Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Embrace of God
Wendy was 12, Rick was 9, Joel was 6 and Karleen was
2. They were all from one family whose parents had been away from
the Church for several years. Now Mom and Dad were returning and
the four children were being baptized at the same time.
The whole family had spent several months preparing
for their return and for the celebration, which took place at
the parish Sunday Eucharist. The homily which preceded the ritual
emphasized the seriousness of Baptism and that it calls us to
live the faith that we profess in the rite.
As the baptismal rite began, the family and their
sponsors gathered around the font, and the presider addressed
the children. "You and your parents and sponsors have spent a
long time preparing for this day. Is it your desire to be baptized?"
As the three older children responded with an affinnative answer,
2-year-old Karleen shouted, "NO!"
There was an audible community chuckle at the little
one's spontaneity, followed quickly by a visible sense of seriousness.
The youngster's response carried more import than
might be initially thought. Children have an uncanny way of cutting
quickly to the essence of theology. Although moments later Karleen
changed her response to "Yes," her "No" serves to remind us that
Baptism is, after all, not to be taken lightly. In a sense Karleen
was saying, "Wait a minute, this is serious business, I gotta
think about it!" In so doing, she made everyone else think a second
A lifelong journey
Baptism is a serious stepa step
we spend much time getting ready for. We get new clothes, we get
a candle to light the way, water to help us grow, oil for strength,
even companions for the journey. But that is only the beginning
of a much longer journey, a lifetime journey of commitment and discipleship.
Our journey begins with an invitation, a call from God through the
Christian community to live the gospel as committed disciples of
Christ. When we accept the invitation, that call and response are
ritualized and made visual and "real" for us in the celebration
In the Church of the first three centuries
adult Baptism was the norm. Those who were interested in Christianity
were invited to join the Christian community on a journey of faith.
Those who accepted the invitation became candidates for the sacraments
of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist). The candidates
were called catechumens and entered into a step-by-step process
toward full membership in the Church. This process was called the
catechumenate. Joining the Church in the early centuries was no
easy matter. The baptismal commitment was not to be taken lightly.
The entire Church would pray for and
with the catechumens, instructing them in gospel values, sharing
with them the faith life of the Church and celebrating the stages
of their faith journey with special rituals of welcoming and belonging.
A person's coming to faithor conversion to Christianitywas
looked upon as a community responsibility.
The final Lent before the initiation
was a special time for catechumens. It was like a 40-day retreat
including prayer, fasting and other forms of self-scrutiny as they
prepared to accept the faith and be received in the Church. Lent
started out as the Church's official preparation for Baptism which
was celebrated only once a year at the Easter Vigil. That is why
the Scripture readings for the liturgies of Lent and Easter are
so heavily filled with baptismal allusions.
Unfortunately, this beautiful, community-supported
journey to faith was short-lived. With the conversion of the Emperor
Constantine in 313, joining the Christian Church became fashionable,
the thing to do. The standards of the catechumenate were relaxed,
and people were simply baptized on request.
By the beginning of the fifth century,
the catechumenate process itself had virtually disappeared. The
sacraments of initiation became three separate sacraments celebrated
at separate times. Soon adult Baptisms declined, infant Baptism
became the norm and the process and theology of Christian initiation
of adults as practiced in the early Church became a lost art.
In some instances, infant Baptism became
a routine ritual bordering on magic. It is our firm Catholic belief
that the Sacrament of Baptism expresses the wonderful gift of God
by which we are "made holy," become "children of God" and "temples
of the Holy Spirit." We must take care, however, not to restrict
God's gift to one single moment (the pouring of water) or overlook
that part of the sacrament that is our lifelong response to God's
Broadening our view of Baptism
Baptismand all sacraments, for that matterare
much more than the moment of celebration. They neither begin nor
end with the liturgical ritual. They are celebrations of lived
experiences. They exist before, during and after the celebration.
The ritual of Baptism does not bring God's love into
being as if that love did not exist before the ceremony. Baptism
is the Church's way of celebrating and enacting the embrace of
God who first loved us from the moment of our conception. Baptism
is a ritualization and manifestation of something realof
the outpouring of God's Spirit and of our acceptance of that transforming
love. It remains for us to grow into what we already are: daughters
and sons of God. Baptism celebrates a family's and a community's
experience of that love in the baptized.
There are other life experiencesbirth, death,
washing, growing and so forththat are celebrated in Baptism.
