A precious baby being held by parents and godparents is the sweet image which most likely comes to mind when you think about baptism.
But the true image of baptism is much more radical than that; it is our rebirth as Christians and it opens the gate to all the other sacraments and to faith itself.
Since most Christians are baptized as babies, we tend not to think all that much about this profound reality.
“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1213
“Perhaps because baptism today is such a relatively common thing, we’ve lost sight of how truly remarkable and powerful it really is,” said Dr. Christopher Burgwald, Adult Discipleship and Evangelization director for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
“When someone is baptized – whether as a little baby or an eighty-year old adult or somewhere in between – they truly become a son or daughter of Almighty God. That’s not just an image or a metaphor, that’s the reality. Yes, it may be hidden from our physical eyes, but the truth is, we come to share in God’s own life at the moment of baptism.”
“We truly – truly! – are part of God’s own family at that moment,” he said.
The Catechism further describes the radical nature and action of baptism: “This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to “plunge” or “immerse”; the “plunge” into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as “a new creature.” CCC 1214
Baptism played a central role in the preaching and teaching of John the Baptist, Jesus frequently referenced baptism in his ministry and from the day of Pentecost, the Church has celebrated and administered baptism.
To become a Christian, baptism is a requirement. But it is open to anyone who has not already been baptized. Even Christ submitted himself to baptism, which we celebrate in the liturgical calendar this year on January 9.
The catechism explains why Jesus’ baptism was important:
“All the Old Covenant prefigurations find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus. He begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan. After his resurrection Christ gives this mission to his apostles: “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
“Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of St. John, intended for sinners, in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying. The Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on the Christ as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as his “beloved Son.”
“In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the Kingdom of God. CCC 1223-1225
The emphasis on the power and need for baptism becomes evident when approaching and preparing for any other sacrament. Almost always the first question is to verify that indeed a person has been baptized.
Perhaps knowing of our forgetfulness about our baptism, there are a variety of ways the Church seeks to remind us. For example, every time we enter a church or chapel or even our home, and dip our hand in to the holy water font and then make the sign of the cross, we do so to remember our baptism.
“Because while baptism happens once (and only once) in our lives, we are called to continually live it out and to grow in it: to mature as sons and daughters of the Father and siblings of His Son, Jesus; to grow in love of God and neighbor; to grow in our knowledge, living and sharing of His truths,” said Burgwald. “All of these things flow from our baptism, both the powers and responsibilities which it gave, and hence we need to be reminded of both on occasion.”
Back to the image of the sweet baby: we see the precious child and with faith we know that this powerful action of God is happening in the sacrament even though we can’t see it. That’s why, as with any sacrament, the symbols (the matter) used are important.
“Like the rest of the sacraments, baptism uses sensible things – words and objects – to not only symbolize invisible realities, but to actually give those realities – God’s own divine life and power – to us,” Burgwald said.
“This is a deeply biblical principle: as we read in the very first book of the Bible, God created everything, and when He created it, it was all good. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve has marred that goodness, but sin did not and cannot completely remove the goodness of creation. So God uses created things to not only help us understand Him and His teachings, but also to save us as well.”
“And because each sacrament includes an element of symbolism, the sensible, created part of it does in fact symbolize what happens. So with baptism, the central ‘thing’ that is used is water, which in ordinary life is both a means of cleansing (when we wash) but also of death (drowning). Thus, it helps teach us the reality of what baptism does: we are cleansed from sin and the old, sinful part of ourselves dies,” said Burgwald, further noting that same is true of the rest of the sacraments as well.
Of course not only is Burgwald a theologian who is able to study and explain these things, he is also a father of five who, along with wife Germaine, has presented each child to be baptized. Does he find himself thinking more theologically than others during the baptism of his children?
“I’ll be honest: during the actual event of each of our children’s baptisms, my mind was probably more focused on trying to make sure that everyone was where they needed to be, that the older siblings were behaving, and that the one being baptized didn’t completely lose it during the baptism,” he said.
“But after the fact, I’ve marveled at the wonder of what happened as the water was being poured and the words said: our little baby, already a great and beautiful gift simply as a child, has become something far more: truly and actually a child of God.”
“Who am I that I get to participate in such an awe-inspiring reality? Since then, I’ve felt both the responsibility but also the gift of participating in the process of each of our children’s growth as disciples of Jesus Christ and sons or daughters of His Father,” Burgwald said.
In addition to the joy of participating in the baptisms of our own immediate family, being baptized makes us part of the family of Christ.
“Another way to understand baptism is to see that in it, we are joined — in a mystical but real way — to Jesus, and as such, to everything He came to be and do,” Burgwald said.
“Among many other things, Jesus is the fulfillment of the roles of priest, prophet and king, and because we are joined to Him, we share in those roles ourselves. So, it is because of our baptism that we can offer spiritual sacrifices to God, whether that be our sufferings or simply a prayer of intention for someone. And it’s because of our baptism that we can speak truth in love to others, whether to support and encourage them or to help them turn away from a poor decision. And finally, it’s because of our baptism that we can truly be servant leaders for those in our lives, according to whatever plan God has for us,” he said.
In other words, everyone in our family ancestry who was baptized (see sidebar story on pg. 9) and really, anyone ever baptized is part of our family in Christ.
“Because we are each joined to Him, we are also joined to one another in and through Him. This is the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ: because we are all joined to Jesus, we are all thereby also joined to one another. And that’s not just those that are alive on earth, but all those who are alive in Christ as well, whether they be in purgatory or in heaven,” said Burgwald.
Of course not everyone is baptized as an infant. In the early days of the Church, because the proclamation of the Gospel was still new, most were baptized as adults. What is now called the catechumenate prepares adults who have not been baptized to be ready.
Today, adult baptisms would most often be those joining the church from either no faith or who are converting from something other than Christianity.
From time to time in the liturgy of the Church we are asked to renew our baptismal commitment – an especially important moment for those baptized as babies because we are no longer relying on others to speak for us; we can now give our yes.