The Sacrament of Baptism

By Rev. Fr. Oliver Onah

Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist form the Sacraments of Christian Initiation because they both touch on all the significant moments of the Christian life and give birth and increase mission to the Christian life of faith and morals (cf St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, q.61, a.1c; q.65,1). They lay the foundation of Christian life. In fact, the participation in the divine life given to human beings through the grace of Jesus Christ demands that the faithful be regenerated through Baptism, strengthened through Confirmation and enriched with the food of eternal life with the Holy Eucharist.

By the instrumentality of these Sacraments of Christian Initiation, human persons receive in increasing measure, the treasures of the divine life, know the proper way to heaven and advance through the perfection of grace. Baptism is that sacred rite, in and through which the human person, being washed with water in the name of the Divine Persons in the one Godhead, is spiritually reborn for eternal life in God the Trinity.

Why did Jesus subscribe to water (instead of palm kernel oil or any other liquid) as matter of this Sacrament? In addition to some cultural underpinnings, water is a universal solvent used for washing amongst all other liquids. J.Martos observes that water is a natural symbol and naturally lends itself to symbolizing many things. Water cleanses and in many religions, people wash themselves as a sign that they want to be or have been made clean spiritually and physically. Water refreshes.

In some religions, bathing in rivers enables people to experience a regeneration of energy and so feel connected to the source of that energy. Water gives life, and so, initiation rituals which mark the beginning of a new way of life often involve washing in water. Nonetheless, water also brings death. