For most of us, a baptism or a christening is the first religious rite we undergo and the first major ceremony in a child’s life. We tend to use the two terms interchangeably to describe the ceremony that takes place at the font of the church: a priest wets the baby’s head and inducts the child into the Christian community. But when you are planning your child's big day, it's important to know why are there two different terms in common use, and are they actually the same thing?
There are subtle differences between the two ceremonies. Baptism is a much broader term derived from an ancient Greek word meaning ‘immersion’ and it’s a ceremony with origins dating back long before the birth of Christianity. It describes the ritual use of water for purification purposes.
In modern Christianity, baptism is defined as a sacrament marked by the ritual use of water to admit the recipient into the Christian community. It’s common to almost every branch of Christianity and, though the practice varies between them, it usually involves invoking the trinity. Most denominations believe an individual should only be baptised once and, as a consequence, they’re generally happy to accept each other’s different word forms as valid.
Who Can Confer Baptism?
It’s usually the duty of an ordained priest to baptise an individual, however it’s one of very few religious rites that can be given by any person in extremis, such as the imminent death of the recipient. The words common to all traditions, ‘I baptise you…’ and ‘…in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, are required to be said along with the application of water. It’s invalid to substitute any other liquid.
The method of application of the water varies between churches as well. Sometimes the recipient is fully submerged in water, whilst in other churches it’s simply sprinkled over the head. Usually it’s required to run across the flesh to symbolically purge the individual of their prior sins.
The act of baptism is a submission of the recipient to God. This is a deliberate act of identification with Jesus Christ and an admission to a relationship with Him that requires constant Christian nurture through church attendance and prayer.
How Does Christening Differ?
The ceremony of christening is much more recent in origin and can make for a more elaborate ceremony. The word itself is English in origin and means ‘to bring to Christ’. The practice itself isn’t well defined, with its first use being recorded as recently as the 14th century. Essentially, christening takes the ancient tradition of baptism and combines it with the naming ceremony of the child. So whilst baptism can be conferred at any age, christening is usually reserved for newborn babies and occasionally young children. However in most jurisdictions, child naming is now recorded as a civil procedure so christening has little meaning beyond baptism other than the purely symbolic. It's also common practice to give gifts at a Christening to commemorate the event.