Rev. Dr. Thomas Poovathanikunnel


Syriac tradition does not use the designation ‘the sacrament of initiation’, but calls them ‘the mystery of regeneration from water and Spirit’. Syriac theology and practice were influenced by Jewish practice and thought of their rite of initiation. Baptism is one unit of the celebration of the mystery of regeneration from water and Spirit.

In Syriac tradition cross signifies the whole salvation and salvific plan. In baptism the divine/Trinitarian life is communicated to us. It cleanses from sin, brings about renewal, effects rebirth, incorporated into the Church, makes us children of God, and causes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the baptized. Syriac Fathers do not explain these realities of faith speculatively and rationally, but in the light of Old Testament typology, images, figure and similes. Up to the fifth century there is common Syriac tradition and after that there is a distinction of West Syrian and East Syrian traditions.

Mystery of Regeneration: Beginning with Aphraates the earliest Syriac Fathers/writers describe baptism in terms of ‘circumcision’. Main elements in the baptism are anointing with olive oil, immersion, Holy Communion. From the end of the fourth century anointing with holy chrism was added in some places, it was not a separate mystery (sacrament). So, from the original Oriental perspective, designating the sacrament of baptism as ‘sacraments of Christian initiation’ is improper and incorrect.

Rite of baptism: Early Syriac Church had a general pattern as the following: Introduction by the Sponsor; inscription of the name of the baptizandi; exorcism; Apotaxis (renunciation of Satan, turning to west); Syntaxis (adherence to Christ turning to East); profession of faith (turning to east); pre-baptismal anointing; consecration of the baptismal water; immersion (all documents); post-baptismal anointing (only from the end of the 4th c); putting on white garments (clothing; attested by the earliest documents); crowning; communion (attested by all, except one/two early documents).

The anointing with oil and baptism are inseparably linked and the main aspects of the theology of baptism are expressed through them. Oil for Ephrem is a symbol of Christ. The olive (meshaha) with all its abundance signifies Christ who gives life to all. In the East water in many biblical stories is seen as image of baptism. The Gospel according to the preaching of St. John points out that Jesus has referred to the Holy Spirit as water.

Narsai writes that the ‘live coal’ is in the water; Jordan is set in flames at Jesus’ baptism. Turning to the west exorcism is done to renounce Satan (apotaxis) and turning to the East, acceptance of Jesus Christ is done (syntaxix). Ephrem notices that the newly baptized are crowned to signify their new dignity as priests and as those who are filled with the glory of God. It signifies the priestly, royal and prophetic investiture of the baptized. The communion that follows baptism signifies the direct access of the newly baptized to the tree of life.

Aphrahat the Sage in his Demonstationes[i] sheds light upon the doctrine and liturgy of the Christianity, pronouncedly Semitic in character

1. Baptism

According to Aphrahat Jesus has ‘revealed” the baptism at the time of his own baptism in the Jordan. The formal institution of the baptism is on the occasion of Christ washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper (Ambrose also explain in this way). ”Our redeemer washed the feet of his disciples on the night of the paschal sacrifice, [which is] the mystery of baptism”.[ii] Mar Ephrem presented foot washing in Jn 13, 4-17, as a precedent for the washing (anointing ) of the sick, which remits the sin after baptism.[iii] As the paschal event was an event of redemption for the Israel, baptism is an event of redemption of the new Israel. “On that night he showed them the mystery of the baptism of the passion of this death, as the apostle said, “you were buried with him in baptism unto death, and you rose with him by the power of God.” (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2, 12)” He continues “So know, my beloved, that the baptism of John does not effect the forgiveness of sins but only penitence”. In Baptism we become clothed with the Spirit of Christ.[iv]

The celebration of the mysteries of Regeneration: The general order of the celebration is the anointing, the blessing of the baptismal waters and the act of baptism followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. Solemn celebration of the Mysteries of regeneration was a part of the celebration the Pasch. Baptism preceded the celebration of the Eucharist, as the washing of the feet preceded the Last Supper. He writes, “There must be fasting and prayer and the singing of psalms and the giving of the sign (rušmā) and baptism according to its due observance; the blessings of consecration (Eucharist) in their own time and whatever is customarily carried out.[v]

