Dying and Rising in Baptism
Thomas Aquinas, a theologian, once described a sacrament as an outward sign of an inward reality instituted by Christ to give grace (Murphy 1). Baptism is the first of the seven sacraments recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and is also one of three rites of initiation into the Roman Catholic Church. In the early years of Judaism, water was used as a method of cleansing believers who had become unclean through a variety of actions (Hyatt 255). For example, after a man discharged semen, he was considered unclean; this man would then need to be cleansed through a purification process, which happened to be performed with water. Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College and the author of the book Catholic Christianity, writes that water was used for purification because it is the source of life (309). He explains that because water is a foundational element upon which life was formed, everyone and everything is drawn to it. Kreeft believes that water has the ability to rejuvenate the human soul and that it symbolizes the divine life.
This initiation process using water, which came to be known as baptism, began to be used in the Jewish faith for two main reasons: (1) to remove impurities from believers and (2) to prepare believers to live a new life with God (Hyatt 256). Three witnesses would watch as the believer was completely submerged into the water. Baptism joined the individual into the faith, and was therefore meant only for true believers who desired to dedicate themselves to a life with God. The Qumran sect of the Essenes, whose concept of baptism was almost exactly like that of the Hebrews, stated that no person was to be baptized unless he had first repented for his sins because the purification process would fail; this is because anyone who had broken the laws of God was considered impure (Hyatt 259).
Christian baptism evolved from these aforementioned forms as a right of initiation into the Church. John Paul, who was certainly influenced by the Essenes, if not the Hebrews as well, was a preacher who had been baptizing believers into the Christian faith before the appearance of Jesus Christ. Some scholars believe that baptism became widely accepted in the Church because Christ allowed John Paul to baptize him; evidence suggests that Christ accepted baptism as a way to purify a person spiritually (McBrien 588-589). According to Peter Kreeft however, although all sins, such as original sin and personal sin are forgiven in baptism, the human proclivity to sin remains (Catholic Christianity 308).
It was at this time that the idea of death and rebirth in baptism first appeared. John Paul believed that baptism symbolized both the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the death and resurrection of the believer (Hyatt 265). In a certain sense, the believer did not merely imitate Christ, but rather became Him. Consequently, in Christ’s dying and rising, the believer died and rose as well. Paul believed that baptism somehow created a mystical union between Jesus Christ and the believer, meaning that once it was forged, Christ would be with the believer at all times (Hyatt 265). Upon competition of baptism, the believer arose to new life with God and became a disciple of Christ. This entered him into the community of the Church, having wholly devoted himself to following the Word of God.
In his article Baptized into Life and Death, Paul Mallia said, “When the Christian works or suffers, hungers after an ideal or alleviates the hardships of poverty and sickness, strives for human progress through the mill of daily duty or through a bold and risky venture, he is not alone” (425). Through baptism, believers receive new life in Christ, meaning that Christ is now a part of them forever and for always. This wonderful effect of baptism can be seen as a spiritual transformation that transfers grace and calls upon the Holy Spirit to aid the believer in his daily life (Catholic Christianity 308). When the believer is enjoying life, Christ is there. When the believer struggles, Christ is there. Christ’s presence provides the comfort that the believer is not alone; Christ experiences that which the believer experiences.
Another positive effect of baptism can be traced to Lumen Gentium, in which Pope John Paul VI, wrote, “The eternal Father, by free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world” (1). This means that each person is put on Earth for a reason. Each of us was created in the image and likeness of God, and He has a divine plan for all of his children. In some way, each individual is supposed to be performing God’s work. God refuses to leave man in the broken state that Adam and Eve unknowingly thrust upon the human race. Because of his immense and everlasting love, God consistently lends a hand to all those who need him. He guides all of mankind toward Him, toward His love, toward true fulfillment (Lumen Gentium 21). True freedom is attained only when believers know God. The only way to learn of God’s divine plan and participate in it is just that – to know God. This is done by listening to Him and growing in the Christian faith. Baptism, as a rite of initiation into the Church, is therefore a necessary requirement to fulfill one’s true purpose.
Paul Mallia believed that the human condition of death and sin that Adam passed on to the entire human race hinted at a gift that was to come; that gift was Jesus Christ, who was given by God, out of His vast love, to pay for the sins of the human race (426). Man continues to sin, creating an imbalance in justice. According to Lumen Gentium, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to Earth, sent by the Father, to save mankind by offering the promise of eternal life (9). As part of his salvific mission, Christ suffered, was crucified, and died on the Cross. Man does not have what it takes to satisfy justice, so Christ sacrifices himself for the sake of man. Through his death and resurrection, Christ protects man from definitive evil and definitive suffering.
