When I was seven years old, I “went forward” one Sunday morning in response to a preacher’s invitation. I wasn’t at all certain what was going on, but I mostly thought that I was “choosing sides.” Later that week, the preacher came and visited my home. He met privately with me and plied me with questions. When he was done, he shook his head and said to my mother, “He’s only seven years old, but he’s saved.” And with that, I was scheduled to be Baptized the next Sunday evening.
No one explained anything to me about being Baptized. Indeed, I’m not sure they knew of anything to explain. I was quite short, and had to tread water that Sunday evening – thus I was “bobbed” as much as I was “dunked.”
In Orthodoxy, if someone asked what is going on in Baptism, the best answer would likely be, “Everything.” In the Baptismal Liturgy, the priest prays:
But show this water, O Master of all, to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life. For You have said, O Lord: ‘Wash and be clean; put away evil things from your souls.’ You have bestowed upon us from on high a new birth through water and the Spirit. Therefore, O Lord, manifest Yourself in this water, and grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he (she) may put away from himself (herself) the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he (she) may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him (her), he (she) may receive the prize of his (her) high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.
As far as I can tell, that is pretty much everything. For good measure, just after the Chrism is wiped off the newly-illumined, the priest says:
You are justified. You are illumined. You are sanctified. You are washed: in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God.
I have heard various accounts of Baptism that stress one of the various verbs above, but never (outside of Orthodoxy) all of these operative verbs. A legitimate question would be, “What is it about Baptism that makes it all of these things?”
In short, it is our union with the death and resurrection of Christ.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom 6:3-5)
But if all these things are true of our Baptism, what can we say about Jesus’ Baptism?
Christ’s Baptism is an entrance into His Pascha – it is His death and resurrection made manifest in the waters of the Jordan. That, of course, is a strange thing to say (or contemplate) but it is how the Church contemplates it:
The Lord refashions broken Adam in the streams of the Jordan.
And He smashes the heads of dragons lurking there.
The Lord does this, the King of the ages;
for He has been glorified.
The Lord clothed material flesh
with the immaterial fire of divinity.
Now He wraps Himself in the flowing waters of the Jordan.
The Lord does this, the Lord born in the flesh from the Virgin;
for He has been glorified.
From the Matins of Theophany
Everything about Christ’s Baptism echoes Pascha. Its feast is thus called by some, “The Winter Pascha.” When the Christian life is rightly understood, everything has this Paschal shape. It is the image according to which we were created (the Lamb that was slain). It makes it possible for us to say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
This life in union with the Crucified and Risen Christ is the very heart of our existence. We are not so much “moral agents” as “cruciformed persons.” We do not merely “try not to sin,” we are “dead to sin.” For this reason, we say that prayer is the “one thing needful.” Prayer is our actively uniting ourselves to Christ, for apart from Him, “we can do nothing.”
The Cross cannot be loved from a distance or theologized at arms-length. It is revealed to us only in union. It is a continual ‘yes’ to Christ and ‘yes’ to neighbor and enemy.
The waters saw You, O God; The waters saw You, they were afraid; The depths also trembled.
The clouds poured out water; The skies sent out a sound; Your arrows also flashed about.
The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; The lightnings lit up the world;
The earth trembled and shook.
Your way was in the sea, Your path in the great waters,
And Your footsteps were not known.
You led Your people like a flock
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.(Ps. 77:16-78:1)