Middle Voices

Web Links
Things Jack Wrote
Things others wrote
Fun Stuff
About Jack
Jack's Blog

Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

Part 2: Thinking about the Sacraments

The Catholic Church cherishes seven sacraments. This number doesn't follow automatically from any of the Church's definitions of sacraments or from what the historical Jesus did. But God gives us many graces. To Catholics it makes sense to have many ways to celebrate them. Still it's important to have a definite number. Life can't be all celebration or there would be nothing left to be celebrated. What sense would there be in signs if nothing were hidden? The early Christians saw God's grace just about everywhere, and they had a long list of signs of grace. Gradually a smaller list of special celebrations, the sacraments, was accepted. Ranking before all the items on this list, the Church also is a sacrament, a sign of Jesus' continuing activity in the world. Jesus himself is the first sacrament.

Thinking about Baptism

Baptism celebrates belonging to God and being born and welcomed into the family of God, the Church. We celebrate the addition of another member to that family, our own belonging to God and to each other, and the welcoming work that we do, the welcoming community that we are challenged to be.

I remember the honor of being godparent at the Baptisms of a newborn niece and nephew. I remember answering questions to indicate that I was willing to undertake this responsibility. Those were Sunday afternoon ceremonies held near the entrance of the church. Only immediate family and friends were present. It looked like holding a door open for the newly baptized to walk through and suddenly become one of us.

Today a baptism has the same basic elements that it always had, but it looks quite different. Baptisms take place at a central place in the church often during a crowded Sunday morning liturgy. Questions are addressed to the parents but now also to the whole community along with the godparents. It's the whole community that welcomes the child or adult being baptized. We all take responsibility for the baptized one. But the change goes deeper than just being a larger welcome and a broader network of caring for the individual. We are there because we need to be for our own sake.

In the past there would be a small, private gathering at the church entrance, and godparents would voice their assent to articles of faith and make baptismal promises for an infant who didn't have the voice to do it. Adult Baptisms were even more private than the "normal" infant Baptisms, and most of us didn't see them or think much about them. Today baptisms often are very public affairs, and adult baptisms are more public than infant baptisms. Parents of infants make the profession of faith and baptismal commitments and so also does the whole community. Adults who are baptized make their own commitment, of course, but not alone. All present make the same commitment. Obviously they don’t do this for the adult being baptized. If you take that as a clue, sooner or later it dawns on you that this ceremony is for all of us. It’s for ourselves that we make these commitments and professions of faith. Baptism isn't just a door for one person to walk through. The whole community changes when one person is baptized. Baptism isn't just for the individual; it's a gift to the believing community.

The Baptism of infants, those who cannot choose for themselves, is a reminder that our membership in the Church is, first of all, God's choice. It also emphasizes the confident hope that is characteristic of a community that welcomes all newcomers—even when you really can't know what you're getting. On the other hand, initiation of adults is acquiring greater visibility and importance today. A large part of this initiation is a walk together and a chance to grow in faith for both the individual and the community. During several Sunday liturgies before the actual Baptism, the whole community gets to witness parts of this extended process and gets to know better the person who has asked to join the Church. Adult Baptism lets us see that we are not just adding one more to our number; we are accepting into our family somebody with a history that enriches ours, somebody with gifts and graces we lacked before. We get to learn something about God that we didn't know before. Catholic missionaries these days don't think of themselves as bringing God to people in distant lands. Instead, they often say they find God's grace already at work among the people to whom they are sent. The newly baptized, whether adults or babies, are people who have much to offer to the Church.

The symbol that is unique to Baptism, pouring water or even immersion in water, is not primarily a sign of washing but of dying and rising. Water is both a destructive and a creative force. It can drown us. It also brings life and growth. That is why the process of Christian Initiation of Adults, with its extended catechumenate, or time of preparation, concludes at the Easter Vigil, the climax of our three-day celebration of Jesus’ dying and rising.

