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Sacramental Life

The Sacrament of Baptism

Introducing Baptism

  • Why be baptised?
  • What difference does baptism make?
  • My Buddhist friend is much more kind and considerate than many other people in my year level and she’s not baptised.
  • Why don’t we let people choose their religion when they grow up?
  • What’s the point of all that messing about with water? Isn’t believing in Jesus, or living a good life enough?
These and many similar questions occur from time to time as young people (and also older people) come to grips with the meaning of baptism. They are good questions and worth exploring. This module of RESource hopes to indicate lines of thinking about Baptism which will provide not simply answers to questions but indicate ways of thinking about the sacrament which cast light on its meaning and purpose.

Note for Teachers

As you look through this module and especially the web sites recommended remember to ask yourselves these questions:
  • Is it readily understandable? Do I need to seek further explanation?
  • Is it in accordance with what I understand to be our shared Christian faith? Do I need to discuss this with other informed people? Do I need to read further?
  • Could I give this article to secondary students? Why or why not? At what secondary class level could it be discussed?
  • What ideas could I use from this article that would be of value and interest to my students?

What is Baptism?

Baptism is the first and foundational sacrament which incorporates believers into the Church, the Body of Christ. It is, in its essentials, a simple ritual. Candidates for baptism, either adult or infant, are immersed in water or have water poured over them while a priest (or in an emergency, anyone) says the words: ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
 
Adults who wish to be baptised prepare themselves by a period of prayer, study and experience of the life and faith of the Church normatively through the Adult Catechumenate, or RCIA, before they are received. On the other hand, infants of Christian families are baptised before they come to explicit personal faith. Presented by their parents, their baptism shows, particularly clearly the faith of the Church.  

 

Baptised in water

Water is the main sign or symbol used in this sacrament. It is a great natural symbol because water is full of meaning for human beings. Quite simply, without it we could not live. It is the medium in which we spend the first nine months of our existence. Water sustains all life on earth, quenches thirst, cleanses, refreshes, is powerful, buoyant and an archetypal symbol of purification and life. For all these reasons water is a rich sign of the life of God without whom we could not live. Passing through the water of the font to freedom and new life in Christ is the essential meaning of baptism. 

Water can also be a devastating force which can drown and destroy. For some, it is an archetypal symbol of chaos. This negative aspect as well as the positive makes water a powerful sign of dying and rising with Christ which is integral to the sacrament of Baptism.

Religious symbolism of water

Apart from its natural symbolism, water is of extraordinary significance in many faith traditions.
In the Jewish religion, water is used in rites of purification and cleansing. Both washing of hands and full immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath are used in traditional Jewish practice. Ritual cleansing in the mikvah is part of the rite of initiation for those converting to Judaism.
 
Water is also immensely significant in the great stories of Judaism. In the Old Testament we read of:
  • the creation: God’s spirit hovers over the waters and creation begins
  • the flood: waters cleanse the earth of evil and provide a new beginning for the human race
  • the exodus: Israel, passing through the waters of the Red Sea, is delivered from slavery in Egypt and after its sojourn in the desert crosses the river Jordan to enter the promised land.

There are many other references to life-giving waters throughout the Old Testament. Water is important in the New Testament also.

In the Gospels:

 
Each of these images from scripture open us to insights into the nature of God’s relationship with the world and human beings which have been pondered by Christians for 2000 years. Some of these water stories are referred to in the blessing of the baptismal water during the Easter Vigil while the account of Creation and the deliverance of the people of God through the waters of the Red Sea are included in the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil.  A short meditation on the symbolism and significance of water includes reference to the images used in the Blessing.

Further reading

  • A long but worthwhile introduction to sacramental symbols and their origins in everyday substances and their connection to human life is the article by Brian Gleeson Symbols and Sacraments: their human foundations on the Australian Catholic University site.
  • Some beautiful Australian images of water and its impact and effects are contained in a letter entitled The Gift of Water prepared by Catholic Earthcare Australia and endorsed by the Bishops of the Murray Goulburn districts.?

REFLECTIONS AND RESPONSES

  • Why do you think water plays such an important role in so many religious traditions?
  • Prepare a collage or PowerPoint of images suggesting the significance of water in the sacrament of Baptism. If you choose the PowerPoint option try to find a suitable piece of music or a song to accompany the images.
  • Make a mind-map of references to water in either the book of Genesis or in one of the Gospels. Use it to explore connections and contrasts in its meaning and symbolism. If you wish, use the concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to prompt you with references.
  • Could you explain how the waters of baptism are like: a bath; the waters of the womb; spring rains; a flood torrent?
  • If a Martian looked in the window of a church during a baptism by immersion what might he or she or it think was going on? How could the Martian’s first reaction give us a clue to what is actually happening in this sacrament?
  • Make a class anthology of water writings/paintings/photographs. What connections can you make between what poets and artists make of the experience of water and the use of water in Baptism?
  • The Bishops’ statement The Gift of Water says ‘We need a renewed spirituality of water that recognises its centrality for all life. We need to treasure it as the life-giving gift of God and as a beautiful sign of the life of God.’ As a class discuss steps you can take to develop a more holistic attitude to water.