The Initiation Rites

There are a number of preparatory rites before baptism: eight days after the birth, the naming of the child; then, forty days after the birth, the 'churching' of the mother and child. Traditionally, the mother would then attend church again, and the child would begin to do so. The first attendance at church by the mother and child together is usually shortly followed by the baptism.

The present baptismal rite was intended for adults, and to be spread over a period of time. Most of the rite as we know it today was complete by the eighth-century Barberini codex (see Parenti and Velkovska 1995). The first prayer accompanied enrolment as a catechumen, and there then followed three exorcisms and an exorcistic prayer. Now done together, these were spread over several weeks of catechumenal instruction. Having been thoroughly prepared to turn away from the pagan world, the candidate renounces Satan, even spitting upon him, and turns to Christ, reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The responses and profession of faith are made by the godparents when the candidate is an infant. The catechumenate is concluded by a prayer that the candidate may be worthy to receive the grace and power of baptism.

The catechumenal rites are carried out in the narthex or at the back of the church and the baptism rite proper starts with the candidate and sponsors going with the priest to the font in the centre of the church. (In many modern Russian churches the font is in a separate side chapel or church building.) The rite begins with 'Blessed is the kingdom . . .' and the synapte. The priest then blesses the water in a prayer that praises God for creation, with special reference to the life-giving powers of water. The prayer calls for the Spirit to be sent upon the waters of the font, that there may be redemption, sanctification, cleansing, incorruption, life and so on for the baptizand. The priest blesses olive oil, recalling the sprig of olive brought by the dove to Noah, as a protection against all evil. He pours some oil into the water, and anoints the candidate with the oil, preferably all over the body.

The baptism follows immediately, the candidate being immersed in water three times with the words 'The servant of God N is baptized in the name of the Father, Amen. And of the Son, Amen. And of the Holy Spirit, Amen.' Where possible, the whole body is dipped in the water, but if this is not possible many Orthodox are content to pour water over the head.

The newly baptized person is wrapped in a sheet or towel and Psalm 31, 'Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven' is sung. The newly baptized is anointed again, this time with the myron or chrism. Chrism is usually blessed periodically by the head of each autocephalous church as there is need; it is not usually an annual event in the West. To the olive oil is added a complex mixture of sweet-smelling essences which takes several days to mix completely. The priest at baptism takes the chrism and says a prayer that blesses God who has regenerated this person by water and the Spirit, and prays that he or she may now receive the seal of the Holy Spirit, the communion in the body and blood of Christ, and life in the Orthodox Church. The baptized is then anointed on the forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth, ears, breast, hands and feet; the priest saying each time 'The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.'

Many western theologians, and an older generation of Orthodox divines, saw this anointing with chrism as equivalent to western confirmation. The rite is, however, an integral part of the baptism and the texts indicate that baptism is itself a place of the pouring out of the Spirit. Orthodox initiation is an integrated rite of baptismal bath and the gift of the Spirit, leading to the reception of communion by all the baptized. There is nothing similar to the western medieval development of a distinct sacramental rite of confirmation reserved to the bishop.

Having been anointed with chrism, the newly baptized is dressed in a white robe, and is led around the font by the priest, the choir singing 'As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ, Alleluia'. Anciently, this would have been the point when the newly baptized were taken into church for the Liturgy, and an Epistle (Rom. 6: 3-11) and Gospel (Matt. 28: 16-20) are read at this point.

The remaining ceremonies were originally carried out a week later and include a ceremonial washing off of the oil. The white robe is removed with a prayer and the neophyte is tonsured as a sign of a life offered to God. Holy Communion is often given to the newly baptized at this point, or he or she receives it the following week. A final, later ceremony, also known as 'churching' concludes the rite. The priest conducts the neophyte around the altar, holding him, if a child, in his arms. Females are normally simply placed before the holy doors. Finally the priest gives a newly baptized child back to his or her mother (not the godparent) to be received anew as a gift from God.

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