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Immersed in God’s Love: Our Sacraments of Initiation
By Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.
Baptism is our entry into God’s plan for the world. Confirmation and Eucharist open the door wider.

Q U I C K S C A N

Going Into the Water
Hearing God's Voice
We Become Changed
Christian Initiation
Evolution of Separate Rituals
Evolving Sacraments


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 River.

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 behind.

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 creation.

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, Preface I).

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.”

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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 itself.

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 exchange.

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 up changed.

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 Christian life.

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 and Eucharist.

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.

—P.M.

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 dry off.

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 divinized.

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 from Baptism/Confirmation/Eucharist 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 original blessing!

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 tongue.

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 (presbyters).

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 anointing (Confirmation) 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 from Baptism.

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 Baptism.

That is how we arrived at the separation into three sacraments: Baptism, followed by Confirmation and then Eucharist.

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 Holy Eucharist.

Father Richstatter’s text is also the April 2009 Catholic Update, “Sacraments of Initiation: God’s ‘I Love You.’”

 

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., earned a doctorate in sacramental theology from Institut Catholique of Paris and serves on the faculty of St. Meinrad School of Theology. He is a popular writer and speaker at parish and diocesan gatherings.


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