Baptism – Being Born Again of Water and the Spirit
March 2, 2012 Leave a comment
“Already” and “Not yet”
The Church has a double nature and function: preparation and fulfillment. The Church points to and tends beyond itself, beyond the present, and its function is to make us enter into that preparation by transforming our life and referring it to its fulfillment into the Kingdom of God. The Church is preparation and fulfillment, for Christ has come, and in him man was deified and has ascended into heaven.
The Holy Spirit has come and his coming has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. We live in this double reality of the “already” and the “not yet,” and Baptism is that which marks the entrance into the Kingdom of God, through dying and rising again with Christ. This is an act of the whole Church as the Body of Christ which recapitulates his life, passion and ascension. The whole Church is changed, enriched and fulfilled when another child of God is integrated into her life and becomes a member of Christ’s Body.
Baptism and Easter
The connection between Baptism and Pascha is key not only to Baptism but to the totality of the Christian faith itself. The celebration of Baptism by the Church, i.e., with the participation of the people of God, is an event in which the whole Church acknowledges herself as passage from this world into the Kingdom of God. Whenever Baptism is celebrated, we find ourselves on the eve of Pascha, at the very end of the great and holy “Sabbath,” the night that gives way to the day of eternal light. The use of water makes clear the cosmic content, depth, and significance of the sacrament, for water is one of the most ancient and universal of all religious symbols; it is the symbol of destruction and death, and it is also the symbol of creation, of life, of purification, of regeneration.
Creation, fall and redemption, life and death, resurrection and life eternal, are all realities that are cosmic and comprise the content of the Christian faith. In the blessing of the waters, the petition says, “that we may be illumined by the light of understanding and piety, and by the descent of the Holy Spirit;” in this way the Church acknowledges the corporate character of Baptism at the very beginning of the celebration.
Baptism is not an affair between the priest and the one being baptized; rather, just as water represents and stands for the entire cosmos, the entire Church receives the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and is involved in this act of recreation and redemption. Baptism is not a magical act adding some supernatural powers to our natural faculties, but the beginning of life eternal itself, which unites us here in this world with the world to come, and makes us, even now in this life, partakers of God’s Kingdom.
Is Baptism only a Symbol?
Baptism unites a person to Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection. Thus the Christian life begins with an event, not with a mere representation; Baptism is what it represents. The new life that begins at Baptism is a life lived in and through the Church, into the Kingdom of God actualized through her in the Holy Spirit – and so by definition Baptism is an ecclesial event. Baptism is not a mere ritual that is validly performed, but most importantly, it depends upon faith – but this faith that gives substance and reality to Baptism is the faith of Christ.
There is a difference between the faith which converts an unbeliever to Christ, and the faith which constitutes the very life of the Church and of her members, and which St Paul defines as having in us Christ’s mind, i.e., his faith, his love, and his desire. Both faiths are gifts from God, but while the former is a response to God’s call, the latter is the very reality of that to which the call summons.
Therefore, Baptism depends totally and exclusively on Christ’s faith. Those who are baptized “put on Christ,” and receive his life as their life and thus his faith, love and desire as the very content of their lives. And the presence in this world of Christ’s faith is the Church because she is his Body, we are his members; she has no other task in the world but to communicate Christ to us. Therefore, it is on the faith of the Church that Baptism depends. It is in the faith of the Church that Baptism becomes both tomb and mother. Baptism has the Church as its reality and fulfillment; it is by nature an ecclesial event.
Prophets, Priests, and Kings
In Baptism we are united to Christ, who is Prophet, Priest and King, and so we are also anointed with him as prophets, priests and kings. As kings, we restored unto liberation from slavery and idolatry, so we may reign with Christ in the Kingdom of God. The world acquires its intended meaning, and we begin to perceive it and experience it, not in itself, but in God and as the sign of his Kingdom.
As priests, we participate in the Church’s work of being God’s gift, presence and new life in the world, for the Church is offering, sacrifice and communion. The Church is priestly in her relationship to herself, for her life is to offer herself to God, and she is priestly in her relationship to the world, for her mission is to offer the world to God and thus to sanctify it. United to Christ, our anointing as priests calls us to sanctify and transform ourselves and our lives, as well as the world given to each of us as our kingdom. We constantly offer our life, our work, our joys and our sufferings to God; our lives become a liturgy.
