If you have seen adults (and/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), and is anointed with oil (Confirmation), and is welcomed into table fellowship (Eucharist). Christian initiation comprises three Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
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 the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).
What do you do when you are invited out to eat? Probably you 1) wash up, 2) dry off and get dressed, and 3) go to dinner. I’ve offered the following explanation in Catholic Update before (see C0301, “Sacraments of Initiation: Sacraments of Invitation”); I use it here to make my point. Our sacramental rituals for those Churches which 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 to dry off. In our sacramental system 1) the bath of Baptism is followed by 2) the oil of Confirmation. Then, anointed with the Holy Spirit and clothed in Christ, we are invited to 3) 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.
This didn’t happen to me!
The 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 and 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 college course I teach on the Sacraments of Initiation. But, if you are willing to accept a “Three-Minute-History-of-the-World” (with all the simplifications that will 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!
Saint 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 descendant of Adam and Eve, the infant inherited their sin, Original Sin. Baptism washes away that sin. That’s why it is possible to baptize infants! Good answer!
I don’t know why, but there is something in us that often makes negative things more intriguing than positive things. For example, I bet you can name more illnesses than wellnesses! 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. And parents are instructed to have their babies baptized “as soon as possible.”
Initiation, though, at that time, remained one unified process: The infant was baptized, anointed and received the Eucharist. Sometimes, though, the infant would spit out the host, so the custom began to not give the host to infants. Instead, the infant was given only the Precious Blood, by placing a few drops of the consecrated wine onto the child’s tongue.
Then in the fourth and fifth centuries, Europe experienced a ministry crisis. There were not enough bishops. At that time, 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). A shortage of bishops meant a shortage of local leadership.
Various solutions to this problem were tried. Finally, in those Churches which 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. He was also authorized to receive new members into the community. But the post-Baptismal anointing was to be reserved for the bishop. This is 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.
In 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, and so Roman Catholic infants stopped receiving Holy Communion at their Baptism.
That is how we arrived at the separation into three sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and 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) we had children receiving the Eucharist before they were confirmed. The order of sacraments then became Baptism, Eucharist, then Confirmation.
Remember, I said at the beginning that this would be like a “Three-Minute-History-of-the-World!” With a multitude of oversimplifications, in a few paragraphs you have some idea of how the unified process of “washing up, drying off and going to eat” became three sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation.
When thinking of the meaning of these events, 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 first go into the water and hear the voice. Then they are anointed by the Holy Spirit. Finally, they are changed forever in the Holy Eucharist. They go on, then, to live their lives, renewed by the life of the Church, immersed in God’s love.
1) What are the three basic steps of Christian initiation?
2) Why are the sacraments in a different sequence than they were in earlier times?
3) Have you been changed by Baptism? How?