The practice of baptism was a common rite of initiation
in many religious expressions in the ancient Mediterranean world.
From the time of Jesus, Christianity also expressed through
water baptism freedom from sin, union with Jesus Christ and
all other baptized persons, our participation in the salvific
death and resurrection of Jesus and our new life in the Spirit.
St. Paul, the first great theologian of baptism,
expressed its meaning in terms of a break with the old and beginning
of new life in Christ. He understood well the reality of the
relationship that baptism establishes between us and God and
his Son Jesus. The New Testament provides the basis and focal
point for the Church—s understanding of baptism.
Baptism in the Gospels
Jesus— own baptism, to which all four Gospels make
reference (John less directly than the other three), provides
a starting point for any serious study of the sacrament.
Contrary to some writers— opinions, Jesus— baptism
was not simply an affirmation of his messiahship, but rather
a proclamation of his relationship as Son to the Father. In
the baptismal scene in the Gospel of Mark, for example, God
speaks directly to Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with
you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). In Matthew, the voice addresses
the crowd: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well
pleased" (Matthew 3:17). In Luke, again the voice is directed
to Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased"
Here we find the basis for the meaning of baptism
as the ritual in which one becomes a child of God. Just as Jesus
is God—s Son, so also the baptized person is a daughter or son
of God and is called by God to take on the family resemblance
in living and loving as Jesus did.
In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist witnesses
to Jesus— identity as God—s Son: "And I myself have seen and
have testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:34). His
sonship is affirmed by the Spirit who rests on him (John 1:32).
John the Baptist proclaims him to be the "Lamb of God" who destroys
the world—s sin through his death and resurrection. John thus
affirms that the action of choosing is of God. St. Paul speaks
of God—s choosing us before the foundation of the world (Ephesians
1:4). Hence baptism is not our choice or our achievement but
an election by God.
The role of the Spirit in baptism is attested by
all three Synoptic Gospels. The Spirit is the greatest gift
of Jesus in baptism. John declares, "I have baptized you with
water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8;
see also Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16).
Two passages concerning the waters of baptism stand
out in the Gospel according to John. The first is a statement
by Jesus to Nicodemus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter
the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit"
(John 3:5). The other is the story of the man born blind in
John 9:1-41. Jesus tells the man to go and wash in the pool
of Siloam, and the evangelist tells us that "Siloam" means "the
one sent." In other words, the blind man is to wash himself
in the person of Jesus who was sent by the Father.
Baptism in Acts
Acts of the Apostles adds to our understanding of
baptism with references to belief in Jesus, which is the heart
and basis for baptism. Paul—s account of his conversion in Acts
is a good example.
Ananias says to Paul, "Brother Saul, regain your
sight!" Paul tells us, "In that very hour I regained my sight
and saw him. Then he said, —The God of our ancestors has chosen
you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his
own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what
you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be
baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name—"
Thus Acts of the Apostles associates baptism with
the Holy Spirit and his gifts of salvation, belief in Jesus
and God, preaching the Good News and repentance of sin. Clearly,
both in the Gospels and in Acts, baptism is never simply a private
matter. Baptism is always between Jesus and the person baptized,
but at the same time, it is an act of the Church with Jesus
as its center.
Baptism in Paul
In Paul—s letters, we find a more developed theological
understanding of baptism, even though it is generally agreed
that Paul—s letters preceded the writing of the Gospels. However,
the sources used by the evangelists concerning the baptism of
Jesus predate Paul—s letters and hence would reflect an earlier
understanding on which Paul himself built.
Paul speaks of the transformation through the power
of the Spirit that occurs in baptism: "And this is what some
of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified,
you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and
in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). Thus Paul emphasizes
the dignity to which a person rises in baptism: "Or do you not
know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
which you have from God, and that you are not your own?" (1
Corinthians 6:19). Baptism, therefore, raises the person to
a dignity that God will never deny; once a chosen child of God,
one always remains God—s dearly loved child.
