THE SACRAMENT OF BAPTISM INTRODUCTION
To be baptized is to be immersed in Christ's death, to be buried with Christ, to be risen with Christ to new life. From this sacramental fact or experience we derive all our Christian glory: we are washed clean from original sin and all personal sins, we are marked with the ownership of Christ by a brand or indelible seal, filled with divine life, enhanced with supernatural gifts, reborn children of God, and made members of Christ's mystical body.
"I tell you truly that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain of wheat; but if it dies, it brings a good harvest." By the paschal mystery of death and resurrection Christ made an end of the deserved condemnation to everlasting death brought by Adam upon his seed, and simultaneously raised up to new life His own posterity, heirs according to the promise. By the paschal sacrament of baptism our own death and resurrection with Christ is signified and effected in sacramental mystery.
We are born anew in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit. Cognizant of this truth the Church has always looked upon Easter as the
ideal time to illustrate it and to actualize it. In fact, there is a rubric (no. 41) in the rite for adult baptism, to the effect that the solemn administration of the sacrament to adults ought, if convenient, to be reserved to this time. For at Easter the newly consecrated fountain of living water becomes the tomb into which a man descends in death and burial with Christ, so as to rise through Him and with Him to the new life of a son of God. "Have you forgotten that all of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were, by that very action, sharing in His death? We are dead and buried with Him in baptism, so that just as He was raised from the dead by that splendid revelation of the Father's power so we too might rise to life on a new plane altogether."
Again and again in the Gospel our Lord speaks of the necessity of dying in a moral sense, of losing one's life in order to save it. But here St. Paul speaks of baptism as a mystical dying of the old man through participation in the death of Christ, in order to become a new creation through a mystical participation in His resurrection. This Pauline conception, in all its profundity, is truly fundamental to a worthy understanding of the essence of baptism. Through the archetypal sacrament of incarnation the human race as a whole is already taken up into the mystic Christ in a general way, owing to the fact that the Son of God has united the human nature which is common to us all with His own divine nature. Yet by a positive decree of the God-man, each individual man must normally be incorporated in Christ's Church by water and the Holy Spirit. Before a new life can begin the old life must die. Before the Savior's human body would become glorified and immortal, it would first submit to death and burial. As the head, so the members. The waters of baptism must swallow us up so that we can be planted in His death. This was very clearly demonstrated for many centuries by the ancient way of administering baptism by immersion and by the way the baptismal font was constructed. The font being sunk below the floor level of the baptistery, the candidate had to make a descent into it as into a tomb; and the complete immersion of the body in the water clearly signified death and burial, for water is not only life-giving but also death-dealing.
The passion of Christ destroyed sin. Because we are buried in the waters of baptism, we participate in His passion, and thus sin is destroyed in us. The resurrection of Christ meant new and glorious life for Him and for all men, since all are summed up in Him. Because we come forth from the waters of baptism, we participate likewise in His resurrection, and thus His new and glorious life becomes ours.
In commenting on the words of Christ to His disciples, "Now you are clean by reason of the word which I have spoken to you," St. Augustine says: "The word cleanses also by means of water. Take away the word, and what else is the water but simply water. Yet let the word be added to the element and it becomes a sacrament and thus also a visible word." How water is the element for the first sacrament of the New Law, the first sacrament of initiation into the mystical body, was typified in the Old Law by the Deluge and also by the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea. This latter account from the Book of Exodus was sung during the Easter vigil in Africa, and commented on by Augustine in a sermon preached on Easter eve, as well as in another sermon devoted to the exegesis of the Old Testament.
In his writings against the Pelagians and also in a number of his sermons, Augustine likes to use one of his favorite expressions: "massa perditionis," the mass of perdition, that is, the accursed and condemned mass of men, by which phrase he likens all humanity to a huge invalid stretched helpless over the entire face of the earth. God in His goodness has taken pity on this invalid, this broken mass, and has chosen a number of the elect whom He has formed into a new mass, which is the mystical body. Baptism is the means of entering into this new mass, the Church of Christ. Our Lord's holiness is our holiness, giving us new life, new strength. This we receive through baptism in the death of Christ. Augustine says: "All that happened on the cross, at His burial, in His resurrection on the third day, in His ascent into heaven, and when He took His place at the right hand of the Father, all happened in such a way as to prefigure...the Christian life that we are leading today." In ourselves we are many, in Christ we are one, one Son, one Shepherd. "What is the Church? She is the body of Christ. Join to it the head, and you have one man.... And what is His body? It is His spouse, namely, the Church." So close is this union that through it we become Christ. "Let us rejoice and give thanks, for not only are we become Christians, but we are become Christ. My brethren, do you understand the grace of God that is given us?"
Such, in the infinite mercy of God, is the new life bestowed by His Son in the Easter mystery. Because of our solidarity with Christ, we share
also in His priesthood. We owe much to Augustine for his development of the doctrine of the universal priesthood of Christians. He placed the origin of this priesthood in baptism, as symbolized by the post- baptismal anointing on the crown of the head. To have a share in Christ's redemptive work is also to have a share in His high-priestly dignity and power. In explaining the words of the Apocalypse, "They shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with Him a thousand years," he wrote: "This is not spoken of bishops and priests alone, who are properly called priests in the Church. But since all are called the anointed on account of the mystic chrism, so all are called priests, because they are members of the one Priest."
The metaphor of light applied to Christ who is the Light of the world and the Sun of Justice, applied also to Christians who are the enlightened, and applied to grace which is the light of the soul, is found frequently in the New Testament. The fathers of the Church made generous use of this metaphor, likening the descent of Jesus into hell to the setting of the sun and His resurrection to the rising sun. Christ, then, is the great light appearing to the baptized, the true sun which enlightens the new children of the Church with its life and warmth. With this metaphor in mind, Augustine explains to the newly baptized on Easter eve that baptism is also an illumination of the soul:
These newborn infants, whom you see outwardly clothed in robes of white, have been made clean inwardly, and they who were heretofore darkness, immured in the black night of their sins, are now resplendent in soul, as their spotless apparel signifies. Now that they have been purified in the laver of forgiveness, washed in the fountain of wisdom, and suffused with the light of justice, it is fitting that we sing, "This is the day which the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice therein."
The passage from death to life is understood by the Church as a profound mystery of light. To us who were buried in darkness and immured in the shadows of death a light has flashed forth from heaven, purer than the sun. All who fall under its rays are filled with its divine life.
One of Augustine's longest Easter sermons is devoted to the Song of Songs, which sings the theme of Christ's marriage with His bride, the Church. The symbolic application of this scriptural passage to the sacrament of baptism is often dwelt on by the fathers, in particular by Cyril of Jerusalem and even more at length by St. Ambrose. Baptism is the mystery of the soul's marriage with its divine Bridegroom, for the soul must first be washed clean before she can be clothed in her bridal raiment, preparatory to sitting down to the wedding banquet of the Eucharist at the side of her Spouse, preparatory to being led into the nuptial bower by the Spouse. From the custom prevailing in the Orient and in Africa as well of taking a bath before the nuptial festivities, the Christians of old were quick to see the analogy. Cyril of Jerusalem takes the words of the Sulamite woman in the Song of Songs, "I have put off my garment; how shall I put it on?" and refers them to the ancient rite of laying aside one's old garment before entering the baptismal font, and putting on the white tunic on coming forth from the saving waters. Whoever has put off his old garment in baptism, that is, the old man of sin, may not be clothed thereafter in the vesture of the onetime sinful man, but must wear the white robe of grace in which he has been vested for his mystical marriage with Christ, and which resembles the raiment white as snow of the risen Savior.
If we accept the wisdom of the fathers, as they understood realistically St. Paul's inspired thinking, baptism, and the other sacraments for that matter, will cease to be regarded as some kind of purification and sanctification merely of the present moment. Rather it will be appreciated in all its might and splendor as the mystery of Christ which associates the subject with the incarnation and redemption, transforming and glorifying him in the stream of divine life which he has entered as a new member of the primal sacrament: Christ and His Church. As the external rite of baptizing readily demonstrates: baptism implants the person in Christ's death and resurrection and thus effects incorporation (the water and the Trinitarian invocation), it fills him with the Holy Spirit and anoints and consecrates for participation in the priesthood of Christ (anointing with chrism), it envelops him in Christ's glory and immortality (clothing with white garment), it plants the seed of everlasting transfiguration and illumination (presenting of lighted candle). All this is the objective fact of baptism and the work of God.