Requirements for the Celebration: Faith in our Lord and circumcision of the heart are the requirements for the celebration of the mysteries of regeneration. He writes: “Joshua (Jesus) our redeemer a second time circumcised the peoples who believed in him with the circumcision of the heart, and they were baptized and circumcised with the knife which is his word that is sharper than two-edged sword”.[vi]

1.1 Theological Implications

1) The anointing: After the preparatory prayers there is an anointing which is followed by the proper baptism. No ceremonies or special implication of this anointing is given. But the use of the word rušmā that denotes the pre-baptismal anointing is fully congruent with other early Syriac testimonies. Interpreting the Prayer of Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28, 18) he says that the pre-baptismal anointing prefigures Jacob’s pouring of oil over the stone.[vii] That means Christians are anointed to be set apart from non-believers, and this was a sign of deliverance from the wrath to come. He used the term rušmā for 1) an anointing of the head with the invocation of the Blessed Trinity or as the whole baptismal celebration;[viii] 2) a signing of cross given to the candidates for baptism at some time before their immersion[ix]; 3) concept of anointing added to the notion rušmā (signum).[x]

2) The Baptism of Water: The priest invokes the Spirit over the water and consecrates it. The two main effects of this consecration are: 1) the descent of the Spirit into the font; 2) the transformation of the font into a womb producing children of the second birth. Those who are baptized in it are “clothed in it” means put on the Spirit of Christ as they come out from the water.

3) Sign of Life and the new birth to the eternal life: Baptism is a sign of life. We begin to live the real life through baptism. “To live”, according to Aphrahat, means “to be saved”. Salvation is identified in the Syriac usage with hayya (life). Therefore when he calls baptism the sign of life he also implies that it is a life of grace, eternal life which is salvation.

Aphrahat refers to baptism as a “second birth” and as a “new birth” by water.[xi] This new birth is spiritual and distinguished from the natural birth of man, and it makes one eligible for the resurrection to the eternal life.

4) Baptism the true circumcision of Heart: Aphrahat sees the fulfilment of the first circumcision of the Old Testament (which was a sealing and a sign for Abraham’s descendants) in the baptism of New Testament He sees baptism as prefigured in the crossing of the Jordan. As Israel enters to the Promised Land through the crossing of the Jordan, the candidate for baptism, by passing through the baptismal font, the figurative Jordan enters the land of life and become the inheritor with Abraham.[xii] Comparing baptism with the crossing Red Sea he shows the deliverance of the baptized soul from the world of sin. It typifies the power of baptism to free the souls of the neophytes from their subjection to the Devil and his world of sin[xiii].

5) Mystery of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord: Baptism is the baptism of the passion, death and resurrection of our saviour (Cf. Rom 6, 3-11; Col 2, 12). Being buried together with Christ into death and arising by the operation of God means simply a descent into the baptismal water sanctified by Christ, a dying to sin, and  an emergence to a new life of grace, which is the result of the remission of sins.[xiv]

2. Eucharist

There is ample evidence that according to Demonstrations baptismal rite was immediately followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. Eucharist is presented as the Christian Passover. Eucharist is presented as the sign of the paschal sacrifice in truth.[xv] The Old Passover is fulfilled in the Eucharist. Jesus is the true paschal lamb and the Eucharist is the true paschal meal. He writes: “whoever eats his body and drinks his blood is reckoned with the dead”.[xvi] Through this paschal sacrifice we were redeemed from the slavery of Satan and from the works of destruction which we were doing. Eucharist is prefigured in the Old Testament Manna. Through the body of Christ our sins are forgiven and we become the temple of Holy Spirit. This paschal lamb is entrusted to the church.[xvii]

3. Role of Holy Spirit in the mysteries

The bestowal of the Holy Spirit is the basic and fundamental effect of mysteries of regeneration. Holy Spirit is the cause of all the effects of the life of the Christian. Aphrahat distinguished two spirits in the Christian: 1) the spirit with which human being is born and is common to all human persons. He calls it as the “animal spirit”. This is known as the human soul, the principle of all natural life in human beings. 2) The spirit which we receive from baptism. This is “heavenly spirit”. It is also called the “Spirit”, the “Spirit of Christ and the “Holy Spirit”.

