The Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Baptism

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


The Establishment of the Mystery of Baptism

In the first place in the series of Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Holy Orthodox Church stands the Mystery (Sacrament) of Baptism. "It serves as the door leading into the Kingdom of Grace, or the Church, and it grants access to participation in the other Mysteries (Sacraments). Even before the establishment of the Mystery of Baptism, the Lord Jesus Christ in His conversation with Nicodemus indicated the absolute necessity of it for salvation. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven". When Nicodemus expressed his perplexity, "How can a man be born when he is old?" the Savior replied that the new birth would be accomplished by water and the spirit: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (St. John 3:3-6)...

"The comparison of Baptism with a washing by water, with the grave, and other such things indicates that this Mystery (Sacrament) is to be performed through immersion. The Greek word vaptizo (baptizo) signifies "to immerse"...The immersion in water is done three times with the pronunciation of the words: "The servant of God (name) is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," in accordance with the commandment given by Christ Himself (St. Matthew 28:19)."  (Orthodox Dogmatic Theology)

Archdeacon Christodoulos of Saint Markella's Church in Astoria N.Y., speaking on the taking of Christian names at Baptism and the origin of the celebration of Namedays in the Orthodox Church on one of the Orthodox lists on the Internet, posted the following:

"According to tradition, it was Christ, of course, Who re-named both the Disciples and various others in the New Testament (St. Mary Magdalene, for example). (See "Orthodox Tradition,"  Vol. XV, No. 4, pp. 26-27; "Scripture and Tradition"). Christians were also exhorted to take the name of prophets and saints by the authors of the First Catechetical texts of the primitive (early) Church. It was also at this time that Liturgies were universally celebrated in honor of the Martyrs, Apostles, and Saints, when those having their names would commemorate them.

According to tradition, then, the commemoration of the names of holy persons, including the Mother of God, is Apostolic (hence the origins of the Service of the Elevation of the Panaghia). It is a wholly Western idea that the celebration of Name Days is anything but an Apostolic practice. It grew out of the veneration of Martyrs and Saints and was a natural, organic part of the commemoration of Baptism. Consulting Western historical texts, instead of Orthodox Patristic tradition, will to little to clarify this practice and shows a rather serious deficit in how to approach our Church's Tradition."

With regard to the "Apostolic" origins of taking Christian names, let us cite one instance from the Apostolic Age that is well known in the Orthodox Church. According to tradition, the Prince who martyred the Apostle Matthew, a certain Fulvian, afterwards became a Christian. When about to receive Baptism, a voice from on high declared to the Bishop who was about the Baptize him, "Do not call him Fulvian, but Matthew." He was thus named after the Apostle. (Saint Dmitri Rostov includes this story in his Collections of the Lives of the Saints, published in Moscow in 1914. It is also contained in older collections of the Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, from which Saint Dmitry derived many of the biographies in his collection.)

The traditional Catechetical texts on Baptism date to the first four centuries of Christianity and are called collectively, in Greek "Katechetikai Diatrivai." There are literally scores of works, both by Eastern and Western Fathers that address the Baptismal and Mysteriological traditions of the Church. Let us simply quote an excellent work by Metropolitan Augoustinos of Florina, of blessed memory, Eis tin Theian Leitourgian, Practikai Homiliai (Athens, 1977), in which he summarizes one aspect of the catechetical instructions in the Early Church:

"...In the ancient Church, the Church of the first centuries of Christianity,...when the catechumens (those under instruction) had been taught all that they were to learn, their instructors would take them back to the Bishop, and the Bishop would recommend that they change their pagan names and adopt Christian ones; their names were to remind them of holy personages or virtues (e.g., Agapios, from agape, "love"...)."

As for pre-fifth-century references to the taking of "Christian names," if we may use this obviously imprecise term, let us cite just a few from many, many such instances, in order to point out that our observations have not been simply casual:

Saint Ev(u)stathios, whose pagan name was Placidas, was given the name "Evstathios" in Holy Baptism. He was martyred in 100 A.D. and his Baptism took place sometime in the 80s. His wife (Theopisti) was also given a Christian name, as were their two sons (Agapios and Theopistos).  This life was compiled in the eleventh century by Saint Symeon Metaphrastes.

