Sacraments. The word conjures up a sense of the mystical and the transcendent. The etymology of the word sacrament strengthens this sense. The English word sacrament is born of the Latin word sacre, and is translated as sacred or hallowed. From the Greek translation, we get the word musterion, which we translate into the word mystery. These two ancient languages provide us with a working definition of the sacraments as a sacred mystery.
Saint Augustine provides us with the paradigmatic definition of the sacraments, “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification”.
The purpose of the sacraments is to “Sanctify, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to worship God. Because they are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it” (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council).
The Catholic Church enumerates seven sacraments, all of them instituted by Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, accepting these sacraments was a process conducted over time. These seven sacraments, officially named in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, would not be officially codified until the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Over time these seven sacraments were further divided into three categories: initiation, healing, and service. It seems only natural to begin with baptism.
Baptism is the sacrament most associated with entry into the Christian faith. Nevertheless, its origins appear in the Jewish ritual known as “tevilah” as described in the book of Leviticus. Specifically, these rituals describe the process of spiritual cleansing.
The book of Leviticus develops a leitmotif upon ritual washing and the necessity of cleanliness before God. It was paramount that one was pure before sacrificing in the Temple, which was the center of Jewish life.
This cleansing was also considered a form of repentance, and it is in this vein that John the Baptist would baptize. Repentance was necessary for the forgiveness of past sins. However, as John the Baptist understood, this was insufficient and that the One who was to come after John would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11).
It may be helpful to understand the spiritual significance of water in both Judaism and Catholicism. The word water occurs over five hundred times in the Old Testament and is used to signify both creation and regeneration. However, water’s power to cleanse makes it symbolic of baptism. As Saint John Damascene writes, “Water, then, is the most beautiful element and rich in usefulness, and purifies from all filth, and not only from the filth of the body but from that of the soul, if it should have received the grace of the Spirit”. It is no coincidence then that Jesus speaks of “the living water” which refers to the Holy Spirit (John 4:10 and John 7:37-39).
Within the New Testament context, baptism symbolized the death of the old self and the rebirth of a new life, to be manifested by faith in and obedience to God. It is Saint Paul who eloquently articulates this principle, “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in the newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).
Baptism symbolizes this new birth, this being born again, that allows one to become an adopted child of God and a member of Christ’s body, the Catholic Church. For it is in baptism that cleanses us from original sin, thereby reinstating our status as adopted children of God and heirs of heaven, a status lost at the Fall.
As baptism is the first sacrament administered by the Church, it can be seen as an initiation. Indeed, the theologian and author Tertullian observed that much like the oath taken by a soldier, which begins the soldier’s life in the military, so too the sacrament of baptism initiates the Christian into the Catholic Church.
The basis for baptism as it relates to salvation is most clearly articulated in the Gospel of John. In John 3:3, we read, “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God”. To be “born anew” is to die to the flesh, which is infected with original sin, and be born into the spirit, the effect of which is to restore the grace lost by original sin.
It is convenient to view baptism negatively by stating that it takes away sin. However, restoring the Grace that was lost by original sin should also be understood positively. From this, it becomes clear that the cleansing of original sin makes baptism necessary for salvation since original sin would act as a barrier to entry into heaven.
Finally, baptism often conjures up the image of a priest pouring water from a baptismal font onto a baby’s head. However, the Catholic Church distinguishes between three types of baptism.
The first is the most common, that of baptism by water. The second type of baptism is that of the baptism of martyrdom. This is a baptism of one who dies for the faith before he has had a chance to be baptized. The third type is the baptism of desire, by which one is justified through faith and perfect contrition before baptism can occur.
It is in baptism that one dies, but it is also in baptism that one begins anew. The journey has only begun.