Historical and Liturgical Aspects of the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation in the Byzantine Tradition

This paper has as its aim, the tracing of the historical development of the principal elements of the liturgical order of the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation.
| 08 November 2008

This paper has as its aim, the tracing of the historical development of the principal elements of the liturgical order of the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation.

The modern Slavonic Book of Rites used by clergy for administering the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation presents a fairly advanced rite of Byzantine origin. This rite consists of the following elements that make up the order of these sacraments: the prayers on the first day, churching, the rite of reception into the catechumenate, the rite of renunciation of Satan, Baptism proper, and anointing with chrism.

1. The prayers on the first day. There are three prayers preceding the rite of Baptism and read on the day when a child is born. These prayers are grouped in the Book of Rites under the common name Prayers on the First Day when a Woman Has Given Birth to a Child.[1] These prayers are absent from the early Greek manuscripts. They appeared only in the 12th century in a provincial Euchologion, which suggests that they were introduced into the rite much later. In modern practice, these prayers are read just before the beginning of the rite of Baptism.

2. The prayer for the naming of a child. The next set, just as in ancient Byzantine manuscripts, is a prayer for the naming of the child, which, in the Slavonic Book of Rites, is accompanied by the regular beginning and the troparion of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord. In Constantinople, at least as far back as the 10th century, children were not baptized at an early age but were taken to the sacrament gradually. On the 8th day after the birth, a baby was brought to the gates of a church for the so-called prayer of naming[2] to be said over it, the first reference to which goes back to the 8th century. The meaning of this prayer however is not at all to give a child a name – although it is thus called, it does not even mention any naming – but to seal a child with the name of God[3]: …may the light of Thy countenance be imprinted…; …may the cross of Thy only-begotten Son be engraved…; …may Thy holy name remain unrejected…. The external sign of this dedication of a newly-born child to God is a sign of the Cross showing that the child is now of God”.

3. Churching.[4] In modern liturgical practice, initiation into the Church is accomplished by Baptism and Chrismation. But in the post 4th century Byzantine Empire it took place on the 40th day after the child’s birth so that he might be introduced into the Church even before his Baptism.[5] The rite of churching itself had already developed in the 6th century[6], acquiring its final shape in the 15th century. The Byzantine rite of churching consists of two prayers: O Lord our God, who on the fortieth day wast brought as a child…, which is mentioned already in the famous Barberini Euchologion of the 8th century (Vat. Barberini. gr. 336), and the prayer with heads bowed Our God Almighty, through Thy glorious prophet…, which was incorporated into the rite of churching in the 15th century. Until the 13th century there was a veneration of the holy altar, accomplished in this way: the child (whether male or female) was taken after the prayer through the sanctuary to the holy altar to be touched to it. If it was a male, he was taken around the altar from all sides, but if it was a female only from three sides. But with time this practice began to be taken as a violation of the sanctuary, and, from the 15th century, the churching of males was limited to just taking him into the sanctuary to circle the altar three times only after the sacrament of Baptism was administered to him. Female babies were no longer taken into the sanctuary, but only to the holy doors to touch the icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God. Thus the rite of churching metamorphosed in this way: while in antiquity (before the 14th century) churching was accomplished before Baptism, after the 14th century, when children began to be baptized in infancy rather that at the age of 2 or 3, they began to be churched after the order of Baptism, though in the Euchologion this rite has remained preceding Baptism to this day. Gradually, in the period from the 18th-19th centuries, the rite of churching was revised to become the final part of Baptism.

