Kathleen Chesto discusses Baptism in Sacrament of Baptism, Past and Present. She initially explains the idea of sacrament. A sacrament is an outward sign (a visible, tangible action that we take to celebrate the invisible) instituted by Christ (Christ took normal things like water and gave them new meanings) to give grace (friendship with God through opportunities to strengthen our relationship with God).
Baptism and the waters of cleansing are found deep in the scriptures all the way back to Genesis. However, the ritual itself was derived from the Jewish heritage. It was used as initiation into the Jewish religion. In our Christian religion we see that in scripture John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan to free them from their sinful lives and prepare them for Christ. Jesus had no sin but was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus used this symbol of baptism as the start of his new life of ministry. When Jesus was resurrected He visited his disciples and said “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” – Matthew 28:19. The disciples did this by laying hands on people but more often using water because it was readily available.
When the persecution of Christians began the early church had to go underground. At that point anyone wanting to come into the Church had to have a Christian sponsor to witness that they were not a Roman Spy and that they were leading a moral life. They began the journey of the Catechumen. The journey would last until the Easter Vigil, when they would be baptized into the Church. Six weeks before Easter the Church was asked to pray and fast for these new members entering the Church the practice was eventually called the season of Lent.
I was amazed with Kathleen’s history lesson. She explained that the practice or liturgy always comes first. The practice becomes the tradition. The tradition is questioned and in trying to understand it we find theology (we must study the practice). We often assign meaning to actions that were never intended in the first place. In the 4th century when Christianity became the religion of the empire and the church was no longer underground the catechumen disappeared and entire tribes of people were baptized. There were adult converts but many wanted to be baptized as families. That was the beginning of infant baptism. It was in this time period that there was a shift from Baptism being used to forgive sin to the idea that without baptism one could not have salvation. With this idea in mind parents were influenced to have their babies baptized at younger ages due to the high mortality rate. St. Augustine, believing that infant baptism had always been the norm and questioned how babies could have sin. He researched this idea and founded the doctrine that babies are born with original sin that must be washed away by the waters of baptism. More doctrines were born from this thinking; Limbo and the Baptism of Desire. It was not until Vatican II that we heard God loves all people with or without baptism. There was then a return to RCIA, reinstituting the old rites.
The ritual and the history of baptism formed the theology of the sacrament. It is now a sacrament of initiation bringing people into the church but also used as the sacrament to forgive original sin. The church has really wrapped up both ideas into the sacrament. We still believe St. Augustine’s teaching of original sin, although I now know why he had to state that idea. Now the ritual has been reshaped again. We can come into the church through RCIA which started in the early days of the church or we can take part in infant baptisms which became the norm in the 4th century.
I have been taught that the sacrament is to forgive our original sin and “get the devil out of that baby” as my grandmother would say. It is also a way to start your new life in Christ Jesus in the Church. The sacrament has an effect on my life through my role as a parent bringing my children into the church and raising them in the faith. It is also a constant reminder of my faith and what I believe every time I say my baptismal promises and live them out in my everyday life.
Copyright 2013 Lori Hadorn-Disselkamp