Christian Initiation in the Byzantine Rite

Becoming a follower of Jesus and a full member of the Church of Christ involves three steps: Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist. Together, these make up the rites of Christian initiation. This article provides an overview of the process of Christian initiation in the Byzantine Rite.

Christian initiation in the early Church

In the first few centuries of the Church's existence, when believers were subject to persecution, those who desired to become Christians would come to the bishop, along with a Christian sponsor who could vouch for their sincerity and manner of life. Although the details differed from one region to another, the prospective Christian (called a catechumen, from the Greek word for a person who receives instruction) would be taught the essentials of Christian conduct, and prepared for holy baptism.

This preparation generally involved prayer and fasting, as well as instruction. At the end of the preparatory period, the catechumen would be scrutinized to determine if he or she were ready for baptism. In the early days of the Church, the baptismal service may have been very simple. We hear in the early Church document called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. 90 AD):

Concerning Baptism — baptize in running water. But if you do not have 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.

Christian initiation consisted of baptism, followed by chrismation ("sealing with the Holy Spirit"), and the reception of the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. (See the article on Chrismation for further discussion of this order.)

With the legalization of the Church, there was a great development in her liturgical worship. The service of baptism, too, was enriched with hymns, prayers, and ritual which added to the depth and symbolism of Christian initiation. The service of baptism was often held on specific days of the church year, such as the feast of the Nativity of the Lord (December 25), Theophany (January 6), Lazarus Saturday (one week before Pascha), or Pentecost (50 days after Pascha). But the most solemn time for baptism was on the night of Great and Holy Saturday, the eve of Pascha, the night on which the faithful commemorated the resurrection of the Lord.

By the fourth century, the process of development was largely complete, with an instructional period or catechumenate; baptism, chrismation, and reception of the Eucharist on one of the church's feast days; and (in some places) a further period of instruction for the newly-enlightened Christians. We possess sermons and catechetical lectures of several of the Fathers of the Church which were originally talks given to catechumens, or to those who had just been baptized, explaining the services that they had recently experienced.

Christian initiation of adults

Although a formal catechumenate became rare, it was maintained in our liturgical books. Over the last 50 years, it has become much more common for unbaptized adults who wish to become member of the Byzantine Catholic Church to pass through the following steps:

The Church has a strong tradition of baptizing new members at the Paschal Vigil on Great and Holy Saturday; in this case, the Profession of Faith is ordinarily made on Great and Holy Friday.

Christian initiation of small children

For infants and young children, an extended period of instruction is not necessary. Instead, the same basic steps take place in a single service:

This form of Christian initiation in a single service may also be used for adults, if the pastor deems it appropriate. It can take place as part of the parish Divine Liturgy, or as a service of its own.

But in general, initiation of new members belongs to the entire community; baptism is not a private service.

Special cases in Christian initiation

Since the early days of the Church, it has been recognized that baptism may sometimes be appropriate on very short notice. In an emergency, any Christian can baptize, and should know how to do so. If a priest performs the baptism, the one being baptized may also be chrismated and given Holy Communion. The Church's liturgical books provide services that may be used in church to "complete" the baptismal ritual after an emergency baptism, including the administration of chrismation if necessary.

If sometimes happens that baptized Christians entering the Church from another Christian denomination may not have received Chrismation. If so, the Mysteries of Chrismation and Eucharist may be given to them upon entry in the Church (usually accompanied by instruction, sacramental confession, and profession of faith).

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