Baptism, Part I

In 1970, the rock band Chicago sang “Only the beginning / of what I want to feel forever.” If a child or adult preparing for Baptism could sing a song about Baptism, that would be it; although some raucous crying cherubs might chime in with a chorus of “Splish-splash.” In any event Baptism is “only the beginning” of one being re-born into Christ. Baptism is, like all sacraments, a nexus of the natural and the supernatural; it is a moment when Christ is made palpably present to a person for the first time. More specifically, Baptism is the sacrament of spiritual rebirth: through the symbolic action of washing with water and the use of appropriate ritual words, the baptized person is cleansed of his sins and incorporated into Christ. But more details on all that next issue. For now, let’s get down to the Baptismal basics.



The Matter of Form: Getting it Rite

If you want to pay your taxes legitimately, you need to use the right form and list the proper financial matters. If instead you send the IRS a stick ’em note with the contents of your piggy bank, but no info from your W-2 form, your tax return will likely be sent back to you as invalid (and perhaps the perfunctory fine and jail time might be threatened just for good measure). If the form and the matter are erroneous, big trouble awaits – things must be done properly for validity’s sake. So, too, for Baptism! Baptism (like all Sacraments) requires the proper “form” (words/actions) and “matter” (natural elements) in order to be validly confected. Okay, let’s get specific. In order for a valid Baptism to occur, three things are needed. Firstly, there needs to be appropriate matter, namely an unbaptized person and natural water (e.g., not seltzer, soda water, etc). Secondly, there needs to be the proper form of words and ritual action. The words in this case are simple; the minister of the Sacrament says, “I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” While those words are being said, the minister of the Sacrament pours water upon the brow of the person’s (child’s) head three times; he pours at each Name of the Trinity: “Father,” “Son” and “Spirit.” Thirdly, the minister of the Sacrament must possess the right intention, that is to say he must have the intention of Church in his actions.


Cleansing with a Fuller Brush

Now, what I just described is the minimum needed for validity of the Sacrament… in an emergency situation one might be baptized in that simple, quick manner. But the Rite of Baptism is much fuller than this when confected more fitfully.

Let’s start with a common scenario, let’s say Mike and Monica have a child, let’s say his name is Ronald. Being faithful parents they want to get Ronald baptized. So, they go to their parish, St. Christina the Astonishing Church, and they arrange for a Baptism. They will likely be told that before they can have their baby Baptized, they have to attend a Baptism Class to help them understand the Sacrament better. Once they do this, the Baptism is scheduled (changed from pencil to ink on the parish calendar).

Now, the parents start to ponder: Who will be my child’s Godmother and Godfather? If you are not familiar with Catholic practices, you might be asking: What is a Godmother? What is a Godfather? How does one get these?

Well, let’s start by clarifying that this Godmother is not some magical character in Cinderella nor is the Godfather some Marlon Brandon-looking Mafioso. Nope! The Godfather and the Godmother are the man and the woman who are going bring their Catholic witness to the life of your child. They are practitioners of the Catholic faith who will serve to help raise and care for your kids, notably in the ways of the faith. This person should be chosen well; it must be a person who is living his or her life in conformity to the Catholic faith. So, this means that dear Aunt Desdemona who is on husband number seven and Cousin Romulus who is living with a woman (not his wife) should be crossed off the list. Also, the godparent should be 16 years of age or older, and should be confirmed. A non-Catholic Christian may never be a Godparent, however they can be a “Christian witness” to the child’s baptism; the non-Catholic Christian must have been baptized according the proper form and matter designated earlier in this article. An unbaptized person can never be a Christian witness.

Once this is done, you look forward to that glorious day of Baptism. When you arrive at the Church, the Ritual usually occurs at the entrance way to the Church or at least away from the Baptismal font. The priest asks you for your intentions (“Baptism”) and for the child’s anticipated name. I should mention at this point, the child’s name must fit within the context of Christian tradition or at minimum, not go against it. Hence Devil (name for Satan), Zeus (a false god), Moon-Unit (ridiculous name), and Seven-of-Nine (Star Trek character) would likely not be acceptable names.

Following a reading from scripture, a brief homily, some intercessions and invoking a litany of the Saints, the action begins.

  • A Devil-May-Care Prayer. A prayer of exorcism is prayed over the child. Some folks like to minimize this and say it is not really an exorcism, but it is. If there is any malevolent force keeping this child from the fullness of Baptism, it is cast out quicker than a porcupine from a balloon factory!
  • Oil Be There. The child is then anointed over the heart with the Oil of Catechumen. This ritual goes back to ancient times when oils were used as a sign of strengthening or preparation. Way back when, when Baptism was primarily for adults (1st-3rd century), the preparation period was pretty intense for them, and so they received this oil to strengthen them for the process which concludes with Baptism and Confirmation being received conterminously. The child being readied for Baptism in our country today usually doesn’t receive Confirmation until much later in life. So, this Oil of Catechumen is applied for the years ahead during which he will learn about the faith to into which he is entering.
  • Waterworld. The Priest or Deacon blesses the water of the baptismal font invoking the images of how God has used water throughout the ages to show his power and presence in the world. It is interesting to note that God’s first earthly ministration was to move over the water and then separate the land from the water. The idea is that He who controls the water controls all of creation from very outset. He invokes the memory of the Jews being led through the waters of the Red Sea to salvation, the story of Noah and the great flood, Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan, etc. The final referent in this prayer is that blood and water flowed from the side of Christ after he had died on the Cross. It is from that water – from Christ himself – that the Sacrament of Baptism was instituted by Christ. It is from the Cross that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism – and those waters of new life are his!


The Big Event

Once the water is blessed, the Priest or Deacon then asks the parents and Godparents to profess their faith and make clear that they intend to raise the child to be baptized, in the Catholic faith: They have to renounce Satan and the lure of evil, among other things that one should gladly renounce. Once that is done, the actual Baptism occurs, as described earlier in this article. The child is now baptized – he is united to Christ in a most profound way! He has received Sanctifying Grace, forgiveness of sins, and new life in Christ -- the whole shebang! The angels exult, and in the background the sounds of the band Chicago (because of reading this article) echo: “Only the beginning / of what I want to feel forever.”