Going under the water in Baptism symbolizes dying to the old life and sin. Coming up again is like rising to a new life in God. This doesn't mean that at the moment of Baptism an individual abandons everything that was before and becomes something totally new. Grace was a large part of what went before the Baptism ceremony. But God’s grace does bring with it a lot of dying. In Baptism we celebrate the dying and rising work God's grace has been accomplishing for some time and continues to accomplish. And all that time, both before and after the celebration, this individual—an adult catechumen led by grace to the Church or an infant, a child of the grace of the sacrament of matrimony—is cradled in the arms of a loving God.

A dilemma for Christians has been how to reconcile our belief that God desires the salvation of every human being with the equally central belief that God chose as the instruments of our salvation something as limited to particular times and places as our celebrations of the sacraments or even the unique event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We say that without Baptism there is no salvation. It’s not too hard to imagine God's universal saving will being opposed by some individual’s human freedom—that God-like gift that makes us so different from the rest of material creation. A person simply says, "No!" and takes the consequences.  But when mere circumstance of birth or the failure of Christians to represent God truly to the world keeps people away from the Church and Baptism, we are at a loss to explain what is happening. So the Church sometimes thinks in terms of "baptism of desire," and when that category seems not to apply, we resign ourselves to trusting in God, whose mysterious ways are beyond our ability to comprehend. What we can say is that God radically affirmed every genuine way of being human—each limited to particular times and places and possibilities—by taking on a particular limited time and place and set of possibilities in the person of Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago.

The universality of God’s saving will shines forth in the way the Church celebrates Baptism today.  No longer do we stop the person seeking Baptism at the entrance of the empty church building on a Sunday afternoon, ceremonially open the door of Baptism and allow the individual into the place of God's grace. Rather, we think of Baptism as a moment that climaxes and celebrates a long history of God's work, starting with the sin that we call “Original.” God has many ways of healing the world of sin’s wound and welcoming back lost humanity. Not all of God’s works are pleasant to us, though some of them are. In every case God’s works are not, by design, punishment but salvation. This welcoming, saving love of God, going on all the time and everywhere, led historically to the sacrifice of God’s Son on the Cross. Jesus pours all of this love, saving all who are being saved, baptized with water or not, into some special time- and space-engulfing moments, the sacraments. Baptism reaches out even to ones who are not baptized.

We have welcomed the individuals to be baptized into our hearts and into our community well before the water is poured, and we do it again symbolically by inviting them into the heart of the church building, where the baptismal font is. We no longer think, "Before you didn't belong, and now you do."  It's more like "Thank God for you and for the treasures of grace that you bring. Thank you for showing us how much God loves us all from the very beginning."

New life, welcoming, and belonging are the predominant images of Baptism today. They were always present, but I would say that the image that predominated in my grade school, pre-Vatican II days was washing away the stain of sin, of Original Sin and any personal sins. The Bible story of the sin of Adam and Eve was not considered literal history. But the story of our first parents’ sin told us important things about our history and about us. The attractiveness of sin and the tragic quality we can’t help assigning to death are not natural, not intended by God. They are the result of a fall from grace. Every sacrament can be seen as, in some way, dealing with the result of this fall. All the sacraments are part of God’s plan to restore wholeness and blessedness to this world and cleanse our souls of sin. Baptism is unique in this work because it celebrates the beginning, God’s claiming and owning us.

The belonging that we celebrate in Baptism, psychologists say, is everyone's goal.  Baptism requires Christian families and communities to create ways of welcoming and walking with everyone, including strangers, people of diverse backgrounds, and those whose mistaken sense of their identity leads them to seek belonging through inappropriate or harmful behavior. Baptism is a frequently recurring challenge.

Baptism isn't just for one individual at a time; it's for all of us present and for the whole family of God. We are baptized individually, each on a particular day in our lives. But the reason Jesus commanded us to baptize "the nations" isn't to save more and more individuals. Unless the Church is reborn of water and the Holy Spirit over and over, it cannot be saved. Unless we welcome the stranger, and do it over and over again, we cannot be saved.

Think again:

What things have you felt when you watched as a baby or an adult went under the water of Baptism? What feelings are added if you think of yourself with the whole community there as one of the important signs of the sacrament of Baptism? If you’ve seen adults going through the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, how has that experience added to your understanding of and feelings about Baptism?

 On to 10, Confirmation