St. Paul tells us that the baptized person is one
with the Lord: "But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit
with him" (1 Corinthians 6:17). So intimate is this union with
the risen Lord, Paul says, that "if we have been united with
him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him
in a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:5). The Greek word for
"united," symphytos, is a horticulture word that means
"grafted." In other words, Paul is saying that like a grafted
shoot, the baptized person is so closely united with Christ
that he or she derives life from Jesus Christ himself. Thus
baptism marks the end of the power of sin for the baptized,
so that the believer lives a new kind of life for God in Christ,
to whom he or she is intimately united. Baptism communicates
to the believer the life-giving power of the risen Lord.
That union with Christ, however, is not individualistic
but rather a corporate one, for the Christian is one with all
other believers: "[L]ead a life worthy of the calling to which
you have been called, ... making every effort to maintain the
unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body
and one Spirit, ... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God
and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:1-4).
Paul states that in baptism, "[I]f you belong to
Christ, then you are Abraham—s offspring, heirs according to
the promise" (Galatians 3:29). By the waters of baptism, the
Christian enters into the fullness of salvation history. Merely
by belonging to Christ, one becomes an heir of the promises
made to Abraham. "[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of
God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew
or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer
male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians
That which happened to Christ in his death and resurrection
is transferred to the believer in baptism: "Do you not know
that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were
baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with
him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised
from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk
in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4).
The Waters of Baptism
Water as a symbol of baptism is rich and meaningful.
Water refreshes, cleanses and gives life. Many adults remember
that as children receiving religious instruction, the emphasis
in the study of baptism was on the removal of original sin.
A frequently asked question was, "How can God punish
me for something I did not do?" When speaking of original sin,
we are not referring to personal fault but rather to an inclination
to evil, a deprivation of holiness and likeness to our Creator.
This deprived condition, which we call original sin, is the
result of Adam and Eve's loss of their gift of holiness and
friendship with God. Like their first parents, all human beings
share this loss and are subject to suffering, death and ignorance.
Christ, however, conquered the power of Satan by
his death and resurrection. St. Paul says, "Just as one man's
trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness
leads to justification and life for all" (Romans 5:18).
In baptism, we are reoriented toward God; the life
of grace overcomes the power of evil and enables the baptized
to believe in God and to engage, under the power of the Holy
Spirit, in the struggle against Satan and the power of death.
Water also has the power to take away life. In baptism,
the person dies to all that is not of Christ and rises to new
life with him: "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism
into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness
of life" (Romans 6:4).
Baptism and the Church
Out of God—s revealed word, the Church has developed
a theology of baptism that takes into account the lived experience
of the Church throughout its history, its liturgical life and
its theological developments.
The notion of baptism as a sacrament dates back
to the early centuries of Christianity. The word "sacrament"
is borrowed from the Latin, sacramentum, which in Roman
times referred to an initiation rite in which soldiers promised
their fidelity to their commander. In teaching Gentiles, the
Church used the word sacramentum to explain the rite
of Christian initiation in which the initiates would commit
themselves to the service of God. When Christianity supplanted
polytheism in the empire, the Roman sense was dropped, and the
word was expanded to any symbol that represented one—s relationship
By the fifth century, St. Augustine referred to
a sacramentum as anything that was "a sign of a sacred reality."
By the twelfth century, the word was restricted to the seven
rituals of the Church which Catholics refer to as the seven
In the first century, however, the word "baptism"
was not specifically a Christian designation for a sacrament.
The ancient mystery religions made use of initiation rites which
had similarities to Jewish and Christian baptisms. Hebrews 6:1-2
speaks of "baptisms" that were practiced by the Jews before
the resurrection of Jesus. These baptisms were largely purification
rites. By the second century A.D., these Jewish rituals had
developed into initiatory rites for proselytes and included
instruction, circumcision and water baths. They were initiatory
rites that made Gentiles Jews by purifying them from their state
of uncleanness and admitting them into the covenant life of
Judaism, which in turn was culminated by the offering of sacrifice.
The Church—s baptismal tradition has shaped the
rite as we know it in the Catholic Church today. From the Church—s
expression of corporate faith in the early Church, through conversion
and a ritual that was aimed at sustaining one in the faith in
the face of persecution and death, to its present ritual form,
baptism continues to unite the baptized individual with Christ
and his body, the Church.
Next: Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus (by Jerome