We enter the church through the water of baptism. Water, as such, has a washing, cleansing and life-giving properties, so it is naturally used in the world of religion. For example, in Japan, people undergoing spiritual training will pray and meditate under waterfalls, even in the harshest of weather. In Judaism there is a rite similar to baptism called Tevilah, a purification ritual which involves immersion in water, which is used for the baptism of converts and for other things. One difference from Christian baptism is that Tevilah can be repeated while Christian baptism can be done only once.On a certain level we can see baptism as an initiation ritual. On a natural level again, when we enter a new group (e.g., a new school, the army, a club) there is often some ceremony of welcoming the new member of the group. From that point of view, baptism is the ceremony of welcome into the church.
Another major purpose of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. These days baptism is usually administered to children so the idea of baptism for the forgiveness of sins may seem odd. However, baptismal texts go back to the earliest days of the church when most candidates for baptism were adults, so that the forgiveness of sins was seen as one of the key functions of baptism. Because baptism can only be administered once, people in the early church often postponed baptism until late in life.
Another aspect of baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Christ was in the grave for three days, in baptism we go down into the waters of baptism three times. Just as Christ rose to new life after three days, we are reborn after rising from the water. As St. Paul writes in Romans 6:3-5:
“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. “
On a historical note, the original meaning of the Greek word baptism means immersion into water, so this is the preferred method for Orthodox baptism, although baptism by pouring is also practiced.
In the New Testament, the first reference to baptism is the ministry of John the Baptist. St. John’s baptism was for forgiveness of sin and did not grant eternal life. As St. John himself says comparing his baptism to that which would be given later by Jesus Christ.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt 3:11)
The baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John is the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. Christ did not need to be baptized but he allowed Himself to be baptized to show his solidarity with the whole human race. Also, by undergoing baptism Christ gave an example of what human beings will need to do to be saved. Finally, by going down into the depths of the water, Jesus purified all waters. In the Bible and in pagan writings, it is thought the sea monsters, or dragons, lurked in the water. This view came about because water has death-giving as well as life-giving properties.
Of course, for us Orthodox baptism is immediately followed by Chrismation, the anointing with chrism, which is a special kind of oil. This combination of baptism with water and anointment with chrism is often see as “illumination”. In other words, those who were in the darkness of sin and death are brought to the light of eternal life.
Finally we can say that the mission of the church is to fulfill Christ’s command given at the end of St. Mathew’s Gospel:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Mt 28:19)