In the Eusebius' early 4th century Ekklesiastike Historia, we find reference to the Christian practice of giving the names of the Apostles to children (Book VII, Chap. 25). Also in the same work, we read that the Egyptian Christians forsook their pagan names for Scriptural names--usually the names of Prophets (Book VIII, "The Martyrs of Palestine").

In his "Homilia enkomiastike eis ton en Hagiois Patera hemon Meletion...", Saint John Chrysostom tells us that many Christians named their children after this great Saint (Parologia Graeca, Vol. I.).

Saint Prokopios of Gaza, writing in the early 6th century and speaking of the early (pre-Constaninian) Christian Martyrs, states that many of them took the names of "holy men" (Saints) for themselves. "With these names, they eagerly delivered themselves to martyrdom," he writes. This many seem inapplicable to the question at hand, but martyrdom in the Orthodox Church, at least, is considered "baptism by blood." It is not unusual, then, that the Martyrs chose to take the names of Saints (Patrologia Graeca, Epitome ton eis ton Propheten Isaian Exegeseon).

With regard to the celebration of the onomasterion (onomastike heorte), here again we turn to the double witness of history and Holy Tradition. It is clear that Christians celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Apostolic times in memory of the Martyrs and Saints. Saint Polycarp, for example, was martyred on February 23, 155/6 A.D. The Christians in Smyrna issued a letter, To Martyrion tou Polykarpou, in which they exhorted other Christians to celebrate the day of his Martyrdom and expressed their desire that the Lord "will permit us" (future tense) to gather in joy to continue such a celebration. That this practice of calling on the memories of the Saints in liturgical rites is, again, a complex one, we do not argue. Holy Tradition has always associated it with the earliest Christian Liturgies. And certainly there is clear evidence by the second century of such a tradition. Holy Tradition also established that these celebrations were honored by those who bore the names of the Martyrs and Saints who were being commemorated."

Our Holy Orthodox Christian Church has always placed great significance upon names. In fact, not only are names of great importance in the Church, but the actual of naming someone holds great significance to us as Orthodox Christians. These Christian traditions are of divine origin and of tremendous spiritual significance, however, unfortunately are not a part of modern American culture. It is a fact that our Orthodox Christian Tradition is threatened by secularism and ignorance of the Faith. The tradition of the giving Christians names to our children, celebrating Namedays, teaching our children the life of their patron Saint, is constantly challenged by people that are religiously illiterate. Even converts to our Faith are permitted to retain their secular names upon their baptism or chrismation. Unfortunately, what is emphasized is the pagan custom of celebrating ones birthday.

We must adhere to the Holy Tradition of our Holy Orthodox Christian Church and teach our children to appreciate it. Secular society has always interfered with our Christian faith and makes every possible way to undermine it and to marginalize it. We must never allow anything or anyone to impose their secular views on us and our families. Our Christian identity must be protected and kept authentic and true.

Young Christians, and young people in general, need good role models to emulate but, unfortunately, there are not very many around. Many of the young men and women today seek to imitate, as role models, people with questionable morality and ethics, from either Hollywood or the entertainment world in general. For the Orthodox Christian young men and women who are seeking to find role models, they need not look far at all, they only need, to look within their Church to find them. There are countless, young Christian men and women, who lived virtues lives, and who were martyred for the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They need to learn who their patron Saint is, and to imitate his/her holy and virtues lives. It is also very important that they have the icon of their Saint and know when the Church commemorates him/her. The tradition has been to attend the Divine Liturgy on his/her feast-day and to be prepared spiritually to receive Holy Communion on that day.

It is wrong, for an Orthodox Christian, to dismiss or disregard, holy traditions and practices of our Holy Church.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,

The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George