Even heathen nations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, made use of water to cleanse their souls and render them pleasing to the Deity. The Jewish law enjoined purifications, to cleanse from various legal uncleannesses (Lev. xii.-xv.). Before the giving of the Ten Commandments the people were to be sanctified and wash their garments (Exod. xix. 10). John the Baptist baptized in the desert those who promised amendment of life, to signify the remission of sins which they would gain by their penitential works. The baptism of Christ is of a different nature; it has a transforming power, for it washes away sin and confers the gift of the Holy Ghost (Matt. iii. 11).
1. This is what takes place at Baptism: Water is poured upon the head of the person to be baptized, and at the same time the words appointed by Our Lord are repeated; the person is thereby cleansed from original sin and all other sins, he is gifted with habitual and sanctifying grace, and becomes a child of God, an heir of heaven, and a member of the Church.
At our baptism much the same takes place as at Our Lord’s baptism: like Him, we have water poured upon our head, and certain words are spoken (“I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”); the Holy Ghost descends upon us (although not in the form of a dove), we are made temples of the Holy Ghost and endowed with sanctifying grace; God the Father says: “This is My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (we are made children of God), and the heavens are opened (we are made heirs of immortality). Again, much the same takes place at our baptism as at the cleansing of Naaman (4 Kings v. 14); we are washed with water, and delivered from the leprosy of sin, both original and actual. So again much the same takes place at our baptism as at the passage of the Israelites through the Jordan (1 Cor. x. 2); we pass through the water of Baptism into the promised land, the Church of which we become members. Those on whom sanctifying grace has been bestowed, are in virtue of that bestowal children of God and heirs of heaven. Only the baptized have the right to call God their Father, hence in early times the Lord’s Prayer was not taught to the unbaptized. St. Louis of France used to say: “I think more of the private chapel where I was baptized, than of the Cathedral of Rheims where I was crowned; for the dignity of a child of God, which was bestowed on me at Baptism, is greater than that of the ruler of a kingdom. The latter I shall lose at death; the other will be my passport to everlasting glory.” It is because man is cleansed from sin by baptism that St. Paul exclaims: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. viii. 1). The words of St. Peter on the Day of Pentecost show what is the effect produced by Baptism: “Do penance, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts ii. 38). St .Paul speaks of Baptism as “the laver of regeneration and renovation of the Holy Ghost,” whereby “being; justified by His grace we may be heirs according to hope of life everlasting” (Titus iii. 5, 7). Again he says: “In one spirit were we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. xii. 13).
Baptism was instituted by Our Lord at His own baptism and enjoined upon the Church at His ascension.
Our Lord caused Himself to be baptized in the Jordan in order to sanctify water and impart to it a cleansing power. The manifestation of all the three persons of the Holy Trinity at the time of His baptism showed that the sacrament was to be administered in the name of the three divine persons. Christ also told His apostles at His ascension to go, “baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. xxviii. 19).
2. Baptism acts spiritually as water does materially.
It cleanses us from the stains of sin, it extinguishes for us the names of hell and of purgatory; it imparts to us a new life, it quenches the thirst of the soul, it gives us strength to fulfil the commandments, causes us to bring forth fruit to life eternal, and makes us members of Christ’s mystical body.
Every one knows that in the natural order water cleanses the body, puts out fire, and recalls to consciousness one who has fainted; that it invigorates the human frame and gives fertility to the soil. The water of Baptism does the same in the spiritual order. Every new born infant has the stain of original sin attaching to him, and every adult has, in addition, that of actual sin. These sins vanish at the laver of regeneration as a spark disappears if it falls into the ocean. On this account no penance is enjoined on the newly-baptized. Any one dying immediately after baptism, goes straight to heaven if he has at the time no attachment to venial sin, thus escaping purgatory and hell. And since the person baptized receives the Holy Ghost, and with Him sanctifying grace, a new life begins for him, the life in God. Thus Baptism is the birth of the soul, whereas the other sacraments are its food or its medicine. Baptism is also called regeneration, because it is the commencement of another and a new life. When the water is poured upon the exterior, an interior change takes place; the individual becomes a new creature from sinful he becomes just. In Baptism true peace of mind is acquired through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. The early Christians used to feel the same interior happiness after baptism that we feel after making a good confession. It may truly be said that the water of Baptism quenches the thirst of the soul. Furthermore, when the Holy Ghost enters into the soul at Baptism, He enlightens the understanding and justifies the will. When Saul, the persecutor of the Christians, was baptized, there fell from his eyes as it were scales (Acts ix. 18), indicating that his spiritual blindness was at an end. Baptism also confers strength to resist the temptations of the evil enemy. Yet the corrupt proclivity remains, and man is ever subject to temptations, as the Hebrews, when they had escaped from servitude by the passage of the Red Sea, were still exposed to the attacks of their adversaries in the desert. As the will is fortified by Baptism, we are better able to perform good works. He who has received the Holy Ghost possesses divine charity (Council of Trent, 6, 7), and by charity we abide in God, and are closely united to Him (John xiv. 23; 1 John iv. 16). Hence, having received the Holy Ghost and with Him divine charity, we are in Baptism made one with Christ (Gal. iii. 27); we are united to Christ as members to the head; “your members are the members of Christ” (1 Cor. vi. 15). We are made members of the one great body of which Christ is the head and the life; all the graces which we receive as members of the Church proceed from Christ. Hence He is rightly termed the life-giving Head of the Church, for in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (1 Cor. xii. 13, 15). In Baptism we are cut off from the stock of the old sinful Adam, and grafted into Christ as new creatures; we are no longer of the posterity of the old Adam, but of the posterity of Christ. Baptism is compared to the door of Noe’s ark. See how marvelous are the effects of this sacrament! The grace of Baptism is of all the gifts of God the most excellent, the most exalted, the most precious. Who, being unbaptized, would not desire Baptism?
