A Guide to Orthodox Baptism and Chrismation

[2015-11-12] I wrote this guide for a friend whose baby is being baptized, to help his non-Orthodox relatives and friends understand the service.

The Rites of Baptism and Chrismation


Why are we facing the back of the church?

If you have been invited to attend a friend’s Baptism, you would expect to come into the church and face toward the altar. But the preliminary parts of an Orthodox Baptism take place at the back of the church (or in some cases, in the church’s entry hall, called a narthex). This is because, in the early centuries, Baptisms were performed outside the church; the new members of the congregation literally “entered” the church. Now the first part of the ceremony takes place at the back of the worship space, and then the baptismal party moves to the center of the room for the Baptism itself. Finally, they come to the front of the church for the Chrismation, the anointing service that completes church membership, and represents the bestowing of the Holy Spirit (it’s analogous to Confirmation in Western churches.)


…and why are they barefoot?

During the Chrismation, the Priest will anoint them many times, including on their feet.


…and carrying an unlit candle?

The candle will be lit during the service, to represent the Light of Christ.


…and who are those people standing with them?

Those are sponsors, also known as the godparents of candidates for Baptism and Chrismation. They will pray for him (her) and support his (her) growth in Christ.

The Scrutiny

The service begins with this series of questions and answers, which was designed to ensure that the candidate for Baptism believes in Christ and accepts the Christian faith. If the Baptismal candidate is a baby (“Be baptized, every one of you…you and your children,” Acts 2:38-39), the sponsors (godparents) answer on his or her behalf.

The Exorcism

Now the priest prays for the Baptismal candidate to be delivered from the evil one (Matthew 6:13, John 17:15). He breathes on him, making the sign of the cross three times, and prays for Christ to expel the evil one and his power of temptation. The candidate then renounces the evil one and, turning to face the back of the church, spits at him, as evidence of that rejection and disdain. He then turns toward the altar and affirms that he unites himself with Christ.


The Nicene Creed

In the early church, creeds (statements of faith) were composed so that Baptismal candidates could affirm the faith they were embracing (“You shall be my witnesses,” Acts 1:8). This one is called the Nicene Creed, because it was composed by church leaders in a meeting at Nicaea (now in Turkey) in the 4th century.

Bow down

The Baptismal candidate and sponsors bow down to show that they accept Jesus Christ as Lord (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Procession to the font

Now the Baptismal party moves from the back of the church to the center, and gathers beside the Baptismal font. If the person being baptized is a baby, the font to be used is shaped like a large chalice. If the person is an older child or adult, the font to be used is shaped like a rectangular box (it’s analogous to a bathtub).


The troparion of Theophany

This brief hymn speaks of Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, an event celebrated by the Church each year on January 6. It is known as the Feast of the Theophany, though Western Christians call it Epiphany. A short summary hymn like this is called a troparion, and this is the Troparion of Theophany. It draws attention to the worship of the Trinity foreshadowed by the voice of the Father, presence of the Son, and descent of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s Baptism (Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:22).

“Blessed is the Kingdom”

When the priest says “Blessed is the Kingdom…” (Mark 11:10) the Baptismal service itself begins. The opening prayers and affirmations serve to prepare us for this sacrament (Orthodox usually call sacraments “Holy Mysteries,” 1 Corinthians 4:1).

Litany and “Lord have mercy”

Now the deacon (or the priest) offers a series of prayers, and we affirm each one by chanting “Lord have mercy” three times. In the Orthodox faith “mercy” does not mean leniency, as a prisoner might beg a judge for mercy. It means instead God’s compassion, his “tender mercies.” In the New Testament, when people ask Christ for healing, they say “Lord, have mercy” (Matthew 15:22, Luke 17:11-19 and 18:35-43).

The Blessing of the Water

Now the priest prays for God to bless the water in the font. He recounts God’s work in creating the world and coming to rescue fallen humanity. He makes the sign of the Cross over the water three times, and after another short prayer repeats that action. Then he breathes upon the water in the form of a cross three times; in both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” is the same as the word for “spirit.” After this, the priest prays for the spiritual growth and salvation of the people who are being baptized. (Sometimes he says these prayers quietly at the same time that the litany, above, is being offered.)

The Oil of Gladness

The priest now prays a blessing over a vial of oil, and pours a thin stream of oil in the form of a cross on the water. He then anoints the Baptismal candidate with the oil, making the sign of the cross on his forehead, chest, back, ears, hands, and feet. (“Oil of Gladness,” Psalm 45:7, Isaiah 61:3, Hebrews 1:9) Now the candles are lit.