4. Reception into the Catechumenate. Since at least the 4th century, this reception took place during Lent. The Lenten order therefore is closely connected with catechism. Passages from the three Old Testament Books of Genesis, Parables and the Prophet Isaiah were read for catechumens in church, and during Passion Week these books were replaced by the Books of Exodus, the Prophet Ezekiel and Job. Normally, after these readings, sermons were read or catechetical talks were given to explain the meaning of these scriptural texts.[7] The reception into the catechumenate, which consisted of several rites, was spread throughout Lent and administered to 3-year-olds. The Byzantine cycle is recorded in the Typicon of the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople and consists of the following stages planned to coincide with special days during Lent and the Passion Week:

1) After the reading of the Gospel during the Sunday service in the second week of Lent, the names of those catechumens who could be baptized in that same year were “announced”;[8]

2) “After the Trisagion during the liturgy on the 3d Sunday of Lent, a certain ‘instruction’ was given to parents and godparents of the candidate”: “We affectionately proclaim, our Christ-loving brothers, if you who have anybody who will adopt holy Baptism (this year), in the awareness that (the feast) of the Resurrection of Christ is approaching, bring them tomorrow to this holy church of ours so that they may receive the seal in Christ and be safeguarded and catechized…”[9]

3) “On the Monday of the 4th Week of Lent, a prayer was read over the catechumens, moving them up to the category of those preparing for Enlightenment”[10]; in the Euchologion, this prayer is entitled Making a Catechumen;

4) “From this day and till Good Friday, exorcisms were repeated over the candidates”[11]. There are four of them in the modern Euchologion. The reason for reading these exorcisms being to safeguard those who are to be baptized against temptations they may experience while preparing for Baptism;

5) “From this Sunday, a litany for those who are being enlightened was added to the litany for catechumens during the Liturgy”[12].

6) “On this Sunday, the honourable Cross of the Lord was taken out for veneration, nitiating the stage of intensive catechizing of those preparing for Baptism”.[13] What was the meaning of that veneration? Most probably, the Church wished by this action to strengthen the candidates for Baptism, so that looking upon the Cross to which the Saviour was nailed, they could reflect of the saving feat of Jesus Christ as an inspiration for their passing through the time of catechism.

7) “After the Trithekti (a midday service in fasting periods) service on Good Friday, the rite of Good Friday Catechizing was conducted. It included a homily by the Patriarch for the catechumens and the rite of renouncing Satan and uniting with Christ”.[14] Concerning the ritual side of the renunciation of Satan, the Euchologion and the Slavonic Service Book make the following remark: “When the Catechumen is undressed and barefoot the Priest turns him/her to the West with hands raised on high, and says…”. Raising a hand in the Roman and later Byzantine Empire is given a special importance, for one raised it when taking an oath. Thus, a person, in renouncing Satan three times, did not just pronounced words but swore that he would not serve him any longer by any action. As if to finalize this act, the priest gives this command: Then blow and spit on him. This is followed by blowing and spitting on Satan by which the catechumen expresses his or her contempt for Satan.

This is followed by the rite of uniting with Christ, after which the Euchologion orders the catechumen to read the Creed three times. In practice however, the Creed is read once, but it is not quite right, for as Satan is renounces thrice and united with Christ thrice, so the Creed should be pronounced three times.

After the confession of faith was made, the Patriarch used to read the prayers: Blessed is God who wishes all to be saved and Master, Lord our God, call your servant N. to your holy Enlightenment, which signified the end of the time of catechism and the readiness of a person to embrace Baptism.

Some Lenten services still include elements associated with catechism. Thus, during the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, we hear an additional litany For those who are preparing for Enlightenment… There is also a special exclamation: The Light of Christ illumines all! which, though indirectly, points to Baptism which is sometimes called “Enlightenment” by church writers.

5. Baptism. Baptism proper took place during vespers on Holy Saturday that was combined with the Baptismal Divine Liturgy.[15] During the reading of the first parable from the Book of Genesis (Gen. 1. 1–5) after the vesperal antiphon Lord, I call upon thee (Ps. 140/141) and the vesperal entrance into the church, the Patriarch comes down from his throne and walks into the main Baptistery to vest in a white alb. The ritual side of Baptism in The Typicon of the Great Church is presented in this way: the litany is said with a petition, among others, for the sanctification of water for Baptism: after the litany, the water is anointed with oil and the Baptism proper is administered. After the reading of the prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 1:1-57)[16], while the song of the young men O works of the Lord, bless the Lord is sung, the Patriarch together with the newly-baptized enters the church to anoint the newly-baptized with holy chrism to the Primicerius of the cantor’s chant of As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ from the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians (Gal. 3:27).[17] Then the choir sings As many of you as have been baptized into Christ instead of the Trisagion and immediately after that the Apostle and the Gospel are read, followed by the regular Liturgy.[18]

