“It is very significant indeed that virutally all controversies concerning the ‘form’ of Baptism-immersion versus spinkling, baptismal formula, et.c- were centered almost exclusively on the issue of validity and not on that of the meaning or essence. Even those, for example, who defend-and rightly so-immersion as the proper form of Baptism and denounce sprinkling as ‘heresy,’ do this on purely formal grounds: sprinkling is a deviation from the practice of the early Church, considered as an ultimate authority and norm of validity. Yet the position of those who favor and defend ‘sprinkling’ stems in fact fromt he same type of reasoning [the church permitted it in extreme circumstances]…The question of essence or meaning is not raised here because both factions, in fact, agree on it and also agree that it does not depend on the question of ‘form.’
The real tradegy is that by applying the dichotomy of ‘form’ and ‘essence’ to the sacraments, and by reducing the notion of ‘form’ to that of ‘validity,’ this new sacramental theology ultimately altered and deeply impoverished the notion of ‘essence’ itself. There was apparently nothing new in defining this essence as grace, a very scriptural and traditional term indeed, which the early Church also frequently used in the explanation of the sacrments.
In reality, however, this term acquired new connotations and a kind of ‘self sufficiency’ which it did not have before; and it acquired them precisely because of its identification with ‘essence’ as distinct from the ‘form.’ In the early Church grace meant above all that very victory over all dicohotmies-‘form’ and ‘essence,’ ‘spirit’ and ‘matter,’ ‘sign’ and ‘reality’-which is made manifest in the sacrament and indeed, in the whole life of the Church and which ultimately is the victory of Christ Himself, in whom and by whom the very ‘forms’ of this world can truely be, truely communicate, truely fulfill that which they ‘represent’: the epiphany, in ‘this world’ of the Kingdom of God and of its ‘new life.’ Thus the grace of Baptism was this very event: a man dying and rising again ‘in the likeness’ and ‘after the pattern’ of Christ’s Death and Resurrection; it was the gift to him not of ‘something’ resulting from these events, but of that unique and totally new possibility: truely to die with Christ, turely to rise again with Him so that he may ‘walk in the newnewss of life.’
And because all this is grace [the ritual-event itself], the early Church-while constantly proclaiming it and referring the whole of her life to it-never felt the need to explain grace ‘in itself’ as something that exists, that can be known, defined and even measured apart from these very ‘epiphanies’ whose unique meaning and purpose was to trasncend and to heal all ‘borkeness,’ all dichotomies,’ and thus truely unite the human to the divine in the ‘newnewss of life.”
Gradually, however, this understanding of grace began to change. Once the distinction between ‘form’ and ‘essence-between the sacrament as ‘means of grace’ and grace itself-came to be accepted as natural and self evident, the ‘essence’ ceased to be understood as the very fulfillment and the actualization of the ‘means,’ the visibility’ of the invisible. It began to be construed, defined and analyzed as an ‘essence-in-itself,’ as something given and received through all kinds of ‘means of grace’ yet distinct from each of them. The Christian West, where this whole approach originated and deeloped, brought it to its logical conclusion: as is well known it ended up by defining grace as a created substance, thus distinct from both God and the world, although aimed at guranteeing orderly communications between them.
One can understand now why this new ‘systematic theology’ virtually abandoned the explanation of Baptism in terms of death and resurrection, so ‘self evident’ in the early tradition. For the whole point is that in this new approach there is, so to speak, no interest in either death or resurrection…This grace, as the ‘grace’ of all sacraments, may be the fruit of Christ’s sacraficial Death and Resurrection, the communication to man of their saving power and virtue; but it is not itself an event which can and must be termed, not symbolically, not allegorically, but essentially death and resurrection.”
Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, pp. 56-59