Before God's action can take place, however, the Church, as the spouse of Christ, must concur in the divine work, and the candidate for baptism must be predisposed, as reasonable and willing clay, to be fashioned by the hand of Christ and His Church as a new communicant in the body of the faithful. We have mentioned above, in the introduction to the sacraments, that the disposition of faith and will are supplied by the Church in the case of children. But when it is a question of a responsible adult, preparation of intellect and will is a necessary preliminary. "What do you ask of the Church of God? Faith.... Will you be baptized? I will." In order to understand the rite of administering baptism, one must be aware that the rite as it now stands is a composite of prayers and ceremonies originally performed in successive steps over a long period of time. The first contact with Jesus Christ is a psychological one--by faith; and faith must inevitably lead up to the sacrament prescribed for complete assimilation in Him: "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved." Faith comes from hearing. "For Moses said: 'A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you of your brethren, like to me. Him you shall hear according to all things whatsoever He shall speak to you. And it shall be, that every soul which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.'" And it is the Church who is empowered and enjoined by its prophet, Christ, to unfold to men the gospel narration, the perfect revelation of the Almighty by means of the incarnation, with the ensuing obligations imposed on us.
The work of salvation is from first to last the work of God, who by a loving gift of grace moves man to seek Him, supplies the grace of coming to faith, and leads him to the portals of holy Mother Church to receive from her the full and true faith which leads to life everlasting. Yet it is now left to the one God has chosen whether he accept the Gospel with his mind and with his heart: "If then you will inherit life, keep the commandments: love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depends the whole law and the prophets. And faith demands that you worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the Persons nor making a distinction in their nature. For the Father is a distinct Person; and so is the Son; and so is the Holy Spirit. Yet the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit possess one Godhead, co-equal glory, co-eternal majesty." For although the sacraments as instruments of God are His objective operation, they are ever the respecter of the subject's dignity as a person and of his personal responsibility. Then, only after he makes the assent of faith and turns in repentance from sin to embrace the commandments, will the sacrament elevate him to union with God. During the period of preparation, when grace is illuminating the intellect to see Christ's revelation in a favorable light and is inclining the will to surrender to its attraction, the Church stands by both as mystagogue to explain the mystery of Christian initiation and as sanctifier to come to the assistance of the candidate by administering efficacious sacramentals. Along with her preaching or catechizing, she lifts up her voice in manifold supplications to God for the sake of her chosen one; she performs her exorcisms to drive afar Satan with his apostate legions; signs the bodily senses with the power of the holy cross; conserves and nourishes with the blessed salt; opens the ears to hear the good news of the Christian Gospel and looses the tongue to proclaim its glorious salvation; imparts strength and litheness through anointing with oil of catechumens. It would require much space to do justice to these richly symbolic and impressive ceremonies; moreover, they must be considered in their historical setting before any attempt at an adequate exposition can be achieved. Yet we perceive, in this cursory reference to the preparatory acts which precede baptism, that even here the work of Christ and His Church is primary--man's part secondary.
Immediately following baptism of an adult, it is the wish of the Church (rubric no. 52) that confirmation be conferred on him, provided a bishop is present who may lawfully do so, and that the Eucharist be offered and holy communion received by the neophyte. The interchange of life--Christ in us and we in Him--established through baptism is strengthened and perfected by further reception of the other sacraments, above all by the Eucharist. The one baptized is like a newborn babe of God crying out for the perfection of the Holy Spirit's indwelling with His gifts, which confirmation confers in complement to the divine work already initiated. But the newborn of God still hungers for the supersubstantial food--he desires to be nourished with the body and blood of Jesus. And when this longing for the Eucharist is sated, then perfect incorporation in the mystic Christ has been accomplished and the symbol of Calvary has been made actual for him--he has entered into the paschal mystery by water and by blood. --Translator
1. Jn 12.24.
2. Rom 6.3-5.
3. Jn 15.3.
4. "Tractatus in Joan." 80.3.
5. "Sermon 363.2" (ML 39.1635).
6. "Enchiridion" 53 (ML 40.257)
7. "Sermon" 45 (ML 38.265).
8. "Trac. in Joan." 21 (ML 35.1568). 9. Apoc 20.6.
10. "De civitate Dei" 20, CSEL 40.455.
11. "Sermon" 223 (ML 223)
12. Sermon 138 (ML 183).
13. "De mysteriis" 9.55 f. 14. 5.3.
15. "Catecheses Mystagogicae". 16. Mk 16.16.
17. Acts 3.22-23.
18. Rite for baptism of adults.
19. It used to be the tongue that was touched with spittle, not the nostrils.
SECTION: Holy Baptism - General Rules
Holy Sacraments - General Rules
Rituale Romanum Index