Triple immersion

The priest then baptizes the person, dipping him three times under the water, saying “The servant of God [name] is baptized, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). If the Baptismal candidate is an adult, he steps into the font on one side, is baptized, and steps out on the other side. If the Baptismal candidate is a small child, the priest takes him in his arms, dips him into the font three times, and then places him in the arms of one of his sponsors. Towels are provided for drying off; some people bring a special towel and preserve it at home (a baby boy’s towel might be used again when he is ordained, as the towel that the bishop lays over the head and shoulders of a new deacon).

The Garment of Righteousness

Now the priest blesses the white garments which the newly-baptized will put on when the Baptismal ceremony is complete. (“Garment of Righteousness,” Job 29:14, Isaiah 61:10) Sometimes these garments are provided by the church and re-used at future baptisms, but some adults provide their own, and preserve it to use at their burial.

Procession to the iconostasis

The newly-baptized, and those who have previously been baptized and are joining the Church, come up and stand in front of the solea (the platform that runs alongside the iconostasis). As they do, the congregation sings, “Grant to me a shining robe of light, you who clothe yourself with light…” (Psalm 104:2, Job 40:10, 1 Timothy 6:16).

Veneration of the Gospels and Cross

The candidates for Chrismation (the newly-baptized, and those whose previous Baptism is considered sufficient) kneel on the solea, and the priest prays for them and tells them to stand. They kiss the Gospel book and the cross held by the priest as a public affirmation of their faith, saying “I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior.”

The Absolution

Adult candidates for Chrismation have made their confession during the last few days. Now they kneel on the solea, and the priest places his stole on the head of each one and prays for the forgiveness of their sins (John 20:23).


The Chrismation

The priest anoints each person, making the sign of the cross with holy chrism (blessed oil) on their forehead, eyes, nostrils, lips, ears, chest, back, hands, and feet. Each time he says, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 1:22), and the congregation responds, “Seal!” (though in some churches it’s “Amen!”).

Gift of a cross

Each sponsor fastens around the neck of his or her godchild a cross, as a sign that the new member of the Church has taken up his or her cross (Matthew 10:38, 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

The Ablution

Using a sponge dipped in water, the priest sprinkles each person and then wipes each spot that was chrismated.

The Tonsure

Taking up a small pair of scissors, the priest clips a few hairs from the head of each person, four times, in the form of a cross. This represents the person’s first offering to the Lord (Numbers 6:18).

…if the ceremony is followed by the Divine Liturgy:

Many Years

The newly baptized and chrismated are presented to the congregation, and we sing, “God grant you many years!” (Psalm 91:16, Proverbs 3:16).

Procession around the Font

The priest leads the newly-illumined and their sponsors around the font three times, while the congregation sings, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia” (Galatians 3:27).

“Blessed is the Kingdom”

After the procession, the priest begins the Divine Liturgy with the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom…” (Mark 11:10). Those who were baptized depart to finish drying off and put on their “Garment of Righteousness” (Job 29:14, Isaiah 61:10).


First Reception of Holy Communion

When the time comes for the worshippers to receive Communion, those who have been made new members of the Church will be the first to receive (the newly-baptized wearing their white garments). They will come forward carrying their lit candles, with their sponsors beside them; they will be first for communion in the coming weeks, too.


…if the ceremony is not followed by the Divine Liturgy:

First Holy Communion

As the people sing, “Of thy mystical supper, O Son of God…Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom” (Luke 23:42), the priest takes a portion of the Holy Gifts from the tabernacle on the altar. He gives it to the newly-illumined, saying “The servant of God [name], partakes of the precious and all-holy Body and Blood of our Lord…” (John 6:53).


Procession around the Font

The priest leads the newly-illumined and their sponsors around the font three times, while the congregation sings, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia” (Galatians 3:27).

The Epistle and Gospel

We hear readings from the Epistle to the Romans (Romans 6:3-11) and the Holy Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).

Ektenia and Dismissal

After a short litany (an ektenia) the service is concluded.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.


One comment:

  1. Thank you for this, Ms Mathewes-Green!

    I was baptized yesterday into the Orthodox church in Mainz. The service was mostly in Russian and German. Your post has just given me an easy reference to help explain the photos to my mother, who wasn't able to attend in person.

    In Christ,
    Susan Neumann

    FMG: Thanks be to God! Welcome Home.

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