It should be mentioned that, by the 10th century, only the specially selected came to be baptized during the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on Holy Saturday. Mass baptisms were held on the Sunday of Lazarus before the Liturgy, and in the morning of Holy Saturday.

6. The structure of the Byzantine rite of Baptism. The second part of the Passion Week was devoted wholly to the preparation of the things needed for the sacrament of Baptism.

a) The first element in the structure of the Byzantine rite of Baptism is the preparation of the sacramental substances. On Holy Thursday, the chrism for anointing the newly-baptized was consecrated[19], and on Holy Saturday the water and oil were consecrated. The practice of sanctifying water[20] for Baptism has been known from antiquity, and the first, indirect, reference to it can be found in St. Irenaeus of Lyons.[21] Prayers for the baptismal consecration of water were recorded as far back as the 4th century. For instance, there is a prayer for the consecration of water in the Euchologion of Bishop Serapion of Thmuis.[22] The liturgical books of the Orthodox Church contain two different prayers for the consecration of water intended for Baptism, a long one: Great and marvellous are thy works, O Lord[23] and a short one: O Lord God Almighty, the creator of the entire visible edifice from the invisible.[24] Both prayers were also used by the non-Chalcedonians, which points to their pre-6th century origin.[25] In old manuscripts of the Book of Needs, the priest was allowed to choose any of these ancient prayers for the baptismal consecration of water, while in the modern Service Book, the second, short prayer is used only if Baptism has to be administered hurriedly in the face of death. Researchers have assumed that originally the first, long prayer was used for the consecration of water on the feast of Epiphany, while the short one was for the consecration of the baptismal water, but by the 8th century the long prayer had replaced the short one in the rite of Baptism.[26] Structurally both prayers resemble anaphoras, which points to the singular nature of this water as a great holy substance requiring an attitude of reverence.

After the consecration of water, the oil was blessed with which the water was to be poured in the sign of a cross three times. The symbolism of olive oil in Holy Scriptures is very profound: whenever oil is mentioned, the context is blessing and grace. Thus, it was an olive branch that the dove brought to Noah as a symbol of God’s reconciliation with and blessing upon humanity. The anointing with oil symbolizes the presence of the Spirit of God in the water, for this is the water in which a person receives Baptism by water and the Spirit.

b) Then the catechumens were anointed with the now consecrated oil. This was the so-called pre-baptismal anointing, which had a profound symbolic meaning. While we, in the modern order of the sacrament, anoint only specific parts of the body, in Byzantium the priest poured oil on the head of the one to be baptized and the deacon or deaconess immediately spread the oil over the whole body. This anointing was probably used to symbolize the grace with which a person is clothed.

After that, the Baptism proper, that is the immersion three times in water, took place. Immediately after Baptism the child was clothed in white[27] and a procession led by the Patriarch returned from the baptistery to the church, where the reading of the lessons was coming to the end. The baptized entered the vestibule one by one and the Patriarch anointed their heads with chrism[28], The Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. After everyone was anointed, the procession entered the church, singing Psalm 31, and the Liturgy began.

7. The Chrismation has an important symbolical meaning. The “seal” (σφραγίς) of the gift of the Holy Spirit, given through the holy chrism, is essentially the seal of the gift that a person receives in Baptism. The concept of seal and sealing is very well developed in the Old Testament. A seal is a visible expression of the fact that a thing, an animal or a letter belong to a particular person. A seal puts a person and the thing which is sealed in a certain relationship, namely, ownership of what is sealed. In this case, if this understanding is projected to the relations between God and the universe, the seal here represents a symbol of God’s power over creation. In early Christian theological terminology, Baptism itself could be called a seal[29] understood as the Christian’s belonging to Christ and His Church. Baptism and Chrismation are two inseparable sacraments through which a person is born to new life. These are the gates through which a person enters the Church. A person is baptized by water and the Holy Spirit and receives the gift of the Holy Spirit as a seal upon himself, which is visibly sealed by the holy chrism.

