What is Baptism?

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Catholic Baptism (Gianni/Flickr)

Let's start with a misconception about Baptism: that it's some sort of "blessed insurance" for the afterlife. For the record, the church doesn't teach that baptism gets you into heaven any more than it says it definitively slams the door on those who are not baptized. So, if it doesn't guarantee salvation, what does it do?

Since the earliest generation of the church, baptism was regarded as the rite of membership in the Body of Christ. According to Saint Paul, it makes us one with Christ as surely as it provides us with the indwelling Holy Spirit. The third aspect, in Paul's theology, is that it makes us church. The deep respect the church holds for this sacrament is illustrated most profoundly in the fact that the Catholic Church doesn't re-baptize Protestants who later join in full communion. Once a Christian, you're already "in Christ.”

The sign of water as purifying and healing is older than the New Testament era. In bathing rituals of ancient times, lepers are cleansed (see General Naaman's story in the Book of Numbers) and impurities reversed (after touching the dead or being in contact with blood). Just before the gospel era, Gentile converts were received into Judaism through a process involving circumcision, baptism, and Temple sacrifice. The Jewish sect at Qumran, which we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls gang today, was already insisting that the interior disposition of a person had to change or the ritual was meaningless.

The baptism of John—which John himself admitted awaited a greater "baptism by fire" from "one who is to come"—explicitly added the dimension of repentance to the rite. John's baptism was available to Gentile soldiers as well as Jewish citizens and wasn't intended to make anyone Jewish, much less Christian.

Jesus accepts baptism from John, but not because he needs to repent. Jesus identifies himself with the sin of humanity which John is so anxious to wash away. Just as Jesus embraces human weakness by his baptism, we gain a share in divine strength through this same action. We repent sin and its ancient claim on us (“original sin”). Adults are instructed in the way of faith before receiving the sacrament (through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), just as children are instructed (catechized) after receiving infant baptism. In both instances the conversion of heart, mind, and life are imperative. Baptism inaugurates the journey. The close identification with Christ it anticipates remains the work of a lifetime.

Leviticus 14:8-9; Numbers 19:17-21; Isaiah 1:16-18; Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4; Acts 1:5; 19:1-6; Romans 6:3-11; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-29

"Baptism in the New Testament: Origins, Formulas, and Metaphors" by Arland J. Hultgren in Word & World

Baptism (Understanding the Sacraments series) by Lawrence E. Mick (Liturgical Press, 2007)
To Live in Christ—Baptism (Growing in Daily Spirituality series) by Richard Reichert (Paulist Press, 2006)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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