Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


On Immersion in Baptism

Ecclesia Anglicana asked for opinions on full immersion. I posted a bit reply (don't know if anyone replied to it, as the comments don't seem to be working at the moment), but thought that I would take up the subject here (particularly since I haven't posted much lately: 'real life' being something of a hindrance for blogging I'm afraid). I am quite in favour of full immersion in baptism, for several reasons. I suppose one of them must be growing up seeing and experiencing baptism in that form. Now, I do not of course follow the idea that baptism, to be valid, must be full immersion. However, I do think that the best and fullest form is in immersion, and that it is in all probability the Apostolic practise (in most cases- other forms probably being used on occasion; cf the Didache)

My first and primary reason for supporting immersion is the language of the Scriptures in dealing with baptism. Allow me to quote a few passages: "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, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:3-4). "Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." (Colossians 2:12) "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:27) The theme of the first two passages hinges especially upon burial: burial into the death of Christ, so that we, dying to sin and the old man, might rise up in Christ. Now, in burial one is obviously laid down- not only that, but it is also covered over- for most of us with a coffin and then soil, though for the Lord it was the stone above Him. Burial is a disapearance, a covering over, a testament to the seeming finality of death. We, however, are buried, and, leaving the old behind us, buried, we break the pattern of death and burial and add to it the third element of baptism: resurrection. Christ does not remain buried. Neither do we- as we rise from the baptismal waters we rise with Christ.

Now, I think that immersion carries this particular meaning of baptism to its fullest. We are buried into the baptismal waters, so to speak, just as we are being buried into the death of Christ. We rise up out of the 'grave' of the water, out of the chaos of the water (harkening back to the opening words of Genesis, in which God called forth land and order from the waters), into the life of Christ. Sprinkling or pouring does not capture the full import and significance of what is going on here. Now, one may argue, baptism is no mere symbol or pedagogical device. I would, of course, heartily agree. However, even though baptism is not merely symbolical, it is still a symbol, in the ancient manner envisioned by the Fathers. It is also a liturgical action- not a private ceremony concerning a handful of people. Indeed, it is a liturgical action with the cosmos as its scope, as Alexander Schmemann brings out in For the Life of the World (and to which I am indebted for this idea!). In immersion, the action done by baptism is conveyed strongly to everyone watching. It allows for a greater symetry of the meaning and reality of the sacrament with the visible sign.

Also, before I advance to some Patristic arguments for immersion, there is the third verse I quoted, Galatians 3:27, where St. Paul uses a sort of clothing imagery: we put Christ on in baptism. The reasoning here is similar to that of burial: putting something on usually involves the whole body; and putting Christ on certainly involves the whole of our being! So it would make sense that baptism be done with immersion, showing that as the person is baptized, he is being clothed fully- in his entire person- with Christ.

The Fathers tend to have an understanding of baptism that assumes immersion (almost always Triune immersion) as the most common form. As an example, here is a selection from St. Basil the Great, in his little treatise On the Holy Spirit: "How can we accomplish this descent into death? By imitating the burial of Christ through baptism. The bodies of those being baptized are buried in the water. Thus baptism signifies the putting off of the works of the flesh, as the Apostle says..." "This great sign of baptism is fulfilled in three immersions, with three invocations, so that the image of death might be completely formed, and the newly baptized might have their souls enlightened with divine knowledge." Notice that St. Basil, while emphasising the reality worked in baptism, also brings up the symbolism within it: he may speak of signs while not divorcing them from the reality.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, in his Catechetical Lectures, "After these things, ye were led to the holy pool of Divine Baptism, as Christ was carried from the Cross to the Sepulchre which is before our eyes And each of you was asked, whether he believed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and ye made that saving confession, and descended three times into the water, and ascended again; here also hinting by a symbol at the three days burial of Christ. For as our Saviour passed three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so you also in your first ascent out of the water, represented the first day of Christ in the earth, and by your descent, the night; for as he who is in the night, no longer sees, but he who is in the day, remains in the light, so in the descent, as in the night, ye saw nothing, but in ascending again ye were as in the day. And at the self-same moment ye were both dying and being born; and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother." Again, St. Cyril draws us to the symbolism of baptism, while maintaining that the reality is also present in the sign.

This is a common argument among the Fathers, and I daresay that it is St. Paul's line of reasoning as well in Romans 6. Baptism is often called a type or sign; but it is also a type indivisible from the reality. Since baptism is a type and sign as well as the reality, it makes sense that the symbol follow, as closely as possible, the reality being given.

Now, in closing, I agree that other forms of baptism have certain merits as far as their symbolism goes. Sprinkling and pouring both carry the idea of cleansing as well as the pouring out of the Spirit in baptism. However, I think that immersion conveys the 'heart', if you will, of baptism's reality: union with Christ in His Passion, Burial, and Glorious Resurrection, a reality that embraces, in the fullest way, the fullness of our being.