PHOTO BY KAREN CALLAWAY, NORTHWEST INDIANA CATHOLIC
I WISH I KNEW more about the
life of Jesus of Nazareth. I have
studied the four Gospels, but they
tell me only about the last years
of his life. What did he do those
first 30 years?
Since I don’t know what went on
during those early years, I guess I can let
my imagination fill in the blank spots.
I see Jesus getting up each morning
and going off to work in the carpenter
shop known as Joseph and Son, Inc.
I picture Jesus and his dad making
piano benches and TV cabinets (or
whatever carpenters did in those days).
Then, one day, some rich folk down by
Jericho order a dinette set. Jesus is delivering
their table and chairs when he
comes upon John baptizing at the Jordan
Jesus sets down the table and chairs
and listens to John preach. Then Jesus
goes into the water. He hears a voice
telling him that he is loved and he
comes up changed.
As far as I know, he never went back
to the carpenter shop. And some rich
family in Jericho is still waiting for
their table and chairs.
I hope you will forgive this fanciful
account. I tell it in order to illustrate the
pattern for our Christian Sacraments
of Initiation: First, we go down into
the water. Second, we hear the voice
that we are loved. Then we come up
changed, and something gets left
Let’s explore this model or pattern.
Going Into the Water
We frequently go into the water and
wash off by taking a shower or a bath.
But Baptism is different from these
ordinary washings. Baptism is a sacrament—something we see through.
Recently, I had my picture taken for
our parish directory. I thought my sister
might like the 8” x 10” they gave
me. Thus, I bought a nice picture frame
and inserted the photo in it. But I
couldn’t see the picture very well
behind the glass.
Then I realized that there was a protective
coating on the glass that needed
to be removed so that you could see
through the glass to view the photo.
Otherwise, my sight rested on the surface
of the glass.
Sacraments are something like that:
They help us see through to the important
part. Baptism is like the glass in the
picture frame. Faith enables us to
remove that protective coating so that
we can see through the water bath—the
symbol—and get to the important
part—the spiritual reality.
Baptism is not just a bath; it is a
birth into a whole new realm of possibilities—God’s possibilities.
All of creation is an expression of
the Divine Artist. The love that is God’s
inner Trinitarian life spills over into
We see this most clearly in God’s
masterpiece, Jesus, who is “the reflection
of God’s glory and the exact
imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews
1:3, all quotes are NRSV).
If sacraments are something like that
glass in the picture frame, which we
look through to see the deeper reality,
there is no more perfect sacrament than
Jesus himself. Jesus “is the image of
the invisible God, the firstborn of all
creation” (Colossians 1:15).
In Jesus “we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the
God we cannot see” (Mass of Christmas,
Baptism is our entry—our birth—into God’s plan for the world. We go
down into the water, we put on Christ
and we are taken up into the mystery
that is God’s inner life of Trinitarian
love—a love which burns away all guilt;
a love which heals all shame. We are
Christ-ened, we are divinized (theosis).
And we hear the Voice: “You are my
child! I love you.”
At Baptism we hear the voice of God
assuring us of our deepest reality: We
are beloved of God. At Baptism, as with
all the sacraments, the ritual expresses
a moment that extends beyond the ritual
The Sacrament of Marriage is a good
example. Those of you who are married
heard the voices of your spouses during
the sacrament telling you that they
loved you, and would love you and
honor you all the days of their lives. But
that ritual moment was not (I hope) the
first time any of you heard that voice
say “I love you!” Hopefully, there were
many “I love you” moments leading up
to the sacrament and many more following
the wedding ritual.
Similarly, the Sacrament of Baptism
for adults is preceded by a period of
preparation (the catechumenate) during
which the members of the Christian
community help candidates prepare
to hear the voice, to realize in an ever
more profound way that they are
beloved by God. That is why the Sacred
Scriptures—the story of God’s love for
us—play the central role in this preparation.
