A common thread in human cultures, tribes and societies is ritualistic initiations that mark the various stages of life. They relate to all kinds of stages, such as; welcoming a new baby, introducing boys to manhood, marriage, grandparenthood and death. Catholicism has always supported the fundamental wisdom of the human need for ritual and initiation and it is woven into a rich tapestry of faith and culture.
Every culture has rich and unique practices and expectations in the details, but they all essentially point us towards this universal truth: our life here is a process of change.
Why do so many non-practicing or marginal Catholics seek to have their children baptised? Some cynics would say it is so they can get their children into a Catholic school or to appease grandma. However, that kind of dismissive assumption in many cases is not only wrong; it misses a precious moment of invitation.
The Miracle of Life
Catholics on the edges come knocking on our Church door with a new baby because we have a very special gift to offer them: recognition of the birth of a unique, precious human being whose very existence is a miracle. New parents are searching for a way to meaningfully welcome their child to the world and present them to the family and the wider community.
Whether or not the parents understand all the theology about Baptism, they intuitively know that a Baptism is not merely about ticking boxes on a school enrolment form. It’s a part of their family heritage and culture. It is a precious gift that they can give to their child and a way of recognising the divine hand that was at work in the creation of this wondrous child.
What is a Sacrament?
A Sacrament is a sign of God’s love. This sign is not like a traffic sign that announces the speed limit or parking rules which can be changed at will by lawmakers or ignored entirely by drivers. Nor is it simply like a smile that can be a sign of welcome. A Sacrament is more; it involves a profound relationship between the sign, the action of Grace, and the person who receives it. It is not only a sign of God’s love, it also makes God’s love real and concrete in our lives.
God’s love is a vast mystery, complex and rich beyond full human comprehension. None-the-less, the Sacraments help us to understand this love, however imperfect and incomplete that understanding may be. Each Sacrament illuminates a dimension of God’s love with particular clarity. Baptism shines the spot-light on the love of the Father for his sons and daughters.
In its essence, Baptism is a spiritual rebirth where your child enters into kinship with God. No longer is she simply a daughter in the human family, she is now a beloved daughter in God’s family, a princess in the Kingdom of God; your son a prince.
The Waters of Birth…
There are many symbols used in a Baptism ceremony, but only one is the critical, sacramental gesture. Each Sacrament has both sacred words and a sacred gesture and both need to be present in order for the Sacrament to take place and to be considered valid.
In Baptism the sacred words are: I baptise you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The sacred gesture is the immersion in water. Why water? Water is a symbol of birth. When we are born naturally, the amniotic sac bursts and the water drains away as the child emerges from it. Similarly, the baptismal waters give us a tangible, sensory expression of a spiritual reality: we are reborn spiritually as children of God.
We can’t actually see the child being spiritually reborn, but we know it happens because we hear the words and see the child emerging from the water.
In Baptism the symbol of water signifies your child’s birth into the life of Christ. As the water flows and the words of Baptism are prayed, a deeper reality is taking place: your child is being embraced by God the Father as one of his own.
Baptism comes from a Greek word meaning “to plunge” or “immerse”. By being immersed in water we enter into the ‘tomb’ with Jesus and rise again with him as a ‘new creature.’ (CCC #1214)
Signs and Symbols of Baptism
- Sign of the Cross
The child is claimed for Christ by the priest, parents and godparents who make the Sign of the Cross on his forehead. The Sign of the Cross reminds us that while Christ saved us from evil by his death on the cross, our lives will also include suffering and temptation.
- Anointing with Oil
Before Baptism, the child’s breast is smeared with the ‘Oil of Catechumens’. It is a sign of the Lord’s strength given to the child to assist him on his journey in faith.
Water is the central symbol and reminds us of the waters of birth. It is also a sign of spiritual cleansing. Through Baptism, the mark of original sin (and all other sins committed to that point), are washed away. Some churches have facilities for the full emersion of the Baptism candidate in water. Others have a smaller font and use a jug or shell to pour water over the head of the child.
- White Garment
The early Christians would wear a white robe to demonstrate that they had ‘put on Christ’. Similarly today, the newly baptised child is clothed in white symbolising their new life in Christ and is an outward sign of Christian dignity.
- Anointing with Chrism
After Baptism, the crown of the head is anointed with a perfumed oil called ‘chrism’. It is used to anoint kings and monarchs and it sets the child aside for a mission.
The baptismal candle is lit from the paschal (or Easter) candle and is a symbol of hope. It represents how Christ conquered evil and darkness. The candle is presented to the new member (or his parents) as a sign of the Light of Christ by which the newly baptised now live.