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Godzdogz

The blog of the Dominican student brothers at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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Sacraments: Baptism

Friday, April 27, 2012
‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ (Mt 28: 19). So Jesus commands the apostles at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, and so the Church, faithful to that command, has sought to do ever since.

What, though, is the significance of Baptism? Why does Jesus tell his apostles that this is what they must do? It’s important here to notice that he doesn’t say, “Go and make disciples of all the nations, then baptise them,” but rather, “Go and make disciples …, baptising them … ” Baptism is what makes people disciples of Christ, not just something we do to show that people are his disciples: that, after all, is one of the basic definitions of a sacrament – a sign which brings about what it signifies.

‘Isn’t it faith in Jesus that makes us his disciples, though?’ some might say. ‘Yes,’ is the short answer. But we must remember that faith is God’s gift, and not something we can come to on our own: that is why, at the start of the rites of Christian initiation of adults, the priest asks the candidate, ‘What do you seek of the Church of God?’ and the answer is, ‘Faith.’ It is God’s grace, of course, that also draws us to the Sacrament (directly or through our parents), that plants the first seeds of faith in our heart, inviting our cooperation, but it is in the Sacrament of Baptism itself that he gives us the faith which saves us.

Nevertheless, the Church has always held that some who have not received the actual sacrament are saved: how are we to reconcile that? The Church’s understanding is that all who are saved by Christ stand in some relation to the Church and the Baptism which incorporates people into it: there is some desire, explicit or implicit, to do what must be done to enter into the relationship with God which he makes possible for Christians.
How are we saved through this faith that Baptism gives us and shows forth? Among other things, this faith is what constitutes the Church (of which we receive membership by our Baptism), that community of faith which is also the Body of Christ. By our Baptism, we are incorporated into Christ’s Body, the body of him who died and rose again in the glory of the Father: indeed, as St Paul teaches us, our Baptism is a sharing in the death of Christ, symbolised by the descent into the water, that we might also share his resurrection (cf. Rom 6: 3-4; Col 2: 12).

Our sharing in Christ’s death is also symbolised in Baptism by the death to sin which it entails: Baptism is that new birth of water and the Spirit of which Jesus speaks to Nicodemus (Jn 3: 5), which washes away all the sin of our past life and begins a new life in Christ.

Christ’s death and resurrection, we have seen, is central to Baptism: it is what has won for us the salvation we receive for ourselves in Baptism, and it is the sacramental incorporation into that death and resurrection which brings it about. It is unsurprising, then, that from the earliest times the Church has celebrated Baptism especially on Easter Night, as the whole Church gathers to celebrate the Resurrection.

So central, however, is the importance of Baptism that, although at the one end the ideal is a celebration on Easter Night by the Bishop amidst a large assembly of the faithful, this sacrament can be conferred by anyone (even an unbaptised person), so that no one should be denied the possibility of receiving the sacrament: all that is required is that someone, intending to do what the Church does, pour water over the candidate’s head, saying, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Such a Baptism, just like any other, confers all the graces discussed above, graces which leave a permanent mark, or ‘character’, on our soul: this character marks us out as Christ’s, however much we may fail to live up to all that that entails, and lays on us the responsibility of a Christian life and witness so that, conformed to our baptismal calling, we may enjoy the eternal life with Christ which it makes possible.

Gregory Pearson OP

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