Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments of the Christian Church, the others being: Confirmation (Chrismation), Marriage (Holy Matrimony), Holy Communion (Eucharist), Penance (Confession), Holy Orders (Ordination of Clergy), and Extreme Unction (last blessing given to a dying person).
Sacraments are outward or visible signs and ceremonies to give us God’s invisible graces. They are channels by which the Christian graces enter into our souls to feed, to nourish and to strengthen our spiritual life.
Baptism is the first sacrament which a Christian receives. Unless we are baptized, we are forbidden to receive any other sacrament. Any other sacrament received before receiving Baptism, will be invalid. That is why Baptism is called “the door of the Church.”
By Baptism we are made Christians, and are incorporated into the Church. Baptism gives new life to our souls. Through Baptism we become children of God, and co-heirs of Christ.
This sacrament, as well as each one of the others, was instituted by our Lord Himself. He gave us the first example by being Himself baptized by John the Baptist. On leaving this world the last order which He gave His disciples was: “Go and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
How was Baptism administered in ancient times?
In the early ages of Christianity Baptism was administered without special baptismal fonts. It was administered in rivers and pools. Jesus Himself was baptized in the River Jordan. St. Gregory, the Enlightener of Armenia, baptized King Tiridat, the first Christian King of Armenia, and thousands of others in the River Euphrates.
Indoor baptisms were, however, not uncommon even in the Apostolic age. St. Paul, for example, was baptized indoors. For the sake of privacy and solemnity indoor baptism came to be the rule.
Reverence for the rite itself, and for the water, which came in time to receive a special consecration, gave rise to the use of a special font for the sacrament of Baptism. This font became one of the most important parts of the Christian Church everywhere. The ancient practice was to have it hewn out of a solid piece of rock.
In the Armenian Church, according to ancient custom, the first part of the ceremony was performed outside the door of the church. This symbolic practice, however, is no longer kept. At present, the infant is brought to the church. While the godfather is holding the infant in his arms, the priest recites, in the name of the infant, some penitential psalms, makes a triple renunciation of Satan, and then recites the Creed.
Then the priest, together with the godfather and those attending, goes to the baptismal font. Water is poured into the font. The priest says a blessing over the water. In the meantime the child is taken to be undressed and brought back. The priest then asks the godfather, “What does this child request?” The godfather replies, “Faith, hope, and love; to be baptized and to be justified, to be cleansed from sins, to be delivered from evil, and to serve God.”
The priest then asks the name of the infant, holds him up, and then immersing him in the water says: “(name), Servant of God, has come as a catechumen to be baptized; he is now baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; being saved by the blood of Christ from the servitude of sin, receives the sonship of the heavenly Father, to be co-heir with Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit.” While saying this the priest immerses the infant three times in the water. In this act of immersion in consecrated water consists the essence of Baptism.
Baptism by “dipping” or “immersion” was the universally accepted custom in the Church from the beginning. This is testified even by the Fathers of the Western Church, where at present it is a general practice to baptize by “sprinkling” or “pouring.” Immersion means dipping the whole body of the baptized in the water.
Since the grace of Baptism is absolutely necessary for all men, therefore this Sacrament must be denied to none, not even to infants. On this principle Infant Baptism became normal in the Church as soon as circumstances allowed. One of the aims of the Baptism is the forgiveness of all sins, including the original sin, in which we are born to this world. As original sin is universal, and the need for release from it is universal, therefore the Church wisely and justly allows infants to receive the Grace which cleanses them from the stains of the original sin and gives them, in their innocency, the equipment to fight victoriously against sin. Whole households, which included infants, were baptized by the Apostles (Cf. 1 Cor. 1 : 16, Acts 10 : 47, 16: 33).
“Just as parents provide the necessary physical cleansings of the child, supply it with food, guide it and educate it without regard to the will of the child, so, having in view the spiritual progress and wellbeing of their child, they provide for its spiritual regeneration and oversee its spiritual needs.”
From the earliest times a new name was given to the catechumen at Baptism, even if the receiver of this sacrament already had a name. Unusual and pagan names should be avoided when giving a new name to a child. It is always recommended that the name of a saint should be given because the name given at Baptism is the child’s “Christian” name.
At the Baptism someone should assist at the ceremony to make the profession of the faith on behalf of the child. Such a person is called godfather (in Armenian, “Gunka-hayr” which rhymes with hire). The duty of the godfather is to see that the child is brought up as a good Christian, if this is not done by the parents. In the Armenian Church there is only one godfather, of the male sex. The wife of a godfather may be considered as godmother but she never assists at the ceremony in any formal capacity. The godfather should be over 12 years old. He must be a member of the Armenian Church. One who is not a member of the Armenian Church cannot be a godfather at an Armenian Baptism. Also, those who neither know nor practice their faith should not be chosen as godfathers. Too many people choose godfathers for their children for reasons other than spiritual.
Children should be baptized as soon as possible, preferably eight days after birth. Our baptismal fonts are not made to hold grown-ups. Besides, it is always easier and quieter to baptize a little baby than a grown up child. Another important reason is that children are entitled to receive the benefits of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as early as possible.
Baptism is necessary for salvation. The parents must not take the risk of depriving their children of the benefits of this sacrament. Parents who put off Baptism for a long time, or entirely neglect it, are endangering the eternal salvation of their children. Responsible people always should remember the warning of the Gospel, “Unless a man be born again of water and spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” This is what our Lord said.
The priest is the usual minister of Baptism; therefore, administration of the Sacrament, under all normal conditions, must be at the hands of the priest. If there is a danger to the life of an unbaptized baby, any one else may and should christen the baby. In such emergency cases it is sufficient to sprinkle or apply some water on the forehead or any part of the body, giving a name and using the proper formula: “(name) is now baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Should the person so baptized recover, he must be brought to the church and his baptism must be normalized and validated by receiving the remaining parts of the ritual, at the hands of a regular priest. Such extraordinary Baptism is lawful only in the event of absolute and dire necessity.
After Baptism and Confirmation a certificate is given. It should be very carefully kept. Parents should tell their children when and where they were baptized, so that even if the certificate is lost the registration may be traced.