The Sacrament of Baptism
St. Matthew completes his Gospel account with the commissioning of the apostles.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”Matt 28:18-20
Baptism is the sacrament on which all the other sacraments depend. It is first of the Sacraments of initiation; Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
The Gospel writers identify Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his own mission. It is a defining moment for Jesus. We are told that Jesus rises out of the River Jordan and as the Spirit descends from heaven and the voice of God declares Jesus his Son, the beloved. The origin of the Sacrament of Baptism comes directly both from the life of Jesus and the commandment of the risen Christ. Pope Francis asks the baptised in Evangelii Gaudium to live fully this participation in the life and mission of Jesus: In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. (E.G.120)
‘Baptism’ comes from the Greek word for ‘immerse’. At the time when Jesus lived, Jewish ritual purification baths or ‘mikvahs’ were used for ceremonial cleansing. John the Baptist was looking to make ready the people of Israel for a new chapter in their salvation history and in doing so, he preached a radical baptism. By baptising in the river Jordan, where the 12 tribes of Israel had first entered the Promised Land, he was preparing the people of Israel for the coming of the anointed one (Messiah/Christ) who would baptise with the Holy Spirit.
As a consequence of his baptism Jesus both shares our mortality through his baptism and Jesus shares his immortality through our baptism.
Thus, we can see that Christian baptism goes well beyond ritual cleansing and even beyond John’s acknowledgement of the forgiveness of sins; the Christian in baptism participates in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord. Through baptism all sins are washed away, and the individual ‘becomes a new creation’; she/he, is born of the Spirit and becomes part of the body of Christ. Almost all the main Christian denominations recognise and respect this one baptism. Should a person who has already baptised in one tradition wish to be confirmed in a different tradition they would not be baptised again, their baptism stands.
As the first sacrament in the rites of initiation, Baptism invites us to grow in grace acknowledging our place in the family of God, as a child of God. We see ourselves, as part of the body of Christ, as members of an inter-dependent community which transcends time and space. Through baptism we celebrate each other as brothers and sisters, part of the communion of saints. We are one with the saints and martyrs who have gone before us.
An adult prepares for Baptism as a catechumen, one being educated in the Christian faith, usually through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). Baptism is often celebrated as part of the Easter Vigil. Infants have been baptised since the time of the Early Church and the parents make an act of faith and commitment on their child’s behalf. Although it is usual for a bishop, priest or deacon to baptise, in the case of necessity anyone who follows the form of the rite - with the invocation of the Trinity, water and a witness - may officiate.
The rite of Baptism
Gathered at the font, first the water is blessed then we profess our faith together.
Baptism may be full immersion in the water or by the pouring over the head three times. Here the person is joined to Christ who lay in the tomb for three days. Rising from the water they enter into new life in Christ. The baptised person is anointed with the oil of chrism. This anointing with the oil of chrism is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures where it was used to anoint priests, prophets and kings. We then too participate in Christ’s mission to proclaim the good news as priest, prophet and king.
In the 2nd -5th centuries the catechumen would descend three steps into the baptistery and would be plunged three times into the water and then when they ascended three steps they would be presented with a white robe. This white baptismal robe is the origin of the Alb which is still worn by priests today. This reminds us of Jesus in the tomb, of the purity of having put on Christ, washed clean of all our sins.
The baptismal candle reminds us of the hope of the resurrection and that Christ, the light of the world, guides us always.
Extracts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church
1275 Christian initiation is accomplished by three sacraments together: Baptism which is the beginning of new life; Confirmation which is its strengthening; and the Eucharist which nourishes the disciple with Christ's Body and Blood for his transformation in Christ.
1277 Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord's will, it is necessary for salvation, as is the Church herself, which we enter by Baptism.
1278 The essential rite of Baptism consists in immersing the candidate in water or pouring water on his head, while pronouncing the invocation of the Most Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
1279 The fruit of Baptism, or baptismal grace, is a rich reality that includes forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, birth into the new life by which man becomes an adoptive son of the Father, a member of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit. By this very fact the person baptized is incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ, and made a sharer in the priesthood of Christ.
Questions for reflection
1. How does reflecting on our own baptism challenge how we view ourselves as evangelists, sent out to share the good news?
2. We are justified in Christ as a gift, an act of grace. Where in our lives can we identify the fruits of this grace?
3. Have we seen anything anew or grown in our understanding of the sacrament of baptism?