A Single Liturgical Celebration of the Rite of Initiation

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The necessary condition for one’s membership in the Church is what people commonly called baptism.  In the Orthodox tradition, baptism or rite of initiation is a single rite that consists of a three-fold structure: baptism-chrismation-Eucharist.  The history of the baptismal rite shows clearly that this three-fold structure of initiation forms a unity that is not intended to be separated.  An official statement on the Lima document in 1984 affirmed this three-fold structure, “For the Orthodox, the conferring of baptism, chrismation and Eucharist takes place in a single liturgical celebration, whether for adults or infants.”[i]  The Bari Statement in 1987 (nos. 37-51) stressed this inseparable unity of the rite and attested the doctrinal significance as interpreted by the common fathers in the East and West. [ii]   The Order of the Baptismal Liturgy published by Moscow Patriarchate in 2000 unified Baptism and Chrismation within the context of the Eucharistic liturgy. It was in fact not an innovation but an effort to revive what it is supposed to be. [iii]  “The pattern of administration of the sacraments which developed very early in the Church reveals how the Church understood the various stages of initiation as accomplishing, theologically and liturgically, incorporation into Christ by entering into the Church and growing in Him through communion in his Body and his Blood in this Church.” (The Bari Statement, no.39)

Baptism (baptism-chrismation-Eucharist) communes with the saving energies of the Trinity, which acts in and through the Church.  There is no Church without Christ.  Christ never acts alone but manifests the will of the Father through the Spirit.  God the Father creates and acts to redeem through the Son in the Spirit.  The one who baptizes is the indivisible Trinity.  Baptism took place at night, near dawn of the feast of Pascha in the early Church, to symbolize a passage from the power of darkness to the kingdom of light.  This rite of passage integrates neophytes into the life, death and resurrection of Christ and His Church.  The summoned people of God are given birth in the mystery of Christ.  Christian initiation reaches its culmination in the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, and is a sacrament of the church that bears witness to conversion and faith whereby one enters into a new community.  It, of course, best occurs in the Eucharistic assembly, its natural context.  The PRESENCE OF THE ASSEMBLY IS SIGNIFICANT because the rite is not about a celebration of a family event.  One enters the rank of royal priesthood and becomes the summoned people of God together with all of the Body of Christ. Eucharist, therefore, IMMEDIATELY following baptism and chrismation reflects its fulfillment and its reality of being laos/the people of God.  The rite, itself a distinctive ecclesial language, communicates the contents and reality of this new identity of becoming christs through Christ.  Christ’s identity cannot be realized outside this unity of the three-fold structure.  The rite of initiation is salvation as passage, a beginning of transformation by an ongoing salvific act of the Trinity. 

It is desirable that the neophytes should receive communion during liturgy, not from the reserved sacrament.  But when it takes place outside liturgy (though less desirable), the pre-sanctified gifts are always given to the neophytes.  The rubrics of the priest’s service book clearly states that communion is given to the neophytes after baptism and chrismation.  There is no theological ground to delay the giving of communion to the neophytes.  It is inconceivable how neophytes after baptism and chrismation should wait for a time lapse, such as another day or night or even longer period, to receive their first communion.  This practice of delaying giving of communion is hardly understood as ‘a single liturgical celebration’ as claimed in the official position, nor as reflected in the theological understanding of this rite of passage.  The placing of Baptism in the Eucharistic context of the feast of Pascha in the early church stressed that initiation is the beginning of the movement toward the eschaton; the Eucharist is the fulfillment of this entire Paschal mystery. To delay the giving of communion from the rite of initiation obscures the orthodox understanding of this entrance as fulfillment of what we become; as eschatological foretaste through the Eucharistic ascension.  Without ascending to heaven, without fulfilling herself as the Body of Christ, how the Church sacrament serves the ecclesial mission in this world for a heavenly kingdom not of this world?

John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon, commented on this ‘pastoral issue’ in a truthful manner:

“It is an unfortunate development which has been established in the Orthodox Church itself to offer the Holy Eucharist to the newly baptized individual outside the Eucharistic assembly.  This, of course, has been the only possible solution once baptism and confirmation were separated from the Eucharistic liturgy, since the other alternative would be even worse, namely to postpone the first Holy Communion until the first Eucharistic liturgy after Baptism, thus dividing the unity of the three, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist...”[iv]

The Eucharist/communion in the rite of initiation is NOT a “detachable appendix.” What we discuss here does not refer to emergency cases in which chrism and pre-sanctified gifts (or reserved sacraments) may not be available.  There are canonical guidelines to deal with emergency baptism/clinical baptism. Baptism seldom takes place in an ad hoc fashion.  (If so, this creates another pastoral problem.)   This is a rite that always requires preparation such as catechism, penitence and fasting beforehand.  Preparation assists catechumens in the transitional stage relating their new identity of being new members of the Body of Christ.  Penitence is the ‘meta-nous’ which is the key to open the door for entering in the kingdom of God.  The rite itself orients the neophytes to live a new life in Christ.  “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have been clothed in Christ, Alleluia,” a hymn repeated three or more times as the neophytes and their sponsors go around the font.  It is a procession that manifests their new identity and mission.  Ritual moment is a synecdoche that anagogizes every other moments of this new life in Christ.

To understand this inseparable unity of baptism carries significant weight in the mission lands where often only one or a few Orthodox parishes are found.   For the local people, practices seen there become their first icons of understanding the sacraments of the Orthodox Church. Liturgy serves sacraments, which were the immediate origins of doctrine.  Baptism is certainly the context for theology.[v] Right worship is at the core of orthodoxy because it establishes the way of belief.  If parochial practices in the mission land do not teach the church sacraments by example, the heritage of the orthodoxy is unavoidably reduced. The faithful and catechumen inevitably get confused.   This will certainly create difficulty in mission and in handing the orthodox tradition on to the next generation.

by Christy Ma


[i] Eastern Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation (USA), “An Agreed Statement on the Lima Document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, 1984,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 29 (1984), 283-288, here at 284.

[ii] The Joint international Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, “Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church,1987,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 34(1989), 149-174.

[iii] Cf. Mark M. Morozowich, “Liturgical Changes in Russia and the Christian East? A Case Study: The Mysteries (Sacraments) of Initiation with the Eucharistic Liturgy,” Worship, 83(2009), 30-47.

[iv] John Zizioulas, “Some Reflections on Baptism, confirmation and Eucharist,” Sobornost, 5 (1969), 644-652, here at 650.

[v] John Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, (London & New York: T &T Clark, 2010), 1-5.

ChristyMa-2-2Christy Ma is a member of St. Luke Orthodox Cathedral, Hong Kong. She holds graduate degrees [M. Div. and Th. M.] from the China Graduate School of Theology, Hong Kong and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Boston. She completed her M.A. at University of Notre Dame.