3. Baptism is indispensably necessary to salvation. Hence children who die unbaptized cannot enter heaven (Council of Trent, 7, 5).
Our Lord says: “Unless a man be born again of water and of the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John iii. 5). He makes no exception, not even in the case of infants. St. Basil says Baptism is the vessel wherein we embark for the celestial port. Baptism is no less indispensable in the spiritual order than water in the natural order, and since it is so indispensable, God has made it very easy. Nothing is absolutely necessary but water, which may be had everywhere; every one can baptize in case of need; new born infants may be baptized; and for adults the simple desire is sufficient, if actual baptism is impossible. And since Baptism is of such urgent necessity for salvation, it follows that infants dying unbaptized cannot attain eternal felicity. For every child coming into tho world has the taint of original sin, and has not sanctifying grace, without which no man can enter heaven. Yet, although infants dying without baptism are excluded from participation in celestial joys, the divine Judge does not consign them to the torments of hell, because they have never committed actual sin; they enjoy a certain natural happiness without physical suffering or mental sadness; they are cheerful as those are with whom all goes well on earth. But the happiness which is their portion bears much the same relation to everlasting felicity as the feeble light of a candle does to the brilliance of the noonday sun. Thus parents who through negligence allow their children to die unbaptized have much to answer for. The eternal salvation of the infant is entirely dependent on the free will of its fellow-man, especially near relatives. St. Augustine mentions the relics of St. Stephen having been efficacious in restoring to life a dead child in order that it might receive Baptism.
4. Hence it follows that parents ought to have their children baptized immediately after their birth, because new-born infants hover between life and death.
Infant baptism has been customary since apostolic times. St. Alphonsus says that if parents, without an urgent reason, neglect to have their children baptized within ten days after their birth, they incur the guilt of mortal sin.
5. In case of necessity any one can administer baptism, and without the usual ceremonies.
Nurses often baptize weakly infants. The baptism by Jews and heretics is valid, provided it is correctly administered, that is, if water be poured on the child’s head (or some other portion of the body) and at the same moment the formula is repeated: “I baptize thee, etc.” If the child lives, he should be taken to the church later on for the usual ceremonies. If it be surmised that through over-haste, or some other cause, the first baptism was not properly performed, the priest must baptize the child again, conditionally.
In the majority of cases only priests should administer Baptism, and that in the church with the prescribed ceremonial.
In the early ages of Christianity only the bishop, or a priest whom he empowered to act for him, had the right to baptize. But when the dioceses became larger, and it was impossible for the bishop to go about continually to administer that sacrament, the power to baptize was made a part of the priests office. As a matter of fact in the present day only the priest of the parish possesses this right, unless he authorizes another to act in his stead. Originally Baptism was only administered in baptistries, or small stone chapels containing all that was necessary for baptism, situated either in close proximity to the principal church of the diocese, or in the interior of the building. About the seventh century infant baptism became universal, and adult baptism of rare occurrence; fonts contain ing blessed water were then placed in the church where the bishop officiated. Baptism in private houses was strictly forbidden, but in the case of the children of kings and princes it might be administered in the palace-chapel. So sacred and solemn a ceremony ought to be performed in a consecrated place. In the present day the bishop’s permission must be obtained for the administration of Baptism in a private house.
