For centuries, Baptism has been thought of as a solely Christian rite. Many believe this is when one is dunked in water in order to be welcomed into a particular religious denomination. This is true for some faiths, but it is not the only reason that Baptism is seen as important.
At first glance it would seem that without Baptism one may not find their way into heaven. Baptism gives us Christ and makes us part of the universal Body of Christ in a way no worldly act can. If we are genuinely repentant, as an adult (I will write about the Baptism of children later in this piece) then we are in Christ and Christ is within us.
“Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Romans 8:1
“Or are you unaware that we who were Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through Baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Romans 6:3-5
Indeed, in Galatians 3:27 it states, “For all of you who were Baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.”
“Having been Baptized, you are saved by your faith in Christ and the grace of Baptism. They, therefore, have a right to be called Christians and with good reason are accepted as brothers [and sisters] by the children of the Catholic Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1271, citing UR, no. 3).
“Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person Baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all Baptism cannot be repeated” (CCC, no. 1272).
Therefore, your Baptism also marks you for Christ.
“Now why delay? Get up and have yourself Baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon his name,” Acts 22:16
It is God Himself, by the blood of His Son, who cleanses us of sin. The act of Baptism calls upon His name, and through Grace, our sins are also forgiven, and removed from us as far as the East is from the West.
Yet, as I said, the idea of becoming cleansed through water isn’t practiced solely by Christians.
Coming from an Orthodox Jewish background, we do not have Baptism per se. The closest parallel we have, with similar symbolism, is the Mikvah.
The Mikvah offers the individual, the community, and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness.
A Mikvah can come in almost any style and shape: oceans, rivers, wells, even a small swimming pool. Any body of water in which you can submerge your whole body; and, after reciting the blessings, your head, will work as a mikvah.
What is the blessing one says in a mikvah?
בּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל הַטְבִילָה
Barukh ata AdonaiElohenu melekh ha’olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’tevillah.
Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.
God commanded us to immerse ourselves to be ritually clean. For example, a woman before she marries, or after her menstrual cycle will use a Mikvah. If a man visits a cemetery or encounters a dead body, he will find his way to a Mikvah. For both men and women, it’s a requirement for conversion.
Man is born under original sin: the hereditary stain with which we are born because of the sin Adam committed. Therefore, at birth, we have that sin upon us.
In a sense, Baptism is like a Mikvah in that it will free us from and cleanse original sin. It will also cleanse you from all sins committed if you are being Baptized as an adult.
That sin, original sin, all sin, has cut us off from God:
“Rather, it is your crimes that separate you from your God, it is your sins that make Him hide His face so that He does not hear you,” Isaiah 59:2
How do we then turn to God, or cause God to consider us if we are covered with the stain of sin? Just as we were commanded in the Old Testament to immerse ourselves in a Mikvah, we are likewise commanded, by Christ, to Baptism:
“Go, therefore, and make disciple of all nations, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19.
One would think an issue such a Baptism would be straight forward. Yet, there is a difference among denominations concerning the Baptism of children. While the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox Church, do Baptize children, most mainline Protestant denominations do not – the exception being the Lutheran and Episcopal/Anglican Church.
Many Protestants I know indicate that one cannot be Baptized as a child, or as a baby, because they cannot follow the formula found in scripture:
“Peter [said] to them, ‘Repent and be Baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,’” Acts 2:38
However, they neglect the next verse:
“For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call,” Acts 2:39 (emphasis added)
Many have argued that the word “children” does not mean baby or infant. The word, in Greek, is teknois which means children or child. So, it is safe to assume that this verse does not exclude infant Baptism at all.
It is, then, that our faith as parents and Godparents askes God for the gifts of Baptism for the child, to which God responds:
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through the brother. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, whereas in fact, they are holy,” 1 Cor 7:14.
Going back to my Jewish Orthodox roots, infant Baptism can be likened unto circumcision, the former as entry into the New Covenant while the latter marked entry into the Old Covenant.
“In him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in Baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead,” Col 2:11-12.
As children are circumcised on the eighth day, then so too are children Baptized when they are young.
When St Peter gave his first sermon of the Church on the Day of Pentecost, converting around 3,000 Jewish people, he closed saying: “Peter [said] to them, ‘Repent and be Baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call,’” Acts 2:38-39.
Peter’s call was for them all to be Baptized. He didn’t qualify his call by including some and excluding others. The Gifts of God were available all, regardless of age.
Even Jesus said, “When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,’” Mark 10:14.
A child may not need to confess and repent of personal sin, babies and children do need the unmerited gifts of Baptism: original sin washed from their souls, the indwelling of the Trinity and Sanctifying Grace – all making them members of the Body of Christ.
Baptism is essential, no matter the recipients’ age. For those of us that are older, it can remove a lifetime of sin, wiping the slate clean. For children, like older recipients, it removes the stain of original sin. For all, it makes us members of the Body of Christ. It clothes us in Christ and restores to us the Grace needed for salvation.
This is the first in a series on the Sacraments of the Catholic Church – what they are and why they are important. Next, we will cover the Eucharist.
Other articles in this series will be Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick, Marriage and Holy Order. We will also include Conversion and RCIA.
[All scripture quotations are from the News American Bible Revised Edition]