8. The Latin tradition, in which one’s transition from childhood to adolescence is sealed in Confirmation, had a considerable influence on our tradition. This influence, besides other things, resulted in the depreciation of the pre-baptismal anointing. By the time of formation of the classical doctrine of the sevenfold sacraments, Baptism in the Catholic tradition was accomplished with two anointings: one with oil, then comes the Baptism in water, and then one by the holy chrism. But when a child reached the age of 12-14, he was taken to the bishop to testify to his faith before him. After that the bishop laid his hands on the confirmant, said a prayer and, finally, performed the chrismation. This latter rite came to be called Confirmation.

But in the Orthodox tradition, Chrismation is administered separately from Baptism only if it is necessary to make good a baptism already undergone earlier, namely, if it is administered by a layman in view of the danger of death, and if a non-Orthodox person is accepted into the Church. Therefore, Chrismation can still be treated as a separate sacrament, but in an ordinary situation it makes up a unity with Baptism, as distinct from Confirmation. Even if a baptism is administered “because of the fear of death”, the baptismal triad of oil-water-myrrh is preserved. As was already noted, the ancient practice of Chrismation was different from the modern one. While in antiquity the oil was poured on one’ head and spread over one’s body, now we anoint particular parts of the body. Here a number of problems arise, which it is worthwhile solving. The myrrh with which a person was anointed was to be carefully protected against accidental rubbing. When not only one’s forehead but also other parts of one’s body are anointed, such as eyes, nostrils, lips, ears, fingers, hands and feet, the danger of rubbing the oil off is increased. It is one problem of a practical nature. Another problem is that of meaning. The Chrismation administered with the words the Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit presupposes that there is only one seal. In our case where several parts of the body are anointed, the seals are multiplied, accordingly rather depreciating the seal as such.

9. According to the Byzantine order of Baptism, the newly-baptized entered the Church immediately their Chrismation and took part in the Liturgy during which they partook of the Body and Blood of Christ. What is now left of it in the modern Service Book? – Only some passages, such as liturgical readings and the petitions of the litany. The fragmentary nature of these passages is evident from the apparently incomplete ending of the rite of Baptism. However, the Great Book of Needs prescribes that “holy Baptism should precede the Divine Liturgy so that adolescents may communicate during the Liturgy…since Baptism should be with the Liturgy”.[30] Indeed, the meaning of Baptism is to make it possible for one baptized to participate in the Eucharist, and to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is the crown, the fulfilment of every sacrament including Baptism. Therefore, communion after Baptism is an integral part of the latter.

10. Ablution on the eighth day. In Byzantium, babies were again brought to the church on the eighth day after their baptism to wash the chrism off their heads, which had been covered with a special hood or cap (baptismal cowl in Old Russian manuscripts). Special prayers were said, after which a child was sprinkled with water and the chrsm was washed off his head. This ended the rite of a person’s entering the Church. As it is certainly impossible for one in the modern world to wear a cap for a week, the chrism is washed off immediately after one’s baptism.

11. The tonsure was not linked with Baptism in ancient times. This rite was administered in adolescence.[31] It is exactly the rite of transition from childhood to adolescence corresponding to Confirmation in the West. But we have it united with the rite of ablution on the eighth day.