God can only be accessed through Jesus Christ, which means that the believers must know Him. Through His birth by Mary, God is humanized as Jesus Christ. The Incarnation brings God within reach of the community of the faithful and creates a relationship between God and His children through the human suffering that Jesus Christ shares in.
According to Mallia, baptism and this formation of a relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary because man is a body of sin without Him (427). Mallia believes that humans tend to gravitate toward sin because of the human condition which was passed down by Adam. He asserts that Jesus Christ is the answer to this problem. Christ’s death and resurrection destroyed sin and death, which allows the believers an opportunity to be saved. Upon being baptized, we share in Christ’s death and are reborn with Him into new life. This progression symbolizes the love the Father has for the human race, having given his son for the sake of man. In the religious text Catholic Christianity, Peter Kreeft described baptism as the most radical life-changing event in your supernatural life (307). In essence, we die to the old form and are born into a new form. We experience internal changes that we may not understand, but rest assured we are never the same again.
Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff, authors of Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ, claim that when a person is baptized, he is stripped of his garments and baptized into death. However, they state that only Christ actually dies. They maintain that the act of stripping off the garments symbolizes the substitution of Christ for the believer (542). Scroggs and Groff reason that man cannot possibly die like Christ, and therefore, Christ must die in our place. Following the disrobing and immersion into water, the believers are blessed through the use of the Trinitarian Formula, anointed with holy oils, like Chrism, enrobed in white garments, and given candles (McBrien 815). The immersion or being washed over with water signifies death, and the baptism brings about new life. The white garment signifies the new purity of the believer, while the candle represents the believer’s new life of holiness.
The believer’s death in baptism is intimately related to Christ’s Paschal Mystery; for Christ, taking upon himself all the sins of the world; for the believers, taking upon the elements of suffering in our daily lives leads to our participation in the Paschal Mystery as well. Saint Ambrose once stated, “Baptism comes from…the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved” (Kreeft 311). Jesus Christ died on the cross and ascended into Heaven. Man can never fully understand how this occurred or why they were saved, but the bond created by Christ’s actions will remain with us forever.
Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism is not experienced just one time. Just as Jesus Christ died on the cross and was resurrected, man dies and rises daily. Speaking to Christ’s disciples, Saint Paul explains this idea by saying,
“I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you
in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely
human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, Let us
eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (The Resurrection of the Dead ).
Saint Paul is saying that like Jesus Christ, we must die and rise before we can live. This means dying to the old life, and being reborn to a new life with Christ. This idea does not only apply to baptism though. Everyday, Christians must choose to accept the challenges of being a believer in the risen Lord and strive each day to draw closer to Jesus Christ. This is the promise made by the believer at baptism. The mission of the Church is to spread the Word of God and expose people to Him, in the hope that people convert to Christianity (Redmptoris Missio 1). The covenant created at baptism calls the believers to learn about God, and to spread the Good News. The believers were given the opportunity by God to share in his life and to be saved; therefore, the community of the faithful has the responsibility to assist the Church in guiding others to God. People have the right to know of the gift that the baptized have already received and to freely approach it.
Baptism is not only one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the three rites of initiation into the Church, but it is a profound gift as well. As with many gifts, it comes with intrinsic responsibilities. Baptism has the amazing ability to create a bond between Christ and his faithful followers, allowing them to share in His death and resurrection and instilling in them His likeness, while also cleansing them of their sins. The baptized are then accepted into the community of the Church and called to participate in evangelization, in order to guide others toward the Christian faith too.
- Hyatt, J. Philip. “The Origin and Meaning of Christian Baptism.” Encounter 21. (1960): 225-268. 6 Mar 2010.
- Kreeft, Peter. Catholic Christianity. SF, CA: Ignatius Pr, 2001. 307-314.
- Mallia, Paul. “Baptized into Death and Life.” Worship 39. (1965): 425-430. 8 Mar 2010.
- Murphy, Micah. “What Do You Adore?.” In Layman’s Terms. N.p., 12 Feb 2010. 29 Apr 2010. <http://www.in-laymans-terms.com/2010/02/12/what-do-you-adore/>.
- Paul II, John. “Redemptoris Missio.” Conciliar Decree Ad Gentes. St. Peter’s, Rome, 1990. 1-22.
- Paul VI, John. “LUMEN GENTIUM.” Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (1964): 1-26. 12 Apr 2010.
- “The Resurrection of the Dead.” THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV®. 3rd. Biblica, 1984.
- Scroggs, Robin, and Kent I. Groff. “Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ.” Journal of Biblical Literature 92.4 (1973): 531-548. 6 Mar 2010.