“Who has given us, unworthy though we are, blessed purification through Holy water, and Divine sanctification through life-giving Chrismation, and who now also has been pleased to bring new life to your servant newly illuminated by water and the Spirit, and granted remission of sins-voluntary and involuntary.” (Old Prayer prayed by the priest for the newly baptized)
The baptism that St. John the Baptist offered to all those who had heard his teachings was not a new ritual founded by him. Immersion in water had been in existence since the early ages.
So what exactly is “baptism?” Most scholars agree it is derived from a Greek word which means “to immerse with dye”. Christian baptism, according to the Orthodox faith, is our death, burial, and resurrection becoming in union with the Lord Jesus Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christall of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:27-28). It is a Mystery, necessary for our salvation, given to the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
It is noteworthy that the word “baptize” in the Holy Bible can be found only in the New Testament.
Ritual purification using water is well documented in Mosaic Law. In the Holy Book of Leviticus 14:8-9 tells of water purification, “The person to be cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe with water, then he will be ceremonially cleanOn the seventh dayhe must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water, and he will be clean.”
When the Lord instructed Moses to set up the Tabernacle, He specified that Aaron and his sons cleanse themselves prior to consecration as priests. “Bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint him and consecrate him so he may serve Me as priest” (Exodus 40:12-13).
Water purification was also necessary in the Old Testament after coming in contact with a dead body, at childbirth and was also required by a bride before the Wedding Ceremony.
The Lord Jesus Christ’s first miracle at Cana of Galilee involved water jars which were used for the Jewish rite of purification. “Nearby stood six stone jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing” (John 2:6).
The ministry of St. John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant, denoted the start of Christian baptism. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). St. John the Baptist baptized for the repentance of sins.
Tertullian said, “He (St. John) desired that the baptism of repentance would lead the way. He did this with the view of first preparing those whom He was calling, by means of the sign and seal of repentance.”
Upon His Holy Baptism, the Lord Jesus Christ transformed water and baptism itself into the means by which we enter into the Kingdom of God. It is not documented in the Holy Bible that the Lord Jesus Christ performed baptisms Himself. What is documented is that His holy disciples did so in His name.
We do not actually know whether St. John the Baptist witnessed his father, a priest, performing a ritual similar to baptism which formally initiated new converts into the Jewish faith. But it is known that the Essenes, a Jewish sect during the time of St. John the Baptist, participated in purifying baths daily at Qumran near the city of Jerusalem Certainly St. John must have been familiar with the ritual of water purification.
Though Christian baptism outwardly may have appeared similar to the Jewish purification rites there was one pronounced difference that was undisputed. Christian baptism encompassed eternal salvation. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:38-39).
Historically the Orthodox Church has baptized by triple immersion, “in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). Triple immersion is clearly written of by the early church fathers.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem taught his new converts into Christianity, “You were led by the hand to the holy pool of divine baptismand each of you was asked if he believed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. And you made that saving confession; you descended into the water and came up again three times. In that very moment you died and were BORN AGAIN.”
The Feast of the Epiphany not only marks the day of the Lord Jesus Christ’s baptism, it marks the beginning of salvation for all Christians.
May we all give devout reverence to the many meanings of this day; the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ, our newness of life, and the beginning of eternal life to come.
— His Grace Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States