Last week I mentioned that the Rite of Baptism in the Catholic church makes rich use of signs, symbols and sacramentals to help us better understand and build our faith. Sacramentals are sacred signs that signify the effects of the sacrament which makes use of them. Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way the sacraments do. Rather, they are used to prepare us to receive the grace of the sacrament and to fully incorporate that grace into our life. In Baptism, for instance, we use the sacramentals of water, sacred oils, white garments and light to help us focus on God’s saving grace received though the sacrament.
As Baptism is a sacrament of salvation, the first sign used in the Rite is the sign of the cross. After beginning the Rite with it, the priest or deacon traces the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person being baptized. He then invites the parents and godparents to do the same. This action recalls Christ’s death and resurrection and the redemption it brought to us through his saving cross. Acting in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, this symbolic action claims the person being baptized in the name of Christ and the Christian community.
Water is probably the most well-known sacramental used in Baptism. We all know what water is used for in everyday life. It’s used to make things clean and to refresh us. We bathe in it, wash our clothes in it and drink it to sustain us. Just so, in Baptism we use the water of the baptismal font to wash away the stain of original sin and make us new creations in Christ. The grace received from the waters of Baptism sustain us in life as we journey toward God’s heavenly kingdom.
The prayer used to bless the baptismal water is a powerful symbol of what we believe. If you listen closely as it is prayed you may recognize a synopsis of our “salvation history.” The blessing of the baptismal water recalls key events in the course of history when water was used to cleanse and save us and to bestow God’s grace upon us. Those events include: the dawn of creation as God breathed his Holy Spirit on the waters and created life on earth; the waters of the great flood which brought a new beginning to mankind; the waters of the Red Sea, through which God’s people were freed from slavery (of sin); the waters of the Jordon river, making holy the water of the sacrament through the baptism of Jesus; and the sacred water which flowed from the side of Our Lord as he hung upon the cross. In each of these instances man was cleansed from sin and given a new birth by water and the spirit.
The action of anointing with oil is used twice during the sacrament. This act has its origins in ancient times – when people were anointed to bring them healing or strength. The sick or injured were anointed with oil to nurture the healing process. Soldiers and warriors were anointed prior to engaging in battle, invoking the protection and grace of God. Even kings were anointed at their coronations so that they may be given the wisdom and strength to lead their people in
The oil of catechumens is used for the first anointing. Faithful to its ancient origin, this holy oil is used to trace the sign of the cross on the breast of the baptized while a prayer is said asking God to bring them strength and protection. Like all of us before them, the children to be baptized will have to face the world with all of its temptations and fight the devil in all of his cunning. We ask God to strengthen the children with the grace of Christ and watch over them at every step of life’s journey. This is yet another reminder of how the person is being called in baptism to renounce sin and leave behind the domination of the power of evil.
Later in the Rite each person baptized is also anointed with the oil of sacred chrism. The Sacred Chrism is a heavily perfumed oil that was blessed on Holy Thursday by the bishop of the diocese. It is the same oil used to anoint the hands of a priest at his ordination and the oil used in current day coronations of kings. Anointing with this oil sets us apart and marks us with the chrism of salvation. The priest or deacon anoints the child with the Sacred Chrism on the crown of the head. Just as Jesus was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so now is the child anointed to share in the those attributes of Our Lord. Through this anointing we are welcomed into the common priesthood of the body of Christ; called to be prophets by proclaiming his Gospel through the actions of our life; and receive a share of his kingship that is the kingdom of God.
It’s common for the baptized to wear a white garment during the celebration of the sacrament. This garment is an outward sign that the person has become a new creation in Christ, with all traces sin washed from their soul. It calls attention to the Christian dignity of the newly baptized and serves to remind their family, friends and the whole Christian community of the responsibility they bear to help and support the newly baptized by their words and the example of their lives.
As you attend Mass each week you may have noticed a large candle standing by the baptismal font. This is the paschal or “Easter” candle. It was first lit on the night of the Easter Vigil and carried into the church which sat in total darkness. As the candle was carried into the sanctuary by the deacon, three times he stopped to sing “Christ our Light.” At the second stop, everyone in the church lit an individual candle from the paschal candle until the entire church was ablaze in the light of Christ.
The paschal candle remains lit throughout the baptismal ceremony – reminding us that we too, through our baptism, are always bathed in the light of Christ. The father or godfather of the baptized child lights an individual candle from the paschal candle as we pray for the child to “Receive the light of Christ.” This symbol of Christ’s holy light is entrusted to the parents and godparents to keep the flame of faith burning brightly in the life of the baptized.
There are many other signs, symbols and sacramentals used in this beautiful rite of the Church. Each has a purpose – directing us, the faithful, to reflect on the mystery of salvation at work in our life. The next time you get a chance to attend a baptism, take a moment to let the mystery of the sacrament reveal itself to you. Reflect on your own baptism and how you have been embraced and loved by Jesus in your life. And celebrate this joyful occasion by welcoming the newly baptized into the family of God.
Next week I’ll move on to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Until then, God’s peace and blessing to all.