The main meaning of the Greek verb baptizo, from which the English word baptism is ultimately derived (as Mr. Portokalos advised us!), is to dip, as in water.

Christianity as such didn’t invent the practice of dipping converts in water.  The Old Testament Church sometimes baptized proselytes, and so did some other Near Eastern religions.  But dipping quickly became a hallmark of Christianity.  The Lord was baptized by the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, and very early, Christians commemorated this on a yearly basis, along with the Lord’s other “manifestations,” on the Great Feast of the Theophany, January 6.  The Gospel According to St. John the Theologian 3:22, 4:1-2 indicates that the Lord Himself and/or His disciples baptized followers very early.  Water imagery is frequent in the Gospels.  And of course, the Lord commanded his Apostles to ‘make students [disciples] of all nations, dipping them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ which they did, as the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles attest.

However, I haven’t made a study of it, but I have never seen a depiction, East or West, of the Lord’s Baptism by John, in which He seemed completely immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John.  (That might be hard to draw or paint.)  Usually what seems to be going on is that the Lord, or both He and John, are standing in the river, partially immersed, with John pouring water over the Lord’s head.  Today Orthodox Judaism requires total immersion for some mikvah bath-taking, including for conversion to the faith.  Something similar is reflected in Orthodox Christian theology, East and, originally, West, from very early on, including in the canonical Epistles.  The most profound o/Orthodox theology around Christian Baptism is actually uniting the convert to Christ’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead, as the Holy Apostle Paul is well-known to point out (see Romans 6).  The early Fathers of the Church discuss how triple-immersion Baptism mimics burial in the ground and resurrection from the dead – done three times, once for each day the Lord spent in the tomb; or for His (1) Death, (2) Burial, and (3) Resurrection from the Dead; and of course for (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) the Holy Spirit, as He commanded.  In fact some Christian sects baptized by single-immersion, and this was condemned by Ecumenical Councils as “baptism only into His Death,” as if not also into His Burial and Resurrection from the Dead.  Thus, even now, the unbaptized enter Orthodox Christianity by triple immersion.

Theologically, Orthodox Baptism unites you to the Lord’s Death, Burial, and Resurrection from the Dead – the Mystery of our Salvation.  In this way, you are united energetically – in His Energies, but not His imparticipable Essence – to Him, becoming a member of His Body, His Orthodox Church, just like His hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouth and nose, as St. Paul says repeatedly.  God’s All-Holy Spirit, of course, is “everywhere present, filling all things,” as Orthodox pray constantly in the prayer “O Heavenly King.”  But especially in Christ’s Body, whether during His three years on Earth, now in Heaven, or in His Body on Earth the Orthodox Church since Pentecost.  So it is as a member of Christ’s Body that you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you too after Baptism and the sealing with the Holy Spirit, Chrismation (“confirmation”), immediately after Baptism.  Thus is Adam and Eve’s sin, the Ancestral Sin, removed from you – through your “death,” “resurrection from the dead,” union with Christ Himself “who knew no sin,” and filling with His Divine Spirit.

Somehow much of this has been lost in Western Christian tradition, where baptism became associated only formalistically with water, washing, joining the church, and salvation, as exemplified by the old Catholic Encyclopedia article.  By which I mean that they may sometimes still say the words in the homily or in spiritual journals or theological essays, but as someone who studied for both Latin and Protestant ministries, I can say they lack the resonance that they have in an Orthodox Church that baptizes by immersion.  As the CE points out, non-immersion Baptism was (and still is, in Orthodoxy) always considered permissible in unusual circumstances – unavailability of sufficient water, illness or decrepitude, disability, maybe even a perceived need for secrecy in situations of persecution.  But according to this source (scroll to bottom), baptism by pouring became the usual method in the West just on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.  I am unable to find out why it did so even in the case of infants – the most common candidates for baptism – who should be pretty easy to dip!  But I have a theory: In what might be called ‘standing immersion,’ as with depictions of the Lord, water was poured over the candidate’s head – in o/Orthodox Christianity, perhaps evoking His Burial at least by completely covering the body with some water, even after the fashion of throwing dirt on the grave.  Now if the association of Baptism with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead was essentially lost in the West, you were left with pouring water over the head without standing in water, a theology mostly of (merely) washing (ie, “washing away Original Sin”), and from there, the degradation of the rite and its associations in faith and practice, until you reach a point where a slightly-revived Immersion practice (post-Vatican II) is feared by some Latins as threatening the theology of the sacrament!  You even have the obsession of some Western schools of theology – Latin and Protestant, for and against – with the question of ‘how little is required to have a “valid baptism”?’, leading to exhaustive, contrived discussions of sprinkling, smudging, use of sand, baptism by a nonbeliever, even baptizing in utero, and all the other s/Scholastic excesses that never had any significant place in actual Western Christian life.  I don’t have specific historical information regarding how the association with Christ’s Burial and Resurrection from the Dead were essentially lost, except to cite the general erosion of o/Orthodox t/Theology in the West, especially after the final real loss of Communion by the West with the rest of the Church dated at AD 1054.  (Celt that I am, I’m developing a renewed appreciation for just how “dark” the “Dark Ages,” a Western phenomenon,* really became – tragically.  Why would God allow that?)

Under Western influence, some Orthodox dioceses (and apparently most Byzantine-Rite Eastern Catholics) temporarily adopted Baptism by Pouring as their main method in the 16-1800s, but I believe most if not all Orthodox now normally use some form of Immersion again.  There is some discussion about how to receive converts to Orthodoxy who have been previously baptized by various methods in Heterodox Christianity, and it has varied somewhat historically from time to time, from place to place, and from Heterodox church to Heterodox church, but I believe the most common method, at least in the United States now, is by Chrismation – as I was received into the Greek Archdiocese of America in 2002 – not seeing an absolute need for a fresh Orthodox Baptism given the situation here.  (It’s actually more complex than that, and I don’t have a firm grip on it myself, but this is the decision of our Bishops and Synods, whose responsibility it is.  Greek Orthodox Metropolitan ISAIAH of Denver, who I am under the impression is quite the theologian, discusses this pastorally in a couple letters to his clergy in 2000 here and here.  The Archdiocese also advises me that it’s technically on a case-by-case basis.)

(*–Remember that only in the West did the true Empire of the Romans fall in the middle of the first Christian millennium.  It lived on in the East for another 1,000 years, with civilization, urbanity, literacy, science, etc.  Constantinople was the world’s largest city outside China!)

Advertisements

  1. 1 Christian Times » Blog Archive » Methods of Baptism

    […] Randy […]

  2. 2 disability » Blog Archive » Methods of Baptism

    […] Read the rest of this great post here […]




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: