Yesterday I was privileged to exercise my holy office as a Orthodox Christian priest and pastor in performing the sacrament of baptism. Traditionally, baptizands are stripped of all clothing and immersed into the Font thrice, in the Name of the Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We Orthodox Christians still observe the full traditional, ancient way of baptism in every respect in the case of infant children. (With adults, we let them keep some clothing on.)
Some on-lookers appeared shocked as I stripped the infant, seized him in my hands and immersed him fully within the sanctified waters–not just once, but three times, fully underwater, this little two-month old! This has happened to me before. The look says, “What are you doing to my baby?” “Why are you trying to drown my child?” And, in every case, the baby does fine and, frankly, I get crying less often from the baby than what you might expect. A priest friend of mine said that once the mother screamed and tried to take the baby away from the priest after the first immersion! (Evidently, he was able to convince her that it was ok, because I know that the baptism was completed. Turns out, she was Romanian from the communist era and had never seen a baptism before). It seems that we adults are more worried, lest something untoward happen to a babe. But infants handle immersion into water far better than we might think. Don’t forget, they still have the proximate memory of that 9-month period in the water of the womb! Their first birth is violent, to say the least, and they pulled through. Now, with the second birth unto eternal life, much more will they pull through. “Unless you are born of water & the Spirit, you will not see the Kingdom of God” (John 3). So it takes a momentary drowning, accompanied by the bestowal of the Spirit to enter the Kingdom everlasting.
So, is this momentary drowning of infants violent? You betcha! In the Name of the Lord, action is being taken to put the old man to death, to drown sin and darkness in the noetic flood of baptismal water. Just as Noah had to endure the ark over the flood waters which cleansed the earth of old, so also now, the new flood waters of mystical baptism act violently to rub out the old death in us. “You were buried with Him in baptism, and raised in the newness of life.” Jesus said, “the Kingdom of Heaven cometh violently, and the violent take it by force.” What is more threatening than to plunge a human being under the waters?
Over the centuries, in Christian groups separated from Orthodoxy, baptism was tamed down and lost its energy to save. In some groups, they made it a rule simply to pour water over the head. In others, the person stood in the baptismal pool and the minister splashed some water over the candidate with cupped hands or a small dipping utensil. In yet others, the candidate was sprinkled with water while he lay in the arms of the sponsor or parent. And, even in others by my own experience, it is expected that the minister will use the specially donated rose to administer the baptismal blessing. In this last case, the image of the mystery is completely absent.
To on-lookers unaware of the vital, rugged, all-embracing and staggering simplicity and unembarrassed fullness of Orthodox sacramental practice, it can all seem so scary. Yeah, scary to sin, the devil, and death; but life to the newly-baptized. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. Alleluia.” Why would anyone want to don tattered clothing?