The sacrament is multifaceted, as is revealed in the Scripture
references and the symbols of Baptism. Let's look at these symbols
and the Scripture passages from which they originate.
Water and spirit
Water is the obvious symbol that we associate with
Baptism, representing life, death, cleansing and growth.
It is interesting that our initiation process begins
with water just as the beginning of time portrayed in the very
first pages of Scripture also begins with waterchaotic waters
that are put into order by the Spirit hovering over them. That
life-death meaning of water continues through the pages of Scripture.
Consider, for example, the flood waters of Noah's day and the
saving waters of the Red Sea parted by Moses. Those waters of
the Red Sea, even if they killed the Egyptians, opened the way
for the Israelites to pass from slavery to freedom, and later
crossing one more body of water (the river Jordan) to pass into
the Promised Land.
In the New Testament, then, it is appropriate that
John the Baptizer baptized in the Jordan River, symbolizing that
the baptized were also to leave the slavery of sin for the freedom
of a new Promised Land. Nor is it without significance that Jesus
began his ministerial journey by being baptized in the Jordan,
and that the Spirit was present.
Then there are the references to fruitful, life-giving
waters offered by the prophets. For example, speaking for Yahweh,
Ezekiel announces: "I will sprinkle clean water on you and...give
you a new heart" (see 36:24 ff), and Isaiah promises, "I will
pour out my spirit on your children" (44:3). In the Acts of the
Apostles, we see how the Spirit of Jesus, poured out on the new
Church at Pentecost, brings order and strength (Acts 1 and 2).
Water and Spirit are strong and important symbols
of Baptism. To be baptized is to be plunged into the waters and
to open oneself to the Spirit of Jesus. To be baptized is to have
the Spirit help us make order out of the chaos of the sinful world
into which we are born. To be baptized is to be welcomed into
the Church (the new promised land) and to be nourished there as
we journey with each other and with Jesus in his ministry.
New life, new birth, new light
To be baptized is to be given new birth and new life
(John 3:5). It is interesting to note that some of the early baptismal
fonts had the shape of "a womb," to emphasize the new birth/new
life aspect of the sacrament.
This image is related to the darkness-light theme
that is also associated with Baptism (Hebrews 6:4). In birth we
emerge from the darkness of the womb to the bright light of a
new world. Some early initiation liturgies had the baptismal candidates
first turn to the westwhere the sun sinks into darknessto
renounce Satan, and then turn to the eastthe direction of
dawning lightto accept Christ.
The new life motif of Baptism is intimately associated
with Christ's passion, death and resurrection. In discourses with
his disciples regarding his approaching death, Jesus said, "I
have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!"
(Luke 12:50). When asking James and John if they really knew what
they were requesting by wanting to sit at his side, he asked if
they were ready to share in his death. "Have you the strength...to
be baptized with the baptism I am to be baptized with?" (Mark
10:38). Paul reiterates Jesus' questions when he asks: "Are you
not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized
into his death?...we were buried with him so that, just as Christ
was raised from the dead...we too might live a new life" (Romans
It is not an accident that the baptismal liturgy
of the year is the Easter Vigil, the grand celebration of Christ's
Resurrection. Through Baptism we become an "easter people."
The giving of a candle lighted from the paschal candle helps spell
out this reality. It is also the way that the Church, through
baptismal sponsors who represent the total community, "passes
the torch" of Christian commitment to those being baptized.
Off with the old, on with the new
Baptism ushers us into a new era. We no longer need
be slaves to sin. We put our allegiance with God and good (Romans
6 and Colossians 3:9). To symbolize this old/new theme, the newly
baptized is dressed in a white garment during the ritual of Baptism.
In the early Church, the newly initiated were expected
to wear the white garment and keep it unsoiled for the 50 days
of Easter. Today, in most cases, it has become a symbol that is
present only for the duration of the ritual and then is packed
away with other family memorabilia. Among other things, the white
garment symbolizes the Church's belief that Baptism sets us free
from Original Sin.
But just what is Original Sin? The Church continues
to insist on this doctrine and upon the reality of evil in the
worlda point clearly echoed in our daily newspapers. The
killings, violence, greed and dishonesty we see mirrored in the
media are reminders that all human beings inherit the sinful tendencies
and structures passed on to us by previous generations, beginning
with our first parents.
