My baptism, like all baptisms in the Orthodox Church, was a community event that involved most of the church membership. Baptism is a major act in the life of the church and people make an effort to be present at each one, not only because it is a joyful event to witness the rebirth of a new member in Christ, but at the same time each baptism of a new member of the body is a reminder, for every other witness present, of their own baptisms; it is a reenactment in a way, or a reaffirmation and renewal for everyone involved. Had I not previously witnessed several other baptisms in the years prior to my own, so as to be familiar with this wonderful inclusiveness of support and love, I would have been taken aback, and been a little embarrassed by the outpouring of attendance for this service, whose entire function and purpose was to invite me into the life of the church, into the Kingdom of God. It can be a little overwhelming to experience this kind of attention, yet it is a generosity that is reflective of God’s love for us, and it is an experience that warms the heart.
The baptism service is long, not inconsequential, nor something done quickly so as to move on to something better. I don’t know exactly how long it is but it must be close to an hour and involves the choir singing multiple hymns and prayers along with the participation of the priest and deacon, and the entire congregation. Additionally, each catechumen about to be baptized, has chosen a sponsor, someone who is there beside them, literally and figuratively having helped them in the months or years previous, as they approached this important step, and now standing alongside in this service as participants, assisting the catechumen, responding along with them, walking beside them. My sponsor, Jack, had been an Episcopal priest for about thirty years prior to converting to Orthodoxy many years prior to my baptism. He was very knowledgeable, kind and humorous; the exact sort of person to trust with an important event such as this, so I felt at ease, and in good hands.
There are far too many elements and aspects to baptism and chrismation for me to address them all here, and besides I likely only know a fraction of them anyway, and there are other books written on the subject by authors far more knowledgeable than I; but I can give you a first-hand account, eye witnessed and experienced in detail. I’ll share the highlights of mine, but I encourage everyone to experience for themselves an Orthodox baptismal liturgy at least once in their life, because they are beautiful in very many ways, and are life-changing as well.
We began the service at the western entrance to the church. Actually it was the southern entrance, since our building isn’t a proper Orthodox temple, but had it been designed and built originally as an Orthodox church, then the entrance would have been at the western end, while the altar would be at the eastern. Much of Christian cosmology associates Christ with the east, so this is the basis of this architectural orientation. So the baptismal liturgy begins at the west (south in my case), as far away from the eastern altar as possible, because this expresses the reality of our soul’s condition before baptism; we are as far away from God as we can be, lost in our sins, reveling in our worldly passions, going our own way in every conceivable way. As the service progresses we move towards the east, towards the altar of our Lord, towards our new life in close communion with Him. Several important things occur at the ‘western’ entrance: an exorcism to free us from the influence and power of Satan and the demonic powers of this world, our verbal renunciation of him from our lives, and our verbal proclamation of allegiance to our new lord, Jesus Christ. During this point in the service, I am asked to proclaim the fact that, “I unite myself to Christ.” Stating this out loud three times, in the presence of all of my church family, gave me chills, because it was a statement of power, and felt very authoritative and binding. I felt grateful in this moment, that the church understood my inner need to say this, and had given me the words to proclaim it for everyone to hear, and to hear myself say it, not once, which could have just been an accident, and not twice which might have allowed me still to change my mind, but a third time, somehow sealing the deal.
As I approached the altar, coming closer to my God, I stood before the baptismal font. Here before me, in the middle of the sanctuary was a large pool of water roughly two feet wide, six feet long and two feet deep; in a subtle way it resembled a coffin. How appropriate, for it was to be my burial, and my tomb yet simultaneously my womb, and my birth.
Father John blessed the waters and anointed them with oil. As Christ sanctified the entire world when He incarnated in the flesh and came to reclaim what is His, these baptismal waters, as part of our Lord’s created and sanctified world are blessed and made holy. I don’t understand the mystery of baptism, all that it is or does, but as Father John blessed and anointed the water, I imagined its purity, and that it would somehow convey this purity to me as I was submerged within it. I imagined these waters as suddenly crystalline, and as a conductor of the energies of God, activating my own soul and bringing it to life again. I wrote this about the experience:
My life has been a rainbow of iniquity—
the red of anger misplaced,
the yellow of cowardice,
the green of envy,
and the blue of dejection.
But Christ has healed my colors,
into a spectrum of devotion.
Through baptism and the oil of gladness—
the fragments of my mind and heart,
have been gathered,
and life restored to my fading soul.
The baptismal font:
that crystalline prism which purifies,
the disparate and multi-colored,
paths of my sinful life,
yielding new life in me,
uniting me in the white light of Christ.
I have been distilled by water and the spirit—
dissolute no longer,
dissolved into the life of Christ.
I have descended into the crystalline waters;
my impurities have fallen away,
and I am raised up again as a pure vapor.
I am a new spirit,
a pure spirit,
a holy spirit.
As I entered the water, and as all of these things were occurring within me, there was another drama playing out at the water’s edge; a joyful and light drama, perhaps more of a comedy, unscripted, non-liturgical, spontaneous and improvisational, yet very biblical and certainly enriching my baptism immensely. Along the right edge of the baptismal font several of my favorite children lined up, crouching against the side of the font, their heads and arms draped along the rim of the font. Their smiling and laughing faces watching me as I was dunked under the water, holding conversations amongst themselves as I prepared to dunk a second time, some staring down into the water, another pointing out something of interest to her friend, and then another convulsion of laughter rippling through this happy chorus as I am dunked a third time. Could there have been a better welcoming committee at the shore of my baptism than a host of wonderful, laughing children, with bright and smiling faces? The Orthodox church rarely adds or changes its liturgies, but if it did, I would highly encourage the addition of children at the edge of every baptismal font during every baptism, for there could be no better welcome into the body of Christ, or into the Kingdom of God than to be welcomed by a smiling child.
(to be continued)