V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
The full meaning behind every aspect of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism cannot be covered in a single article. This reflection will focus on the spirituality behind the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in the Armenian Orthodox Church tradition. While we will only focus on Holy Baptism, the Armenian Church performs Holy Baptism and Chrismation together.
To understand why we need baptism, we first need to understand why our Lord Jesus Christ received baptism from His cousin, St. John the Baptist. Why did Jesus, who was fully human and fully God, want to get baptized? Many people believe that He did so to provide an example for the believers. This answer is not sufficient. The true meaning is much deeper. Jesus walked into the depths of the water with the sins of the world on His shoulders. He cleansed them through His crucifixion, leaving the sins in the water. Further, His baptism reminds us of the history of the Israelite people, who were led through the Red Sea to be redeemed from their persecutors, Pharaoh, and his soldiers, and find their promised land as the people of God.
The Sacrament of Holy Baptism consists of three main stages: a) renouncing evil and confession of faith, b) receiving baptism, and c) adoration of the Holy Altar and Confirmation. Let us discuss each stage, to better understand this journey into a new birth.
A) Renouncing evil and confession of faith. This stage used to start at the door of the church, at the Kavit. In modern times, it begins in the nave or Adean. This entrance symbolizes the candidate for baptism’s arrival from the world. It appears as though Adam and Eve are finally returning to their Heavenly home after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). The church’s mission is to gather God’s people back in the Kingdom of God, our true home. We cannot take part in the Kingdom of God if we do not believe in God, our King. This section, accordingly, requires the catechumen to renounce the world, Adam’s sin, and confess their true faith in Christ. If the candidate is an adult, he makes this renunciation for himself. If the candidate is a child, the godfather makes this renunciation on his/her behalf. The confession of faith consists of the dogma. While salvation is given to us freely, we must do our part, which starts by renouncing the world, Adam’s sin, and proclaiming our new life. While the parents, godparents, and candidate stand at the church “door,” the priest presents the candidate and asks God to bestow His grace upon them. Immediately after, the priest and deacon turn West and renounce the evil one. In the Armenian Apostolic Church, the direction of sundown represents the opposite of the Light, which is why the priest and deacon face West during this portion. They proceed to turn East, facing the Holy Altar, and confess their faith. This confession of faith follows, and was written during the fourth century at the Council of Nicaea.
“We believe in the all-Holy Trinity, in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The annunciation of Gabriel, the Nativity of Christ, His Baptism, His Passion, His Crucifixion, His three-day Entombment, His Resurrection, His Divine Ascension, His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and the awesome and glorious Second Coming, we confess and we believe.”
B) Receiving Baptism. Before moving towards the baptismal font, the priest or the deacon reads a Gospel passage. This invites the candidate to approach first the Holy Altar, and then the font. The priest once again asks God to bestow His grace upon the candidate, to make him worthy to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. When this took place at the door of the church or in the Kavit, the priest chanted “Voghormoutyamp ko ztourn pats mez Der,” (Open the gate of Your mercy to us, O Lord…). They would then open the door or the curtain, permitting the candidate and his/her family to enter the church. The Gospel reminds us of Christ’s Words, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9). This beautiful scene illustrates how the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, brings us into God’s kingdom.
Entering the “door”, they all head to the baptismal font, which represents life. In Genesis, we learn that “a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.” (Genesis 2:10) If the Holy Altar represents the Tree of Life, then the baptismal font symbolizes the river of life in God’s Kingdom. In the church context, the baptismal font symbolizes the womb of the church. From the font we are born again, Christians. Accordingly, the priest reads the Gospel account of Christ’s meetings with Nicodemus the Pharisee in front of the baptismal font.
The baptismal water is blessed and consecrated with the Holy Cross and the Holy Chrism, Myron, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This process brings us to the moment when “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2). The same Spirit of fire sat upon the Apostles. (Acts 2:4). This marks the most sacred moment of baptism, when the Holy Spirit mysteriously descends into the church and moves into the water, turning the font into the birth-giving womb for the candidate. After consecrating the water, the priest holds the candidate in his hands and asks the godfather three times, “what does this child request?” The godfather responds, each time, “faith, hope, love, and baptism. To be baptized and justified, to be cleansed of sins, to be freed from demons, and to serve God.” The priest says, “may it be according to your faith.” As the candidate is usually a child and cannot express or live his/her faith, the godfather and the parents take the responsibility of educating him/her in the Christian faith.
The priest asks them the Child’s name, immerses him/her in the basin three times, and recites the following prayers:
“(Name) the servant of God, coming from the state of catechumen to baptism, is now being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Redeemed by the blood of Christ from the servitude of sin, he/she receives the adoption of the heavenly Father and becomes joint heir to Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” These words very succinctly summarize the meaning of Holy Baptism. This only scratches the surface. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, He explains that through baptism, believers participate in Jesus’ crucifixion, entombment and resurrection. That is what enables us to receive the grace of the salvation. He explains, “therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).
C) Adoration of the Holy Altar and Confirmation. Similar to how a doctor gives a newborn into her mother’s arms, a newly baptized Christian is taken to the Holy Altar for adoration. This is the point where Adam and Eve return to their original home, God’s Kingdom. Moreover, this is the purpose of Christian life is to live a life that we may be worthy one day to adore and praise God in the heavens. The priest takes the newly baptized child to the Holy Altar, reciting the following prayer while walking around:
“(Name) the servant of Christ, coming from the state of catechumen to baptism, and from baptism to worship, now worships before this Holy Table, before this Holy Altar, and before this Holy Font, for he/she has renounced iniquity and is adorned with the shining light of Your knowledge.”
The priest returns the newly baptized to his/her parents and administers the Holy Eucharist for the first time. This serves as a symbol of participation in the miracle of salvation through the body and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and full communion with the Tree of Life.
The service concludes with the hymn, Նոր Սիոն ծնեալ մանկունք...O Children of the New Zion…, a hymn of glorification and thanks. Baptism concludes with blessings and the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s often hard to focus on and absorb the deep spirituality and the meaning behind the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We are often distracted by our excitement, the child’s discomfort, or any of a number of reasons. However, it is important to have this understanding. Baptism takes place only once in a person’s life, worthy of appreciation and celebration by the child’s family and the friends. For centuries, people desired to see the salvation. They eagerly awaited the Messiah, the promised Savior, to come and fulfill the Law and the Prophecies. With His passion and resurrection, Jesus Christ simplified our salvation. Without slavery or wandering through the wilderness, we have been given the opportunity to receive the grace of salvation, and it starts through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Glory to the all-Holy Trinity, now and forever and ever, amen.
 After this section, the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation takes place.