Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I will take this opportunity to begin a six-part series on the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, beginning with Baptism and combining Marriage and Holy Orders later.
Let’s begin with the technical definition of a sacrament found in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Another way of understanding the sacraments is to think of them as methods by which Jesus gifted us an opportunity to participate in the divine life through material and earthly things, and by which we receive actual graces according to the particular sacrament. Because we are physical and spiritual beings, God communicates heavenly realities to us by way of visible creation. “As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols. As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God” (CCC #1146). In simple terms, God comes down to our level in the sacraments and speaks to us in our own human means of communication.
The first three sacraments are called the sacraments of initiation, beginning with the Sacrament of Baptism. If you look at the formal definition of a sacrament above, you see that all of the sacraments are instituted by Christ Himself. With regard to Baptism, Jesus did not need to be baptized as He was already the Son of God, but did so in order to provide us with an example of this particular sacrament. “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” (CCC #1223).
The Sacrament of Baptism is, essentially, the doorway to the Christian life and the foundation upon which all other sacraments build. It is the washing away of original sin and the means by which we may enter the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters (CCC #1213). Through Baptism, our old self is buried, and our new Christian self rises with Jesus (CCC#1227). Catholicism celebrates infant baptism as the family chooses for the child to be raised up as a child of God and brother or sister of Jesus Christ. It marks the child’s rebirth or entrance into a life in Christ. Those converting to Catholicism as adults may also be baptized if they have not already been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in another Christian denomination.
The physical signs and symbols of Baptism used to communicate heavenly realities are first, as mentioned above, the sign of the cross, which signifies to whom the person belongs – Christ, by way of His cross (CCC#1235). Secondly, exorcisms are pronounced over the person who is then anointed with the oil of catechumens in order to liberate him or her from the bondage of sin and its originator, Satan (CCC #1237). Thirdly, the baptismal water is poured over the subject so the baptized may be “born of water and the Spirit”
(CCC #1238). Fourthly, the subject is anointed with sacred chrism, which is perfumed oil consecrated by the bishop. This signifies that the new Christian has been anointed by the Holy Spirit into a share of Christ’s role as priest, prophet, and king (CCC #1241). Lastly, the white garment symbolizes purity of faith and the “putting on of Christ,” while the candle, which is lit from the Easter candle, signifies that the newly baptized Christian will be a “light to the world” (CCC #1243).
Who can baptize? I’ve heard this question many times, particularly by grandparents concerned about the children of their fallen-away children. In the Latin Catholic Church, the ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop, priests, and deacons. In other words, under ordinary and normal circumstances, these are the only people with the power to baptize. However, in an extraordinary situation, such as the case of a life or death emergency, anyone, even a non-baptized person may baptize so long as they do so with the correct intention (to baptize) and using the Trinitarian formula. So, as an extreme example, a baby on the verge of death may be baptized by an atheist who is aware of the parents’ desire for baptism so long as he does so with the correct intent and in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Again, I’d like to emphasize the extreme circumstances under which this may only be permitted. Under normal circumstances, please continue to patiently and lovingly encourage your loved ones to pursue the Sacrament of Baptism (CCC #1256).
So, what are the actual graces and effects that are communicated by all these earthly signs and symbols present in Baptism? The graces of purification, regeneration, and renewal are all present as we are reborn in the Holy Spirit (CCC #1262). Through Baptism, all our sins are washed away. For infants, that mostly amounts to original sin only, but anyone who is baptized as an adult has the privilege of all the sins over the course of his or her life being washed away, including all the obligatory punishments for those sins (CCC #1263). That being said, all temporal consequences of sin will always remain – suffering, illness, death, and concupiscence (the tendency toward sin) – as they are all a natural product of our human condition (CCC #1264). Through Baptism we also receive the grace of justification, which enables us to know God, to live according to the Holy Spirit, and the ability to grow in goodness and virtue according to the supernatural life (CCC #1266). Finally, through Baptism, we receive the grace of becoming members of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, sacramentally bonded to all other baptized Christians (CCC #1267-1271). The reality of our spiritual initiation is revealed by an indelible mark left on our soul, which can never be removed, not even by sin. After Baptism, we are configured to Christ and we receive a sacramental character (CCC #1272-1273). Even if we are pulled away over the course of our life, we may always be called back by virtue of the graces we received at our Baptism. Those who persevere and have “’kept the seal’ until the end, remaining faithful to the demands of [their] Baptism, will be able to depart this life ‘marked with the sign of faith,’ with this baptismal faith, in expectation of the blessed vision of God – the consummation of faith – and in the hope of resurrection” (CCC #1274).
Perhaps some of you reading this were baptized as adults and can remember your baptism. It likely carries very special memories for you. However, most of us were baptized as infants and do not remember. We may or may not have spent much time reflecting on our baptism. This week, take some time to reflect on the graces you received at your Baptism and how they empower you in your particular vocation.
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