6. If baptism by water is impossible, it may be replaced by the baptism of desire, or by the baptism of blood, as in the case of those who suffer martyrdom for the faith of Christ,
The Emperor Valentinian II. was on the way to Milan to be baptized when he was assassinated; St. Ambrose said of him that his desire had been the means of his cleansing. The patriarchs, prophets. and holy men of the Old Testament had the baptism of desire; their love of God was ardent, and they wished to do all that He commands. God accepts the will for the deed; in this He manifests His super abundant loving kindness. But all the temporal penalties of sin are not remitted by the baptism of desire. Martyrdom for Christ’s sake is the baptism of blood. This the holy innocents received, and the Church commemorates them as saints. All unbaptized persons who suffer martyrdom for the Christian faith, for some act of Christian virtue, or the fulfilment of a Christian duty, also received the baptism of blood. Witness St. John Baptist; or St. Emerentiana, who, while yet a catechumen, was found by the pagans praying at St. Agnes tomb, and was put to death by them. The Church does not pray for the unbaptized who suffer death for Christ; for He Himself says: “He that shall lose his life for Me, shall find it” (Matt. x. 39).
7. In the early ages of the Church solemn Baptism was ad ministered on three days of the year: Holy Saturday, the eve of Whitsunday, and in the East on the eve of the Epiphany.
Baptism used to be administered in the night preceding Easter and Whitsunday. It was administered at Easter, because it is a spiritual resurrection, and therefore appropriate to the season; at Pentecost, because on the first day of Pentecost three thousand persons were baptized, and because the Holy Spirit is given in Baptism; on the eve of the Epiphany because the Church commemorates the baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan on that day. Individuals were also baptized at other times, the sick, for instance, or converts who were thoroughly versed in Christian doctrine. The water to be used in Baptism is solemnly blessed on Holy Saturday and on the eve of Pentecost to this day; the ceremonial is elaborate and impressive; it is accompanied by prayers and chants, and many beautiful symbolical ceremonies, such as the mixing of the chrism, breathing upon the water, dipping the paschal candle into it, etc.
In the first ages of Christianity, religious instruction pre ceded Baptism; the candidates for Baptism were called catechumens.
Any one who desired to become a Christian had to present himself to the bishop, who questioned him closely, and if he thought him worthy admitted him into the number of the catechumens. He laid his hands upon him, as a sign that he was soon to receive the Holy Ghost; he made the sign of the cross upon his forehead and breast, to signify that he must believe the teaching of our crucified Lord, and shape his life thereby; finally he put salt on his lips, to denote preservation from the temptation of sin. The candidate was then a catechumen of the first class; for two years he was instructed in biblical history, the Ten Commandments, the precepts of charity, and allowed to be present at Mass until the creed. At the end of the second year, he became a catechumen of the second class: that is, he was obliged to fast in Lent, to hear sermons, to confess his sins in public and undergo various exorcisms, anointings and other symbolical ceremonies. In the last week before Baptism was administered, after Palm Sunday, that is, the candidates were taught the doctrine of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. All these ceremonies previous to Baptism have been retained until the present day.
Immediately before Baptism the candidate had to take a solemn vow to believe and follow the teachings of Christ. (The baptismal vow or covenant.)
Standing with his face towards the west, he renounced the devil and all his works (the worship of idols and the corrupt practices of the heathen), and the pomps and vanities of the world. Then turn ing towards the east, he promised to believe and follow the teaching of Christ. This promise is known as the baptismal vow; it is also called a covenant, because God at the same time promises the assistance of His grace to fulfil the promise made, and to reward those who keep it with eternal felicity after death. The baptismal vow resembles the military oath taken by the soldier, for at baptism we are enrolled under the banner of Christ, and promise to fight against the adversaries of God. The baptismal vow also resembles the marriage treaty concluded between those who are wedded at the altar, for the soul then promises fidelity and love to her celestial Bride groom. It is well for those who have been baptized in their infancy to renew their vows at certain times after they have attained the age of reason, particularly before approaching the sacraments. St. John Chrysostom used to renew his vows in the hours of temptation, saying: “I renounce the devil and give myself wholly to Christ.” In the time of persecution the early Christians were accustomed to solemnly renew their vow once a year, to strengthen themselves in the faith. One could wish that this was done now. Christians who have been unfaithful to their vows will, at the Last Judgment, hear from the lips of Our Lord the appalling words: “Thou wicked servant, out of thine own mouth will I condemn thee, by the promise thou didst once solemnly make to Me.”
Formerly baptism was generally by immersion, but often times water was sprinkled or poured upon the individual.
