The Mystery of Baptism

Baptism is the first of the Holy Mysteries. It is through baptism — a washing with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, accompanied by the prayers of the Church, for the forgiveness of sins — that a man, woman, or child becomes a true follower of Christ and a member of the Church.

Water is both a means of physical cleansing and a symbol of spiritual cleansing. It was used in the Law of Moses to represent spiritual purification; and those who became converts to Judaism underwent a ritual bath, or baptism (from the Greek word baptizo, "to dip, immerse") which marked their beginning of a new way of life.

Thus, when John the Forerunner (also called John the Baptist) "went about the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentence which led to the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3), he was calling the people to prepare for the coming Messiah by making a new start, a new life with God. He told the people, "I am baptizing you in water, but there is one to come who is mightier than I... He will baptize you in the holy Spirit and in fire" (Luke 3:16)

In his preaching, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ told his followers, "Unless a man is born of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). After his resurrection, He told his apostles:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19-20)

And when the Gospel (good news) of Christ's resurrection was preached to the people of Jerusalem, baptism was an essential part of that good news:

In those days, Peter addressed the people: "You must reform your lives and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that your sins may be forgiven; then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."... Those who accepted the message were baptized; some three thousand were added that day. (Acts 2: 38, 41)

Since the beginning of the Church, baptism of believers has been the beginning of life in Christ. That is why in the Symbol of Faith chanted at each Divine Liturgy, we sing: "I believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

The Meaning of Baptism

In baptism, we are born anew — that is, we begin a new life, through which we enter into the kingdom (or reign) of God. In order to be born anew, the "old man" in us — that fallen human nature which is chained by habit to evil-doing — must be put to death, so that Christ may live in us. This is beyond our power; it is only through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ that fallen human nature may be restored to its original beauty.

In baptism, we participate in Christ's death, dying ourselves to sin so that we may participate in Christ's resurrection. His victory over sin and death becomes ours as well, so that we may live a new life with him, in the light of heaven. This is the Paschal mystery: "God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

In baptism, our sins and the inherent woundedness of our human nature are cleansed.

In baptism, we become adopted children of God, and heirs to the kingdom of heaven. We are enlightened — that is, we receive from God a gift of spiritual vision which enables us to see more deeply into the mysteries of faith and of our own lives. For this reason, baptism is sometimes called enlightenment or illumination.

In baptism, we become members of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Preparation for Baptism

From the earliest days of the Church, new believers in Christ received some instruction in Christian belief and morals before baptism; this eventually developed into a formal process called the catechumenate during which those who desired to be baptized (the catechumens) were instructed, prayed over, and eventually made a formal profession of their faith and a promise to follow Christ.

To better understand the catechumenate, read the texts of its services from the Euchologion:

These are the preparations for the solemn celebration of baptism. When an infant or a small child too young for formal instruction is to be baptized, the steps of the catechumenate are usually combined immediately before baptism, with the sponsors (godparents) saying the responses on behalf of the child.

The Rite of Baptism

The baptism itself may be celebrated during the parish Divine Liturgy (where it takes the place of the Enarxis and readings) or as a separate service. In either case, it consists of:

  1. The blessing of water for baptism
  2. Anointing of the one to be baptized with blessed oil; symbolically, this represents the oil with which wrestlers or other athletes were anointed in the ancient world before competing. (This anointing is not the same as Chrismation, which follows baptism.)
  3. The baptism itself, in which the candidate is immersed in water, or has water poured over them, three times, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
  4. The new Christian is clothed in a white robe and given a lit candle, representing their new faith in Christ.

Immediately after the baptism, the Holy Mystery of Chrismation is celebrated, followed by :

  1. A procession from the baptismal font into the church, accompanied by the singing of "All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Alleluia!"
  2. Readings from Sacred Scripture
  3. (optionally, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy)
  4. Holy Communion - the third and final mystery of Christian initiation

After Holy Communion, the holy chrism is removed from the forehead of the newly baptized (at one time, this was done on the Sunday following baptism) and the new Christian is tonsured - that is, a small portion of their hair is cut in sign of the cross, as a mark of allegiance to Christ. This is the same ceremony used to mark the entry of a monk or nun into the monastic life, which is sometimes called the "second tonsure." These ceremonies fell out of use in this country, but are gradually being restored.

To learn more about the rite of baptism, read the text of the services from the Euchologion:

Baptism at the Paschal Vigil

When celebrated at the Paschal Vigil (Vespers with Divine Liturgy) on the evening of Great and Holy Saturday, baptism is particularly solemn. The readings at this service are meant to be chanted while the baptism(s) are being performed at the baptistery, and recount the history of salvation and the various symbolic foretellings of baptism. (This is why, for example, we hear the story of how the Israelites were saved from Egypt by passing through the waters of the Red Sea.)

In the early Church, it was customary for the newly-baptized to continue to wear their white baptismal garments throughout the days of Bright Week; on Thomas Sunday, the chrism was removed and they were tonsured. (Today, the rermoval of chrism and tonsure are usually done at the baptismal service instead.)

Baptism in an emergency

In an emergency (for example, if the unbaptized child of Christian parents, or an adult who desires to be baptized, is in danger of death), then a priest can perform the baptism in a shortened form. In the absence of a priest, any baptized Christian may baptize.

The person to be baptized is immersed in water three times, or water is poured upon his forehead three times, once at the mention of each person of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the following words which are said as the baptism is being performed:

The servant of God N. is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

R. Amen.

If a priest baptizes in case of an emergency, and chrism is available, he also chrismates the newly-baptized person, saying:

The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If the person baptized in an emergency survives, then at a later date, the parts of the baptismal service that follow the rite of baptism (the readings and litany) are celebrated in Church; the newly-baptized person is chrismated if necessary, and receives Holy Communion for the first time.

For more information

Texts and sources

The official order of service in Slavonic can be found on pages 25-71 of the Malyj Trebnyk (Small Euchologion), printed in Rome in 1952.

A 32-page English service book, The Order of Baptism and Confirmation, was published by the Byzantine Seminary Press in 1952. Although this booklet was labelled "for private use only", it remained the standard text used in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy (later, Archeparchy) for many years.

In 1994, the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma (Ohio) published a provisional Order of Holy Baptism and Holy Chrismation (86 pages), based on the 1952 Malyj Trebnyk (in Slavonic) and the Greek Euchologion of Jacobus Goar (Venice, 1730). This new book added the prayers for mother and child after childbirth, a service for the adoption of a child, and the restored rites for the order of baptism of an adult, with the catechumemate.

A revised version of this book became the official order of baptism for the Eparchy of Passaic in 1997; the bishop of Passaic promulgated the service in the form of a priest/deacon's book and a booklet for the faithful. This edition is widely used in the other eparchies of the Byzantine Catholic Church; the descriptions below follow the 1997 order of service.


For music and practical advice for cantors, see the article on Singing the Baptismal Services.

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