SPIRITUALITY: Divine Presents, The Sacramental Mysteries—The Sacramental Mystery of Baptism by Gregory Collins

A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life

Divine Presents, The Sacramental Mysteries—The Sacramental Mystery of Baptism by Gregory Collins

From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries

O useful element and clear!
My sacred wash and cleanser here,
My first consigner unto those
Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes!
What sublime truths and wholesome themes,
Lodge in thy mystical, deep streams!
Such as dull man can never find
Unless that Spirit lead his mind,
Which first upon thy face did move,
And hatched all with his quick’ning love.
(Henry Vaughan)

In holy scripture this mystery has such an overwhelming significance that a great variety of images and metaphors are used to describe it such as illumination (Ephesians 5:8), rebirth and renewal (2 Titus 3:5), and clothing with Christ (Galatians 3:27).  One of the most suggestive images, the one which has most influenced Christian reflection on this sacrament throughout history is contained in the sixth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Romans 6:1-14), the importance of which is demonstrated by the fact that in the Roman liturgy it has been appointed since ancient times as the New Testament reading in the Mass of the Easter Vigil.  Describing how the newly-baptized Christian is called to break definitively with sin, Paul elucidates his vision of baptism as a personal sharing in the one great mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection:

How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed form sin.  But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Central to this passage is the awareness that in baptism something is done to us by God.  It does not depend on any activity of our own beyond being present and suffering God’s action on us: we are the passive recipients of a gift.  A similar emphasis on the gratuity of the gift, coupled with the idea of baptism as entry into new life, is found in the later Letter to the Ephesians:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the Heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:4-9)

For Paul, baptism confers a real participation in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Commenting on the symbolism of total immersion in the baptismal waters, the method of baptism most frequently used in the early church, still the norm among Orthodox Christians, obligatory for Baptists, and at least an available option nowadays for Roman Catholics, Paul identifies in the ritual action a likeness (homoioma) of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Just as after his death Jesus was placed in the tomb and went down among the dead, so the Christian is plunged bodily into the waters of the font; yet as Jesus was raised again by the Father on the third day, so too the Christian emerges from the watery tomb as from a spiritual “womb,” regenerated, a new-born member of Christ’s body the church.  It is the ritual image of the kenosis and exaltation of the Lord in his descent into the tomb, resurrection from the dead, and reception of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s eschatological (i.e., final and perfect) gift, his living pneuma or breath and receives a new orientation to eternal life in Heaven as his or her goal.  Paul never loses sight of the eschatological (in this case meaning “future”) orientation of baptism: we are indeed really initiated into Christ and called to newness of life but the resurrection of the body still awaits us in the future: “We will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  Yet this spiritual birth into new life occurs through a very humble medium: immersion in water accompanied by simple sacramental words invoking the grace of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It is not magic but sacramental liturgy: as Saint Augustine famously put it, the word is joined to the water and the sacrament is brought about.

The fact that it is done to us by another and not by ourselves is emphasized.  In the gift of baptism Christ empowers the church to communicate to her members, through a ritual act, what he achieved for us through the kenosis of his death.  That death was anything but a beautiful sacred ritual.  It entailed an agony of painful and humiliating suffering.  Nor was the resurrection which followed it a ritual performance: Christ was really raised to life by God through the exaltation and transformation of his crucified body.  But in baptism we die symbolically by having a ritual enacted upon us which carries out a likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The rite of baptism involves sacramental symbolism of the strongest kind.  In carrying out the ritual, which is done in the power of the Holy Spirit, the act of Christ’s original passage (pascha) from death to new life, the redemptive act accomplished by him is enacted on us, and its saving reality imparted and applied to us.  We are loosed from sin, cleansed and renewed through the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  The symbolic ritual action opens to us a share in the reality it conveys.  Our world today often suffers from a truncated understanding of symbolism.  It is important to recover its older, fuller meaning if we wish to understand both the New Testament and the action of the church’s liturgy.  For ancient authors such as Paul, a symbol was never just a bare or empty sign.  Nowadays we often hear it said that something is “only” a symbol or a “mere” symbol but such an impoverished understanding misses the point: a true symbol is always anything but “mere” or “only.”

For Saint Paul, closely followed by the Fathers of the church, the great Latin scholastics, Luther, and even to some extent Calvin, as well of course as for the historic liturgies of Christendom, symbols were never just empty signs of absent things.  Rather, they in some sense convey the very realities they represent.  Indeed they re-present those things in the strongest possible way.  In baptism, the symbolic act of plunging symbolizes the drowning and eradication of sin through the death of one’s old self while the dramatic rising up out of the waters symbolizes the regeneration of the self through resurrection into life.  It is a real participation in the past act of Christ’s salvation and an equally real anticipation of its fulfillment on the last day.  Past and future meet in the sacramental present.

In the same act in which it is celebrated and ritually symbolized the reality itself actually occurs.  As the Church Fathers put it, it is accomplished mystically.  “Mystical” in their understanding (a word coined by them), did not, as we have seen, entail the kind of subjective emotional experience it tends to designate today.  Rather, coming to us from the Greek word mystikos (secret or hidden), via Paul’s use of the word mystery, it denoted the secret action of the Holy Spirit, who conveys the reality of Christ’s redeeming act to the Christian through interior regeneration and renewal.  At the same time as it is effectually symbolized in the ritual, it is also activated in the heart of the newly-baptized, igniting there a spark of grace, inserting a spring of spiritual energy which begins to well up into eternal life.  The sacramental mystery of baptism is the gateway to the mystery of Christ.

Emerging reborn from the waters of the font, one is invited by Christ to enter the communion of the church and to follow the path of discipleship mapped out by the Lord, walking consciously in God’s presence.  Baptismal life is the doorway to ecclesial life, life in Christ’s body.  It is never sufficient (at least for an adult though infant baptism raises other issues), merely to have “suffered” the ritual action of the sacrament in the sense of having had it “performed objectively” upon oneself.  Paul and the other New Testament writers insist that the only adequate response to the revelation of the mystery is living faith which finds expression in the transformation of one’s life.  The spiritual death so powerfully symbolized by the rite is meant to lead through the renunciation of one’s “old self” with its narrow, limited understanding and egoistic habits, to resurrection into a new mode of existence, becoming a new creature in fact as well as name.  To correspond to Christ’s will for his followers, that new life ought to be rich in faith, hope, love, and works of charity undertaken freely for the good of one’s neighbor.

Baptism, although passively received, has to pass over into action through cooperation with grace since one has been adopted by God as his beloved child in Christ.  The Christian life remains always radically baptismal since it involves a daily commitment to an ecstatic way of life, a freely-chosen going out from one’s old self (ekstatis) so as to enter into a living relationship with God.  Baptism is an invitation to take the daily path of kenosis, the path traced out by Christ.

The Holy Spirit draws us out of the various prisons, psychological or spiritual, in which we are held captive, strips us of our prison garb and leads us into the freedom of faith, into a life lived in openness to God’s commanding presence.

Faith, at first flickering and feeble, gradually grows into experience.  Through prayer, the gift received and the ability to respond to the Holy Spirit who lives in the heart through baptismal grace, ought to take possession of one’s life, making one’s whole being an offering of thanks and praise.


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