After Baptism, we continue to hear
the voice again and again throughout
our Christian lives. We hear this voice
of love primarily through the Christian
community, assuring us that we are
beloved with a love that cancels out all
feelings of shame or insufficiency and
empowers us for mission. The community
is essential to being Christian.
Jesus, at his baptism, went down into
the water, heard the voice and came
up changed. I wonder if we would know
anything about Jesus (or even care, for
that matter) if he didn’t come up
changed. What if he simply came up out
of the Jordan, delivered the table and
chairs, and then went home to the carpenter
shop and continued life as usual?
But that didn’t happen: Jesus came
up from the water changed.
And that has to happen to us also:
We have to come up changed. Otherwise,
there is no point. We go into the
baptismal pool as carpenters, teachers,
mothers, bankers, nurses, clerks, etc.
And we come up lovers! Whatever our
vocation in life before Baptism, afterward
we are lovers, proclaiming the
God who is Love itself.
The voice we hear at Baptism is a
special kind of communication. It is
not merely information; it is a symbolic
I’ll use weather as an example. Before
leaving on a trip, I can call up a weather
report on my computer so I know
whether I need to take my coat or an
umbrella. This is simply information; it
requires no particular response.
But if you meet me in the corridor
and say, “Good morning,” you will feel
hurt or snubbed if I hear the greeting
and simply pass by without any
acknowledgment. You were not giving
me a weather report. Rather, your greeting
was symbolic communication and
it demanded a response.
God’s baptismal “I love you” is just
such symbolic communication. It
demands a response. We must come
And something gets left behind.
Maybe it’s not a table and chairs. But it
might be prejudice, egoism, greed or
selfishness. Once you hear the voice
you will begin to see what it is that
you will have to leave behind.
We go into the water (sacrament,
liturgy, worship); we hear the voice
(Word; Sacred Scripture); and we come
up changed (mission, ethics). In this
pattern we find worship, Sacred Scripture
and ethics, the three pillars of
If you have seen adults (or children of
catechetical age) baptized at the Easter
Vigil, you know that Baptism (the water
bath) is part of a larger ritual process.
The candidate goes into the water (Baptism),
is anointed with oil (Confirmation)
and is welcomed into table
fellowship (Eucharist). Christian initiation
comprises three Sacraments: Baptism,
Confirmation and Eucharist.
Our celebration uses water and invokes God the Father, Son and Holy
Spirit, reflecting the command, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all
nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy gives directions about the
revision of each sacramental rite (#59-78) and calls for a revision of the
rite of Baptism used for adults and a new rite for infants. The rite for infant
Baptism now emphasizes the roles and duties of parents and godparents.
The rite for Confirmation reflects that sacrament’s connection to Baptism
In the United States, the revised rite for the Baptism of children has
been used since 1969—and the rite for the Baptism of adults since 1986.
For adults, the Easter Vigil is the preferred time for Baptism. We are used
to Baptisms during Sunday Mass.
The Confirmation rite has been used since 1971. U.S. dioceses normally
celebrate this sacrament for candidates between the ages of seven and
17. Many Eastern Catholic Churches continue the older custom of celebrating
Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist together.
Bishops’ conferences handle all translations of liturgical rites into local
languages and make local adaptations as permitted.
The New Testament frequently speaks of table companionship as initiation
into the company of Jesus.
Indeed, one of the images for the culmination
of the Mystery—God’s plan
for creation—is the image of a great
banquet where all are seated at table
with the Trinity. “Many will come from
east and west and will eat with
Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the
kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).
Our sacramental rituals for those
Churches that follow the liturgical customs
of Rome were influenced by the
cultural context of the Mediterranean
countries in which they evolved. In
the first and second centuries, after
bathing, Romans would rub their bodies
with oil (to moisturize the skin) and
Likewise, when we are invited to go
out and dine with others, we probably
wash up, dry off, get dressed and then
go to dinner.
In our sacramental system, the bath
of Baptism is followed by the oil of
Confirmation. Anointed with the Holy
Spirit and clothed in Christ, we are
invited to the eucharistic table.