Finally, as prophets, we become, in and through the Church, the ones who earn God’s voice, respond to it, and proclaim it in the world. Prophecy is the power given to man always to discern the will of God, to hear his voice and to be his witnesses and agents of divine wisdom. Therefore, our restored image as prophets, priests and kings is exercised in the womb of the Church and through her life. This restoration is given us in our union with Christ, and this takes place through Baptism as an ecclesial event.
The liturgy of Baptism is not for baptizands only, since the Church gave that celebration a double focus, expressing the double experience of Pascha: the end and the beginning. Pascha is the end of the history of salvation, and entrance into the new day without evening into the Kingdom of God. The Sabbath is the last day of the old time, and Baptism makes us partake of that blessed end. But the end is also the announcement of the new day, when the Resurrection of Christ is celebrated as telos and fulfillment.
Pascha reveals the time and the life of the Church as being always the epiphany of the end, and by its nocturnal and eschatological celebration, it reveals them always as the beginning. Baptism participates in the same functions; the waters of Baptism bring death to the old man, the old eon, sin and death, and the beginning of the new life in Christ. The post-Baptismal procession seals the new life received in Baptism in a dynamic way, for the passage from this world into the Kingdom of God is a procession toward that day without evening of God’s eternity. It connects Baptism, the sacrament of regeneration, with the Eucharist, the sacrament of the Church.
Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist
Baptism is an organic part of the three-fold structure of the liturgy of initiation: Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist; and only within this original structure can the full meaning of Baptism be grasped and understood. Chrismation is the fulfillment of Baptism, and the Eucharist is the fulfillment of Chrismation. In Baptism we are born again of water and the Spirit, and so we become open to the gift of the Spirit in our personal Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit also opens to us access to the Church and to Christ’s table in his Kingdom. We are baptized so that we may receive the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Holy Spirit so that we may become living members of the Body of Christ, growing within the Church into the fullness of Christ’s stature.
This is why the Fathers saw the Eucharist as the sacrament of all sacraments, because it fulfills the entire life of the Church. In this way, Baptism cannot be separated from the Eucharist because it is fulfilled in it. Baptism is an ecclesial event unto the fulfillment in the crowning point and climax of the Eucharistic liturgy, which actualizes the Church as new creation, redeemed by Christ, reconciled with God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and given access to heaven.
Baptism and Personhood
Just as the whole life of the Church stems from Pascha and takes us through Pentecost unto another Pascha, our whole life stemming from Baptism has been made into a passage: the pilgrimage and ascension toward the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom. As we proceed, fight, and work, the light of that Day already illumines our path, for we live not only in the “not yet,” but also in the “already.” Baptism is indeed a means of grace, but it is not aimed just at the individual. It is an intrinsic part of the Church and her life as that new reality which precisely overcomes and transcends all individualism, and transforms individuals into persons.
Human beings are persons only because and inasmuch as they are united to God, and in him, to one another and to the whole of life. To be and to fulfill itself as family is the very essence of the Church. Mankind was created as a family, whose natural unity was to be fulfilled as unity with God. It is not by accident that the first fruit of sin is presented in Scripture as the murder of one brother by another.
Baptism and Redemption
The redemption of man consists in his redemption as member of a family, in the restoration of life itself as family. In and through the Eucharist, Christ gathers us into one, in the Holy Spirit. The Church gathers us into one. We are grafted into the Church and united to Christ by Baptism – a thoroughly ecclesial event.
As the Priest blesses a child just baptized, he says, “O Lord God Almighty . . . Thou hast brought him into being, and hast shown him the physical light, and hast appointed him to be vouchsafed in due time spiritual light, and that he may be numbered among Thy chosen flock . . .” Baptism is not one isolated means of grace among many, but that essential act by which the Church always reveals and communicates her own faith, her experience, of man and the world, of creation, fall and redemption, of Christ and the Holy Spirit of the new life of the new creation, as indeed the source of the whole life of the Church and of the Christian life in each of us.