; 148:7).[15] Thus the priest recites the prayer, inaudibly, while blessing the water;

“O Lord, may the head of the dragon, the murderer of mankind, be crushed under the sign of Your Cross. We pray to You, O Lord: Drive away from this water all the aerial and invisible demons and let not the evil spirit of darkness be hidden in this water, nor the unclean spirit of obscurity that causes mortal troubles and mental disturbance, be allowed to go down into this water with him/her who is to be baptized. Put away from him/her all the operations of the adversary.”[16]

3. Apotaxis and Syntaxis

The renunciation of Satan (apotaxis) and the acceptance of Christ (syntaxis) is the exorcism carried out in baptism. An open declaration of warfare against the forces of evil is made. Fr. Schmemann reminds us; “If there is one thing we learn from spiritual experience, it is that evil is not to be explained but faced and fought.”[17] He further defines exorcism as a poem in the deepest sense of the word which in Greek means ‘creation’.[18] The candidate faces the west[19] and renounces Satan (if a child, then the Godparent renounces on behalf of the child) by reciting; “I, (name) who am being baptized, renounce you, Satan, your armies, your messengers, all the fear of you, and all of your deceitfulness.”[20] Similarly by facing the east[21]  the candidate accepts Christ by reciting; “I, (name) who am being baptized, confess and believe in You, Lord Jesus Christ, and in all the doctrines which You have divinely entrusted through the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers.”[22]

4. Chrismation

Chrismation is a post-baptismal rite and immediately follows baptism. As soon as the priest hands over the child to the Godparent he takes the horn of the Myron[23] and recites the prayer;

“O Lord, let your servant who is counted with your worshippers through the faith of baptism, receive this holy seal and sign in your name. So that being spiritually filled with all the sweet odour by this Myron, he/she may not be caught by the hostile armies. And let him/her not henceforth be afraid of the evil powers and rulers of darkness, but walking in your light, let him/her be a son/daughter of light and following you he/she may come to you.”[24]

Myron symbolizes the sweet fragrance of Christ, the mark and sign of true faith and the perfection of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Dionysius Bar Salibi comments on Christ as the Myron;

“We say that as the Myron possesses fragrance, the Word also has holiness and fragrance naturally. Whenever the Myron is hidden in a vase and not revealed and not known, it does not give out fragrance. But when it is revealed and seen, it gives out fragrance. Similarly, when God the Word was hidden in His Father, He was concealed and hidden. When He was ‘poured out’ into the Virgin, it was known that He is the God incarnate.”[25]

Moses Bar Kepha also comments on the consignation of the Myron on the forehead of the candidate as a sign to terrify the demons just as was the case in Egypt when the destroyer came not near the home signed by the blood of the lamb. Followed by Chrismation are the entrance into the sanctuary, crowning and communion. 

Baptism is indeed a mystery. As St. Severus of Antioch, speaking of Christ, implies that Father is the one who anoints, Son is the anointed and Spirit is the anointing; similarly through baptism we are made sons and daughters of the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. Through Baptism we regain our lost glory; “In Paradise, Adam wore a garment of glory. After the fall, he lost the garment of glory and acquired a garment of skin. In baptism we regain the garment of the spirit instead of the garment of the skin.”[26] Baptism should never be considered as an isolated ‘means of grace’ but the source from which springs the life of the Church. Its significance does not exhaust in this earthly life rather it even extends protection in Gehenna. For we pray; “May Baptism preserve me in Gehenna from burning and spread its wings over the flames while I pass. May this fountain of living water accompany me and let me not be in need there, Lord, among those who thirst.” (Thursday Vespers – Bo’utho of Mor Jacob).

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil

[1] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 7-8.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit,7-8.

[3] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit, 40.

[4] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit, 11.

[5] Baby Varghese, Moran Etho Dionysius Bar Salibi: Commentaries on Myron and Baptism, (Kottayam: SEERI, 2006), 80.

[6] Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 8.

[7] The History of John, Son of Zebedee, would be the first Syriac document attesting the anointing of forehead followed by body. St. John Chrysostom also speaks of “sign of the cross stamped on the forehead.” Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 5-6.

[8] Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 15.

[9] Quoted in Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 15.

[10] Quoted in Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 15.

[11] There is a Jewish tradition that Adam’s body was buried on the site of the Temple of Jerusalem. Christian tradition from Origen onwards says that the site was at Golgotha. The Sedro of the Good Friday of the Syrian Orthodox Tradition makes allusion to this. Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 20.

[12] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 19.

[13] Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition,42. 

[14] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 20.

[15] Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 43.

[16] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 22.

[17] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit, 23.

[18] Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit, 25.

[19] Concerning west, Cyril of Jerusalem writes; “Since the west is the region of sensible darkness, and he being darkness has his dominion in darkness, ye therefore looking with a symbolic meaning towards west, renounce that dark and gloomy potentate…” Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 34.

[20] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 16.

[21] In the Syrian tradition east is particularly prominent. Altar is always built facing the east. We pray facing east-Paradise-our original home (Gen. 2:8). The second coming of Christ is expected from the east (Mt. 24: 27)

[22] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 17.

[23] Myron is translated into Syriac as muro – with which the dead are embalmed – signifies mortality.

[24] The Order of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, 28.

[25] Baby Varghese, Moran Etho Dionysius Bar Salibi: Commentaries on Myron and Baptism, 20, 22.

[26] Baby Varghese, Baptism and Chrismation in the Syriac Tradition, 64.


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