Indeed, this ritual is conducted just before the Sacrament of Baptism, in the order known as “prayers at the making of a catechumen”.
The order of the making of a catechumen – as laid out in the Euchologion (also known as the Book of Needs) – includes the following steps to be completed before the prayer: “The Priest divests the candidate that is to be illuminated of robes and shoes. Then breathing thrice on his/her face and signing him/her thrice on the forehead and breast says:…”
What is the meaning of all this? Today, the prayers at the making of a catechumen are said before the baptism, but it was very different at the church of the old times, when the order was performed before the Baptism, and in many cases the two events could be months or even years apart.
The prayers at the making of a catechumen were said by a priest (or bishop) as a blessing to his/her enlistment as a candidate to be baptised and accepted into the fold of the Church upon completion of a catechetical school, or a course of basic religious education. For adults, the rite of the making of a catechumen was comparable to admission to a seminary or religious school leading to the equivalent of the award of the certificate of readiness for baptism.
The Handbook of a Priest provides the following description of the process:
“In the early Church, an adult who was willing to take baptism was brought before a local bishop by his presumed godparents (referees). They were members of the Christian community who were prepared to vouchsafe for the seriousness of the candidate’s intentions and the sincerity of his conversion. Once these assurances were received, the Bishop entered the candidate’s name on the list of catechumens. After completion of the learning about the faith, the catechumen will untie the belt, divest himself of his robes and shoes and stand with his bare feet on a piece of haircloth spread on the floor. The baptismal candidate will lower his hands as a symbol of breaking from from the slavery to the father of lies. Facing eastward represents our expectation that of the open gates of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled after their fall from grace, for the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden (Genesis 2:8). The priest breathes thrice on the face of the baptismal candidate, as reference that the Lord God made man out of the dust of the earth, and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7).
Having breathed thrice on the baptismal candidate’s face (in honour of the Holy Trinity), the priest makes a seal of the cross three times and lays his hand on the baptismal candidate’s head. Here, it is appropriate to note that the laying of the hand symbolises the taking of the baptismal candidate from the darkness by the Lord, Who places him under His protection. As aptly explained in the Handbook of a Priest, “… a deadly battle is approaching with the forces of darkness for the soul of that person.”
The same idea is expressed in the prayer said by the priest after laying his hand on the head of the catechumen. In it, the priest asks the Lord to safe-keep him under the shelter of His wings, to cast from him the old deception, to inscribe him in His book of life and to unite him to the flock of His inheritance, i.e. with His Church by the Sacrament of Baptism.
This sheds light on the importance and the deep meaning of the Sacrament of Baptism and the rites pertaining to it. The catechumen is grasped from the kingdom of sin and from the darkness. A battle has begun for the salvation of his soul, and it continues after the baptism. There is no room for complacency. We cannot afford to stand by, we must work towards our own salvation, with the Lord’s help, lest we fall back into the darkness that we had left behind, which will be the greater evil. The Lord will bring us to account for our disregard and carelessness towards the Sacrament of baptism. He will ask is if we had benefited and built upon this great gift, or if we have buried it under a pile of worldly dust.
The sacrament of baptism is a great gift and an invaluable resource for attaining the Kingdom of Heaven. It is up to us to follow the path of our Salvation by staying with the Church. We are challenged to walk away from the darkness, and into an infinite and divine light, towards the Lord, ready to embrace and welcome all of us like a loving father.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds