Baptism: To Be Born Again in Water and the Spirit

Our Lord made a covenant with us through baptism in order to give us eternal life. There is in baptism an image both of death and of life, the water being the symbol of death, the Spirit giving the pledge of life. The association of water and the Spirit is explained by the twofold purpose for which baptism was instituted, namely, to destroy the sin in us so that it could never again give birth to death, and to enable us to live by the Spirit and so win the reward of holiness. The water into which the body enters as into a tomb symbolizes death; the Spirit instills into us his life-giving power, awakening our souls from the death of sin to the life that they had in the beginning. This then is what it means to be born again of water and the Spirit: we die in the water, and we come to life again through the Spirit.

To signify this death and to enlighten the baptized by transmitting to them knowledge of God, the great sacrament of baptism is administered by means of a triple immersion and the invocation of each of the three divine Persons. Whatever grace there is in the water comes not from its own nature but from the presence of the Spirit, since baptism is not a cleansing of the body, but a pledge made to God from a clear conscience.

As a preparation for our life after the resurrection, our Lord tells us in the gospel how we should live here and now. He teaches us to be peaceable, long-suffering, undefiled by desire for pleasure, and detached from worldly wealth. In this way we can achieve, by our own free choice, the kind of life that will be natural in the world to come.

Through the Holy Spirit we are restored to paradise, we ascend to the kingdom of heaven, and we are reinstated as adopted sons. Thanks to the Spirit we obtain the right to call God our Father, we become sharers in the grace of Christ, we are called children of light, and we share in everlasting glory. In a word, every blessing is showered upon us, both in this world and in the world to come. As we contemplate them even now, like a reflection in a mirror, it is as though we already possessed the good things our faith tells us that we shall one day enjoy. If this is the pledge, what will the perfection be? If these are the first fruits, what will the full harvest be?

This excerpt on the sacrament of baptism from St. Basil the Great’s book On the Holy Spirit (Cap 15, 35-36: SC 17 bis, 364-370) describes how baptism fulfills what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3 about being born again in water and the Spirit. He also here outlines how baptism was celebrated and understood in the early Church. The reading is used in the Roman Office of Readings for Monday of the fourth week of Easter with the accompanying biblical reading from Revelation 13:1-18. St. Basil, who lived in the fourth century, was one of the greatest of the Early Church Fathers, revered by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians alike.

Basil the Great, St.

Born around 330AD, St. Basil the Great received the best education in pagan and Christian culture available in his day, studying in his native Cappadocia, Constantinople, and Athens. Yet St. Basil’s life changed course decidedly when he forsook a worldly career to embrace the monastic life. He lived a life of prayer and tranquility, far from the turbulence of city life until his bishop, Eusebius, called upon St. Basil in 364 to help defend orthodox Christianity against the Arian emperor, Valens. In 370 Basil was chosen to succeed Eusebius as bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Here he found himself in the thick of the fray between those Orthodox, Catholic Christians who confessed Christ’s full divinity, and the various Arian parties who taught that Jesus was not equal to God the Father. He soon was also engaged in battling those called “Pneumatomachi” (“fighters against the spirit”) who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. Yet he also is famous for his care for the poor, and build a series of hostels and hospitals around Caesarea to relieve their suffering.


St. Basil the Great was one of the most influential of the Greek Fathers of the Church during the “Golden Age of the Fathers” (the 4th and 5th Centuries). St. Basil, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his best friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, are known as “the Cappadocian Fathers” after the region of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) from which they came. His rule for monks set the tone for religious life in the East and his book On the Holy Spirit laid the groundwork for the clarification of the Spirit’s full divinity that was defined by the first Council of Constantinople in 380AD. Together with his friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Basil compiled the “Philocalia,” a selection from the works of Origen which grew to be a spiritual classic of Eastern Christianity. His three “Books Against Eunomius” are also important for their doctrine on Christ’s full divinity. His Monastic Rule forms to this day the basis of virtually all religious life in the Eastern Churches and the liturgy named after him is one of the principal liturgies of the Byzantine tradition. St. Basil the Great died in 379 AD, the year before the First Council of Constantinople finished the Creed we now recite each Sunday.