Part of the beauty of Baptism is its assurance that
through this sacrament we share in Christ's victory over the power
of darkness in the world. Yet, the doctrine of Original Sin does
not eclipse the good news that God's mercy and saving love are
stronger than the power of sineven before the baptismal
waters are poured. In other words, we must be careful not to look
upon unbaptized infants and adults as outside the scope of God's
Tad Guzie comments on similar issues in The Book
of Sacramental Basics (New York: Paulist Press, 1981): "The
doctrine of Original Sin as we have inherited it developed only
gradually. No one will deny the truth about the reality of evil
that it affirms. We are certainly born into an ambiguous world
where the force of sin impinges on us as quickly as the force
of love. And we are certainly born with inner tendencies which,
once they become conscious, show a propensity for selfishness
as much as for self-giving. But in addition to this dimension
of life which the doctrine of Original Sin has rightly recognized,
we also need to be attentive to what it has left unsaid. God loves
us from the first moment of our conception."
Baptism as future-oriented
It has already been said that Baptism
is initiation into the mission and ministry of Christ (1 Peter 2).
Like Christ, baptismal candidates are anointed for this purpose.
They are anointed with the oil of catechumens and the chrism of
Christ's salvation. As such they are strengthened for the lifetime
journey of commitment to discipleship with Christ.
To be a disciple is to be a learner,
a journeyer with others who learn together along the way. Discipleship
is built on the concept of Church as a community of followers who
support one another in sharing the Spirit and mission of Christ
as found in the New Testament. It suggests that life is not a static
condition, but a continual movement toward making real the actions
of Jesus in today's world.
That's what we agree to when we say "Yes"
to Baptism. We publicly acknowledge that we have been chosen, marked
and set on our way. Most of the real business of Baptism comes after
Baptism and babies
All of this is pretty heady stuff, especially
when considered in light of baptizing babies. The largest percentage
of Baptisms in our Church are still infant Baptisms, even though
the process of faith and conversion is essentially an adult experience
and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is now the norm in
the Catholic Church. So what does all of this mean for those infants?
Obviously, infants cannot respond immediately
to the call/response aspect of the sacrament. Nor can an infant
understand the change of allegiance, the putting off of the old
and putting on of the new, the dying and rising, the new life, or
the sharing in the life of Christ. However, the parents of those
infants can understand and live those values and pass them on to
their children. They can also experience the support of the community
in living those ideals, and that is extremely important.
Infant Baptism only makes sense if parents
are true Christian disciples. If they are not, then it makes little
sense to initiate their children into a Church which calls for a
commitment to living the mission of Christ.
The Rite of Baptism for Children emphasizes
the importance of faithfulness on the part of parents when it says
to parents: In asking to have your children baptized, "you are accepting
the responsibility of training them in the practice of the faith."
That word practice is crucial; it calls for Christian modeling
on the part of parents.
Considering the future orientation of
Baptism and the fact that we are marked for a lifelong journey of
discipleship, it is important that parents be strong role models
and lead the way. It is equally important that the children's sponsors
(godparents) do the same. They are significant supporters of parents
and the ones who can first begin to reveal to their godchildren
the value of the Christian community.
Children learn to be Christian by osmosis,
by experiencing Christianity at home. The "domestic church"
prepares children for the local and world Church. It is in the home,
in the domestic church, that children first learn basic trust which
is the foundation of faith. Without the experience of faith, hope
and commitment in the home, children will not be able to know and
understand the larger Church.
Vatican II's Declaration on Christian
Education points this out quite emphatically: "Since parents
have given children life, they are bound by the most serious obligation
to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the
primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important
that only with difficulty can it be supplied when it is lacking....It
is particularly in the Christian family...that children should be
taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according
to the faith received in Baptism, to worship him and to love their
Baptism and the Christian community
Sacraments can only be spoken of in relational
terms. The new sacramental rites repeatedly speak of how the sacraments
effect a deeper "relationship" or greater "conformity" with Christ
and with the Church.
Baptism happens not only to the individual,
but also to Christ's body, the Church. That's why the rite insists
that we celebrate Baptism in the Christian assembly, with the community
present and actively participating. It is the community, after all,
who is welcoming the new members, journeying with them, providing
models for them, supporting and nourishing them.
Baptism begins with God's love and care
revealed to us through Christ. It continues with us, the Church,
living and enacting God's love and care through Christ to the world.
That's a serious commitment.
Karleen reminded us of this when she
shouted "No" to the idea of taking the Sacrament of Baptism too
lightly. Perhaps her "No" can lead us to a fuller "Yes" in responding
to the challenges of this sacrament.