Baptism’s Biblical Roots
by Carolyn Thomas, S.C.N.
Carolyn Thomas, S.C.N., is a professor of Scripture at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. She holds an S.T.M. in Old Testament from Union Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Fordham University
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” (Luke 3:22).
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.
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 to God.
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 sacraments.
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. [END of First Article]
The Sacrament of Baptism
By Scott P. Richert, About.com Guide
Baptism: The Door of the Church:
The Sacrament of Baptism is often called “The door of the Church,” because it is the first of the seven sacraments not only in time (since most Catholics receive it as infants) but in priority, since the reception of the other sacraments depends on it. It is the first of the three Sacraments of Initiation, the other two being the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Once baptized, a person becomes a member of the Church. Traditionally, the rite (or ceremony) of baptism was held outside the doors of the main part of the church, to signify this fact.
The Necessity of Baptism:
Christ Himself ordered His disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations and to baptize those who accept the message of the Gospel. In His encounter with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Christ made it clear that baptism was necessary for salvation: “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” For Catholics, the sacrament is not a mere formality; it is the very mark of a Christian, because it brings us into new life in Christ.
Baptism of Desire:
That doesn’t mean that only those who have been formally baptized can be saved. From very early on, the Church recognized that there are two other types of baptism besides the baptism of water.
The baptism of desire applies both to those who, while wishing to be baptized, die before receiving the sacrament and “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of conscience” (Constitution on the Church, Second Vatican Council).
Baptism of Blood:
The baptism of blood is similar to the baptism of desire. It refers to the martyrdom of those believers who were killed for the faith before they had a chance to be baptized. This was a common occurrence in the early centuries of the Church, but also in later times in missionary lands. The baptism of blood has the same effects as the baptism of water.
The Form of the Sacrament of Baptism:
While the Church has an extended rite of Baptism which is normally celebrated, which includes roles for both parents and godparents, the essentials of that rite are two: the pouring of water over the head of the person to be baptized (or the immersion of the person in water); and the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Minister of the Sacrament of Baptism:
Since the form of baptism requires just the water and the words, the sacrament, like the Sacrament of Marriage, does not require a priest; any baptized person can baptize another. In fact, when the life of a person is in danger, even a non-baptized person—including someone who does not himself believe in Christ—can baptize, provided that the person performing the baptism follows the form of baptism and intends, by the baptism, to do what the Church does—in other words, to bring the person being baptized into the fullness of the Church. In both cases, a priest may later perform a conditional baptism.
In the Catholic Church today, baptism is most commonly administered to infants. While some other Christians strenuously object to infant baptism, believing that baptism requires assent on the part of the person being baptized, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and other mainline Protestants also practice infant baptism, and there is evidence that it was practiced from the earliest days of the Church.
Since baptism removes both the guilt and the punishment due to Original Sin, delaying baptism until a child can understand the sacrament may put the child’s salvation in danger, should he die unbaptized.
Adult converts to Catholicism also receive the sacrament, unless they have already received a Christian baptism. (If there is any doubt about whether an adult has already been baptized, the priest will perform a conditional baptism.) A person can only be baptized once as a Christian—if, say, he was baptized as a Lutheran, he cannot be rebaptized when he converts to Catholicism.
While an adult can be baptized after proper instruction in the Faith, adult baptism normally occurs today as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and is immediately followed by Confirmation and Communion.
The Effects of the Sacrament of Baptism:
Baptism has six primary effects, which are all supernatural graces:
The removal of the guilt of both Original Sin (the sin imparted to all mankind by the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) and personal sin (the sins that we have committed ourselves).
The remission of all punishment that we owe because of sin, both temporal (in this world and in Purgatory) and eternal (the punishment that we would suffer in hell).
The infusion of grace in the form of sanctifying grace (the life of God within us); the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and the three theological virtues.
Becoming a part of Christ.
Becoming a part of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ on earth.
Enabling participation in the sacraments, the priesthood of all believers, and the growth in grace.