At that table, we not only hear the
voice that we are loved, we experience
communion with God. We feast on the
divine flesh and are thus ourselves
We who eat and drink the Body and
Blood of Christ are taken up into that
Body and we become Christ’s Body.
The divine food does not merely
empower us to imitate Christ; it enables
us to live in Christ.
These rituals, as I have just described
them, were not my experience and
probably not your experience either. I
was baptized as an infant. (I might have
heard the voice at Baptism, but it was
probably drowned out by my own voice
crying!) I received First Holy Communion
as I began grade school. Years
later, I was confirmed.
How did the Roman Church move
in one ritual ceremony to three separate
rituals: Baptism, First Holy Communion
and then, later, Confirmation?
The complex history of this change in
ritual practice occupies a large part of
the graduate course I teach on the Sacraments
of Initiation. If you are willing to
accept a three-minute-history-of-the-world
with all the simplifications that
would entail, here is what happened.
In the early days of Christianity,
infants began to be baptized along with
their parents, who were being sacramentally
initiated into the community.
(Remember that one of the
insights into the water bath was that
this bath washed away all sin.)
Theologians asked, “If Baptism
washes away sin, how is it possible to
baptize an infant who is not able to
commit sin?” Good question!
St. Augustine and others responded
by explaining that, while the infant
could not commit any personal sins, by
the very fact that he or she was biologically
a descendent of Adam and Eve,
the infant inherited their sin, Original
Sin. Baptism washes away that sin and
that is why it is possible to baptize
infants. Good answer!
I don’t know what it is, but something
in us often makes negative things more intriguing than positive things.
For example, I bet you can name more
ill-nesses than well-nesses! Similarly, I
bet you have heard a lot more about
Original Sin than about original grace or
As the theological discussion began
to focus more and more on Original
Sin, Original Sin moved from the reason
why infants can be baptized to the
reason why infants must be baptized.
Parents are instructed to have their
babies baptized as soon as possible.
But still, initiation remained one,
unified process: The infant was baptized,
anointed and received the
Eucharist. Sometimes, the infant would
spit out the host. Thus, the custom
began to not give the host to an infant.
Instead, the infant was given only the
Precious Blood, by placing a few drops
of the consecrated wine on the child’s
Then in the fourth and fifth centuries,
Europe experienced a ministry
crisis: There were not enough bishops.
Christian communities were led by an
overseer (bishop) who was assisted in
his ministry of catechesis and education,
administration, care of the sick
and social outreach by ministers (deacons)
and by a “parish council” of elders
Various solutions to this problem
were tried. Finally, in those churches
that followed the liturgical customs of
Rome, it was decided that in the rural
areas (daughter parishes), one of the
presbyters would be authorized to preside
at the Eucharist and was also
authorized to receive new members
into the community. But the post-baptismal
was to be reserved for the bishop.
This was the beginning of separating
the washing up and the drying off, as
well as the source of our thinking about
Confirmation as a sacrament separate
During the 11th and 12th centuries,
when Communion from the cup began
to be denied to the laity, it seemed
strange that only priests and infants
received Holy Communion with the
Blood of Christ. Thus, infants stopped
receiving Holy Communion at their
That is how we arrived at the separation
into three sacraments: Baptism,
followed by Confirmation and then
When Pope Pius X lowered the age
for First Holy Communion from early
adulthood to the age of reason (interpreted
to mean about six years of age),
children began receiving the Eucharist
before they were confirmed. Thus, the
order changed to Baptism, followed by
Eucharist and then Confirmation.
When thinking of the meaning of
these sacraments, it is best to look to
unified liturgies presented today in the
Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:
Those who wish to join the Christian
community go into the water and hear
the voice, are anointed by the Holy
Spirit and are changed forever in the
Father Richstatter’s text is also the
April 2009 Catholic Update, “Sacraments
of Initiation: God’s ‘I Love