Washed and Anointed: An Explanation of the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation

The liturgy of baptism as it is celebrated in the Orthodox Church is very ancient, most of it composed no later than the 4th century, more than 1600 years ago. It is comprised of two parts: the Service for the Making of a Catechumen and the Sacrament of Baptism/Chrismation.

The Service for the Making of a Catechumen

The word “catechumen” is an ancient Greek word that means “one who is learning the faith.” A Christian is someone always learning their faith, always seeking to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). This initial service takes place in the entryway or narthex of the Church and marks the official entrance, so to speak, of a new Christian into the life of the Church.

The opening prayers of this service are in fact exorcisms, prayers of confrontation with our only real enemy, the Devil, whom we are called on by the Scriptures to resist (1 Peter 5:8-9). The prayers of exorcism proclaim the reality of evil and the power of God to overcome it, announcing the forthcoming baptism to be a victory in the war against sin and death.

After these prayers, the Godparents, on behalf of their Godchild, are asked a very specific question: Do you renounce Satan and all of his works? Their response: I do renounce him! The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge, and a confrontation with the face of evil. The priest continues, bluntly asking: Do you unite yourself to Christ? Their response: I do unite myself to Christ! It is this double movement – the renunciation of Satan and the acceptance of Christ – that forms the nucleus of baptismal commitment. It is not enough to turn our backs to evil. We must also turn to Christ and orient our entire life towards Him. As a sign of commitment to Christ, the godparents confess their faith by saying the Creed, a brief summary of Christian belief in the living God articulated at the first two ecumenical councils of the Church in the 4th century. Then the congregation processes into the Church and goes up to the baptismal font while the priest sings a verse of Scripture: “Blessed is our God who desires that all people should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

The Sacrament of Baptism/Chrismation

The sacrament of baptism begins with prayers for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the water contained in the baptismal font, that it become for the child about to be baptized like the waters of the Jordan River in which the Lord Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Pure olive oil offered by the child’s Godparents is blessed in a prayer that mentions the dove that brought Noah a twig of olive in its beak as a sign of reconciliation and deliverance from the great flood (Genesis 8:8-11) that is described as a pre-figuration and symbol of baptism in 1 Peter 3:20-21. Poured into the hands of the child’s Godparents, the priest anoints the child’s ears, hands, feet as a sign that the child belongs to Christ, the Messiah or “the Anointed One of God” and praying that he/she will hear the word of God, always walking in the Lord’s commandments.

Orthodox Christians, following the command of the risen Lord given to the apostles just before His ascension into heaven, baptize “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Immersed in the waters of the baptismal font three times, the child is washed in “the living water” promised by Jesus, “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14).

Immediately after being baptized, the child is placed in the arms of its godmother who, with the rest of the family, takes and dresses her godchild in a white robe, the robe of martyrdom, a reminder of the persecution that Christians have endured through the centuries (Revelation 6:11). During the dressing of the child, Psalm 32 is sung, celebrating the gift of the forgiveness of sins given in baptism and “the Lord’s unfailing love” for those “who trust in Him” (verse 10).

Chrismation, like baptism, is a sacrament of the Church. It is an anointing with a special oil called chrism or myrrh, made of olive oil mixed with various spices and perfumes, the recipe for which is given in Exodus 30: 22-25. It is an oil of consecration for holiness. It is our personal Pentecost. It is, as the priest proclaims during the service, “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” that the Apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and Ephesians 1:13-14. It is the seal of ownership that marks out the slaves of God as belonging to Him (Revelation 7:3). As the celebrating priest anoints the child, each time he says “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” and the congregation responds by saying “Amen!”

After the sacrament of chrismation, there is a procession of clergy, parents and godparents around the baptismal font during which Galatians 3:27 is sung: “All those who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!” Candles are carried as a reminder that Christ is “the light of the world (John 12:46) and that Christians are a people who “belong to the light” (Ephesians 5:8). Incense, an ancient symbol of worship and the prayers of the saints, is also offered during the procession (Exodus 30:7-8 and Revelation 8:3-4).

The epistle and gospel readings for the baptismal service are Romans 6:3-11 and Matthew 28:16-20. In this section of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul briefly outlines his understanding of baptism as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ “that we should no longer be slaves to sin” and that baptized Christians should count themselves “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The account from Matthew’s Gospel is the giving of the great commission to the apostles, sending them out to share the gospel with peoples of all nations, to baptize them in “the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and to teach obedience to Christ’s commands.

Prayers for faithfulness, throughout life, to the gifts of grace given in Baptism and Chrismation are then offered by the celebrating priest, who prays that as the child “goes forward to the prime of life and even the gray hairs of old age,” he/she may always worship and praise the one, true and living God.

The cutting of the hair (or tonsure) of the newly baptized by the celebrating priest is drawn from military practice. In the ancient Roman world, as is still the case today, one of the first things that happens to a person who enters the military is the receiving of a haircut. This imagery is drawn from Ephesians 6:10-17. Christians are “on duty” – so to speak – in service to Christ and His kingdom.

Finally, the baptismal cross is placed around the neck of the child by its Godparents while the priest quotes the Scriptures once again: “The Lord said, ‘Whoever would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me’ (Matthew 16:24).” The service then concludes with a final prayer for the newly baptized child, its parents and Godparents.