Thus we have traced our rite of Baptism and clarified how it has developed. Almost everything is now done together, with the churching at the end instead of the beginning, thus making the components of the rite difficult to understand in their integrity. This is wrong. But is it possible to find some ways to solve this problem? It is impossible, of course, to revive everything “as it was”, for it developed historically. If the rite of churching is performed before Baptism, nobody will understand it, or will even give it a hostile reception; the ablution on the eighth day presupposes a single chrismation and this will not be understood today either, etc. Therefore, it is worthwhile to structure the practice with a cautious look back to the past, and to celebrate the Baptismal Liturgy (as far as possible!) with the preparatory rites administered on the days preceding it. During Lent, if a parish prepares a group for Baptism, these preparatory rites can be administered each at its own time, with Baptism administered on Holy Saturday in accordance with ancient tradition.


[1] Trebnik, Service Book (in Slavonic), Moscow, 1882. The initial words of these prayers are: 1st prayer — “O Great Lord Pantocrator, heal every infirmity…”; 2nd — “O Great Lord our God, Who was born from our most holy virgin; 3rd — “O Lord our God, who was pleased to come down from heaven”.

[2] Арранц М. Избранные сочинения по литургике. М., 2003. Т. 1. Таинства византийского Евхология. С. 223; подробнее о формировании этого чина см.: Алмазов А. И. История чинопоследований Крещения и Миропомазания. Казань, 1884. С. 122–132.

[3] See details in: Gieschen Ch. A. The Divine name in Ante-Nicene Christology // Vigiliae Christianae. 2003. Vol. 57. P. 133–134.

[4] See details in: Ткаченко А. А. Воцерковление // Православная энциклопедия. М., 2005. Т. 9. C. 495–496.

[5] Арранц. Указ. соч. С. 223.

[6] Ткаченко. Указ. соч. C. 495.

[7] It should be noted that the entire series of catechetical discourses given by St Cyril of Jerusalem has survived (Russian version: Святитель Кирилл, архиепископ Иерусалимский. Поучения огласительные и тайноводственные. — М., 1991р) and also of John Chrysostom (the Russian version of two cycles of talks were published just recently: Иоанн Златоуст, свт. Огласительные гомилии / Сост., введ., пер. с греч., коммент., библиогр. И. В. Пролыгина. Тверь, 2006).

[8] The stage are described according to: О крещальной Литургии // Крещальная литургия. М., 2002. С. 113.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. See the text of this catechism and the rite of renouncing Satan and uniting with Christ in Goar J. Euchologion sive Rituale GraecorumVenetiisi, 1730. P. 279–281.

[15] See a detailed description of the rite of Baptism according to the Typicon of the Great Church in Mateos J. Le Typicon de la Grand Église: Ms. Saint-Croix n. 40, Xe siècle / Introd., texte critique, trad. et notes par J. Mateos. R., 1963. T 2. (Orientalia Christiana Analecta; 166). P. 84–87. See the Russian version in: О крещальной Литургии // Крещальная литургия. М., 2002. С. 113–116.

[16] The 15th reading (paroimia).

[17] Mateos. Op. cit. P. 88.

[18] Ibid.

[19]Ibid. P. 76.

[20] See details of the consecration of water for the sacrament of Baptism in: Желтов М., диак. Водоосвящение // Православная энциклопедия. М., 2005. Т. 9. С. 140–148.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See the Greek text and a Russian version of this prayer in: Дмитриевский А. А. Евхологион IV века Сарапиона, епископа Тмуитского // ТКДА. 1894. № 2. С. 259–260.

[23] Требник. М., 1882. Л. 37–42.

[24] This prayer in the Slavonic Book of Rites is placed under the rubric «Молитва святых крещений вкратце». См.: Требник. М., 1882. Л. 58–59.

[25] Желтов М., диак. Указ. соч. С. 141.

[26] Ibid.

[27] See details in: Алмазов А. И. Указ. соч. С. 430–432.

[28] Mateos. Op.cit., p. 88.

[29] Ysebaert J. Greek Baptismal Terminology: Its Origins and Early Development. Nijmegen, 1962. P. 221.

[30] Cit.in: О крещальной Литургии // Крещальная литургия. М., 2002. С. 111–12.

[31] Ibid. P. 116.

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