The Scriptures have laid the foundation of baptism, and the Church Fathers and serious theologians through the ages have expounded extensively on the subject, such that anything I could say on the matter would be redundant and insufficient. However, as a pastor, I have the opportunity to relate the theory to the practice for the sake of my flock, and anyone else who might benefit.
Orthodoxy makes no serious distinction between theory and practice; our theology is the result of Christians living the faith over the centuries, becoming one with God, and then using this enlightenment to reflect on issues and questions of the faith. The various manuals of spirituality, such as the Philokalia and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers are eminently practical manuals, and not the result of academic codification or sterile reflection divorced from applying the principles in one’s own life. Therefore, when we speak of baptism, we do not speak dryly and academically of an ordinance or practice that we are obliged to practice out of a mental obedience to the command of Christ, but rather we refer to something that was given to us by Christ, which produces a beautiful change in the person being baptized which is observable by others.
Theologically, baptism is our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. His death on the Cross, entombment, and resurrection on the third day put death to death. Paradoxically, it was by death that death was abolished, in that when He was put in the tomb, His soul descended to Hades, where the dead lay, and He restored our Fathers Adam and Eve to life. A hymn from the feast of Ascension refers to Adam being taken in to Heaven with Christ—something which was impossible before Christ abolished the hold of death. Christ’s death, descent into Hades, and resurrection restored man’s relationship to God. His ascension into Heaven placed man’s nature with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit allowed man to partake of God’s grace intrinsically, from the inside, allowing him to be a partaker of divine nature as St. Peter says in his epistle.
When man is baptized, he descends into the water, which becomes his grave. Emerging from this watery grave, he is resurrected with Christ. After the three immersions, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, man is chrismated, or anointed with oil, which bestows the Holy Spirit on him. His old nature is killed, and he is reborn with the gift of grace. All of his sins are forgiven. It must be underscored, however, that his faith in Christ is a presupposition; and the more he has put in to his preparation for baptism, by beginning the struggle against sin, the more he will be able to experience the grace of baptism. Man is like a balloon in this sense, in that it can expand, and the more it expands, the more air can be contained within. Through the struggle against sin, man expands his soul, and when the day of baptism arrives, God’s grace enters and fills as much of man’s soul as is available. Of course, baptism itself is necessary to attain communion with God, and so as man continues to practice the virtues, he will draw on the grace that has become available to him at baptism. But a good preparation is the only way to have a jump start in this process.
What then are the practical effects of baptism? Baptism bestows the forgiveness of sins. The white clothing that is put on the baptized person symbolize his new life and purity. As a consequence of baptism, a man’s life is reordered in a radical way. Allow me to speak from my personal experience.
The first two immersions were uneventful; I was more concerned about holding my breath. But after the third immersion, everything changed. As I emerged after the third immersion, it was as if scales were removed from my eyes. I could perceive a reality beyond what is perceptible normally by our senses. I “heard” a whooshing noise and felt a calming force come over me. Everything “made sense” to me and what I had read and studied for years became internalized. Saying that I was at peace would be an understatement.
Those being baptized have found that sinful tendencies that previously could not be conquered were destroyed, showing that God’s grace is what transforms man, not his own effort (although his consent and cooperation is required). The disposition of the person who has been baptized often changes; I have witnessed someone who was frequently nervous become a calm person, and in this case this has continued for several years from the baptism. Feelings of overarching and crushing guilt are replaced by an awareness of sin which admits a hope of correction through God’s love. Temptations often increase after baptism, since the person is now closer to God, but the means to overcome them are strengthened and man obtains confidence that the method of spiritual cure can transform him completely.
The practical effect of baptism is then to take the idea of the forgiveness of sins, the idea of the death and resurrection of Christ, which is spoken of in the New Testament and the writings of the Fathers, and bring this idea into a reality in the life of the believer. It must be emphasized that baptism is not magic; its efficacy depends entirely on the free will of the one baptized. The more he prepares, the more benefits he will reap; and he must continue his struggle with sin to maintain the grace he has received. However, the results will be there, and are obvious to more than just himself; others can see the transformation, and this confirms one’s faith. Stepping out in faith, accepting that baptism will effect a transformation, God in His love for man gives the reward of transforming man and allowing him to experience what is written of. What is written of, after all, is a description of what others who have preceded us have also experienced.
If you have not received Orthodox Christian baptism, God is calling you in to His Church, and inviting you to receive this same grace. He wants to give you the tools to experience the new life we have spoken of. Instead of life being a series of wild fluctuations, baptism will give you a base line. There will always be ups and downs in life, but through baptism you will be granted freedom from the apparent randomness of this constantly changing life. All the sins you have committed in your life can be forgiven; no matter what you have done, you can have a clean slate and be given a second chance. But it is up to you to make this decision, because God loves you enough to respect your free will and choice in the matter. If you feel the desire to be received into the Orthodox Church of Christ, contact us today about this. If you are unsure about the truths we have spoken of, and wish to know more, contact us today. Do not put off taking the next step, because there will always be a million other things to do in life, but they will not be meaningful outside the context of what Christ has established for your life.