The priest and the godfather, or in the case of women, the god mother, led the person to be baptized by the hand down the steps, and plunged him three times under the water, while the priest pronounced the words prescribed by Our Lord. The threefold immersion was in honor of the most Holy Trinity; it was also in commemoration of the burial of Christ and His rising again, and was intended to signify that the old, sinful man was buried, and the new man had arisen (Rom. vi. 3, 11). In the later centuries baptism by immersion was abolished, and the custom of sprinkling almost exclusively adopted.
The name of a saint was given to every one at the baptismal font; this was his baptismal or Christian name.
The individual baptized was placed under the special protection of a saint or angel, who was to serve him as a model. Socrates of old used to advise parents to give the names of virtuous persons to their children in order to encourage them to imitate their example. Alexander the Great used to say to soldiers who had the same name as himself: “Either take another name, or see that thou dost credit to my name.” The addition of the name of some saint was to indicate that the person baptized had been made a child of God, and incorporated into the company of the saints. On occasions when God bestowed particular favors on one of His servants, the name was some times altered; as Abram became Abraham, Simon was called Peter, Saul was changed to Paul. The Church does not approve of heathen or fantastical names being given to children. Priests cannot give such names in Baptism, though they enter them in the register. The name of a saint may often prove an incentive to him who bears it, to lead a Christian life.
When Baptism is administered with the usual ceremonies, which is called solemn Baptism, the person baptized must have a godfather or godmother, or one of each, but not more.
The obligation of a sponsor is to see that the person baptized keeps the faith and leads a Christian life. In appointing sponsors, the Church acts like a man who lends money; he requires securities. A child when born into the world, requires a nurse to bring it up; so one who is baptized needs some one to watch over his spiritual growth. The sponsors have also to provide for the Christian instruction of their godchild, if the parents neglect their duty in this respect, or are removed by death. Now that children receive regular religious teaching at school, the responsibilities of the sponsor are virtually almost nothing; still he should endeavor to influence his god child for good, if necessary. A spiritual affinity is contracted between the sponsors and the person baptized and his natural parents, which the Church regards as an impediment to marriage. Hence the num ber of godparents is limited to two, to prevent difficulties arising. One sponsor is indispensably necessary. If a man, he must be at least fourteen years old; if a woman, twelve is the lowest age admissible; the sponsor, if there be but one, must be of the same sex as the person baptized, and a Catholic (non-Catholics can only be allowed as witnesses). The sponsor ought to have been confirmed, and be known to lead a good life; the parents of the child cannot possibly act as his sponsors, nor members of a religious Order, because they cannot, if necessary, replace the parents. At baptism the sponsor, holding the infant on his right arm, awaits at the entrance of the baptistry the coming of the priest, who asks the name the child is to receive, and interrogates him by name thus: “What dost thou ask of the Church of God?” The answer is: “Faith and life everlasting, which it obtains for me.” The priest then performs the same ceremonies as were prescribed for the reception of a catechumen; afterwards he lays his stole upon the child (as a sign of his ecclesiastical powers), and admits both him and his sponsor into the church, when the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are recited. Next the person to be baptized, or if he be an infant, his sponsor, takes the baptismal vows; to the three first questions addressed to him he replies: “I renounce them,” and to the three last, “I believe.” The baptism then takes place, and presently the priest dismisses the party with a valedictory benediction: “Go in peace and the Lord be with you.”
The beautiful ceremonies following upon Baptism denote the dignity conferred upon the newly baptized, and the obligations resting upon him.
The priest anoints the person or child on the top of the head with chrism in the form of a cross, to remind him that he is now a Christian, an anointed one. This unction also recalls his royal dignity as a son of the King of heaven; it admonishes him to overcome the concupiscences of the flesh (Gen. iv. 7). Moreover oil, being a mild substance, reminds him to practice meekness, and exercise the works of mercy; it also signifies the illuminating and justifying grace of the Holy Spirit. In former times the newly-baptized used to put on a white robe which they wore in the church for a week, until Low Sunday, as a symbol of the robe of baptismal innocence, and of the wedding-garment of sanctifying grace, which they were to keep unspotted until death. On the present day a white cloth is laid upon the newly-baptized. A lighted candle is then given to the person baptized (or to the sponsor, if an infant). This is to denote the light of the Holy Spirit, which he has received, and recalls the words of Our Lord: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father Who is in heaven” (Matt. v. 16). It also indicates that the portals of the city of eternal light are opened to him. All these ceremonies have a sanctifying influence, and consecrate him who receives them to be a fitting temple of the Holy Ghost.
Formerly the person baptized was confirmed immediately afterwards, and admitted to holy communion.
He was also fully instructed in the doctrine of holy Mass, the sacraments, and prayer, the so-called disciplina arcani. Previous to Baptism he would not have understood them, as he was without the enlightening presence of the Holy Ghost, see how great the esteem in which religious instruction was held!
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