Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Baptism - Part I

Why talk about Baptism? For all of us who were baptized, it happened in the past, and many of us, if we were baptized as infants, can’t even recall the event. Isn’t it enough to know that getting baptized was important to do, and move on to more relevant things? If this is our attitude toward Baptism, then we risk taking Baptism, and all that it means, for granted. Here are some questions to help us examine our attitude toward Baptism1:
  • Is Baptism just a necessary condition for church membership, or to be a member in good standing?
  • Is it just a formality in order to receive the rest of the Sacraments of the Church?
  • Do we think of it as a guarantee of salvation and eternal life?
  • Is it just a past event, or is it a permanent experience that permeates our lives and shapes our Christian worldview; our motivations, actions, and decisions?
In order to understand Baptism, let’s begin with Scripture. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”, and Romans 6:4 says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” From these Scriptures, we can recall how the Church refers to Baptism as the second birth, because in Baptism we identify with and participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. We are cleansed of and die to our sinful life, and are reborn into a new, spiritual, holy life, in which we put on a new nature. We put on Christ, are clothed with Christ, and participate in His divine nature.

In Exodus 14, Moses leads the Israelites, the chosen people of God, through the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land. The early Church Fathers viewed this event as a foreshadowing of Baptism, in that Baptism is a passage of God’s chosen people through the waters of sin and death to the promised land of freedom in Christ. Thus, Baptism is not only an individual event, but a communal event. In fact, Baptism was not originally a private event to be celebrated among family and friends. It was a community and public event to be shared with and among the Church. Either way, we are brought to the font as individuals by the community, and we leave the font as members of the community; members of the people of God; members of His Body, the Church.

This being said, what happens at Baptism, and what Baptism means is ultimately a Mystery. In fact, ‘Sacraments’ in the Armenian Orthodox Church are more aptly referred to as ‘Mysteries’, and because the Armenian Orthodox Church emphasizes Mystery, there is no obligation to analyze Baptism, explain what it means in every detail, or have a definitive answer to what is essentially mysterious. We do it out of obedience, following the apostolic teachings of the early Church, knowing that it is a Mystery ordained and established by Christ. Thus, within this framework of Mystery, we acknowledge Baptism as an expression of what has already been accomplished through Christ; the grace that is already available to us because of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Through Baptism, by faith, we lay claim to and receive this available saving grace.

1Alexander Schmemann – Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism, 8-9.

Picture above: St. Gregory the Illuminator baptizes Tiridates III, King of Armenia