Aphrahat speaks of Mother-Spirit as a hovering or brooding mother bird. As in the creation, the Spirit of the Lord hovers over the baptismal water. The Spirit descends upon the waters of the baptismal font at epiclesis, and communicates to the waters of baptism the powers of sanctification and the capability of begetting the children of God. The Spirit provides the soul with the whole armour of God against the evil. The Spirit guards the baptized and assures a glorious resurrection. However, if they grieve the Spirit, he will depart from their soul. When one’s heart inclines towards the thought of this world, one may know that the Spirit is not with him. For the on-going presence of the Spirit the Christian should honour the spirit and keep himself in purity.[xviii] If they repent and keep themselves in prayer, the Spirit will return to their soul.

4 Effects of the mysteries

1. Remission of the sins: Holy Spirit effects the remission of sins. Prophecy of Isaiah, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:18) is fulfilled the mysteries of Initiation’’.[xix]

2. Beginning of New Life: Mysteries of Initiation provides entry to a new life, which effect in the human soul regeneration, a second birth. “And they who shall be changed shall put on the form of that heavenly Adam and shall become spiritual. And those who shall not be changed shall continue in the created nature of Adam, namely dust; and shall continue in their nature in the earth below.[xx]

3. The bestowal of the Holy Spirit and the putting on Christ: He writes: “But in the second birth, that through baptism, they received the Holy Spirit from a particle of the Godhead, and it is not again subject to death”.[xxi] “They have put on Christ as the best of garments, which they preserve from all uncleanness“.[xxii]

4. Enter into the Church and Partake in the Eucharist: Mysteries of Initiation incorporates the celebrants into the church of Christ and allow them to partake in the Eucharist.[xxiii] Membership in the church is an immediate external effect of baptism conferring upon the faithful the right to receive the body and blood of Christ.


Mysteries of Initiation is an event of emergence from the world of sin, entrance into true life, the life of grace in the church of God. He compares the baptized to dogs: “the dog is the most faithful of all animals, keeping watch for its master day and night. So are those strenuous ones who are separated at the water: they are ready to die for their master: keep watch for Him day and night, and bark when they meditate in His law.[xxiv]  Baptized are called to love and serve their master, in his church. He writes, “After he (the Christian) circumcises his heart from evil deeds, then he progresses to baptism, the fulfilment of the true circumcision, is joined with the people of God and added to the body and the blood of the Messiah.”[xxv]

[i] Wrote 23 Demonstrations arranged according to the letters of the Syriac alphabet. All of them were written within the years 336-345.

[ii] Demonstationes, 12.10

[iii] HVirg 46, 17-18

[iv] Demonstationes, 12.10, 6.14.

[v] Demonstationes, 12 13.

[vi] Demonstationes, 11,12.

[vii] Demontationes, 4, 5.

[viii] Demontationes, 23, 63

[ix] Demontationes, 12, 13.

[x] Demontationes, 23, 13.

[xi] Demontationes, 4, 14.

[xii] Demontationes, 11, 11-12.

[xiii] Demontationes, 12, 10.

[xiv] Demontationes, 12, 10.

[xv] Demontationes, 12, 6 on the Pasch

[xvi] Demontationes, 12, 6.

[xvii] Demontationes, 12, 9.

[xviii] Demontationes, 6, 18.

[xix] Demontationes, 4, 18.

[xx] Demontationes, 4, 18.

[xxi] Demontationes, 6, 14.

[xxii] Demontationes, 9, 4.

[xxiii] Demontationes, 12, 9.

[xxiv] Demontationes, 7, 21.

[xxv] Demontationes, 12, 9.

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