The last several years, my wife Nora and I have helped to prepare couples in our parish for the Baptism of their children. These couples come with varying levels of involvement in church life. Some are very active in the church, some are sporadic church-attenders, others we have never seen before and, after the Baptism, never see again.
Yet, all of these parents want their children baptized. There is a spark of faith in them which needs to be encouraged. All are welcome to bring their children for Baptism as long as there is "a well-founded hope that the Baptism will bear fruit" (Vatican Instruction on Infant Baptism, 30).
One thing we emphasize is that Baptism is not something you have "done" to a child and then move on to other things in life. Baptism is not an inoculation against the limbo into which children who died before Baptism were imagined to go after death. Rather, Baptism is the beginning of a new way of life, one full of both grace and faith. One's baptismal commitment should affect everything a person does for the rest of his or her life.
One way we draw attention to the new way of life inaugurated by Baptism is by talking about the actual rite of Baptism. Baptism, of course, is commonly thought of in terms of the priest pouring water over the child's head three times while saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Strictly speaking, that is all that is required for a valid Baptism.
However, the full rite contains other symbols and symbolic acts. The child is anointed (twice), clothed in a white garment, given the light of Christ to carry into the world, and blessed on the ears and mouth. All of these acts undercut the notion that Baptism is a once-and-for-all cleansing.
As I noted in last week's article, the waters of Baptism are oriented more towards destruction than cleansing. Those waters also bring new life. The rite includes the blessing of the water so that the Holy Spirit will be sent upon it.
While Baptism brings the forgiveness of sins, it is primarily about sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ. "By Baptism we were buried with Christ and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendor of the Father, so also we might set our feet upon the new path of life" (Romans 6:4).
The new Christian immediately enters on that new path of life by being anointed with the oil of chrism and incorporated into Christ who is priest, prophet and king. He or she is then clothed in a white garment as a sign of having risen with Christ. The lit candle presented to the newly baptized is a sign of the light of Christ the newly baptized person is to take into the world. The blessing of the ears and mouth is a sign that the person is empowered to hear and to speak God's word.
"Empowerment" is a key word for describing the effects of Baptism. Sometimes overused, this word here indicates a person who has left the slavery of sin behind and is now, aided by the Holy Spirit, walking in the light of truth.
Baptism may save a person's soul. But it does more than that. Through Baptism, not only this individual, but all of creation begins to be reconfigured in the image of Christ. The community of the baptized should, for example, see the poor and the outcasts in a much different light than does the secular world.
In the early church, preparation for the sacraments of initiation took a couple of years prior to the event and follow-up was serious and intense. It was not a matter of getting "done" and then returning to life as it was previously.
That's why the rite was so important. It signified a passage in which one way of life was destroyed and through which God became one's Father. The newly baptized had been well prepared and was able to go out of the church to be the light of the world. We see evidence of that in the faithfulness of the early martyrs and in the rapid spread of the Gospel.
Our experience in baptismal preparation has often been to find genuine interest and enthusiasm among people whose link with the church has been tenuous in the past. Such interest, however, appears to be short-lived. We perhaps expect too much to come out of too brief a time of preparation.
The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) has been a major step forward for the church in returning to the idea that Baptism involves the destruction of an old way of life and immersion in a new way. To date, we haven't been as successful in embodying that idea in our approach to the Baptism of infants.
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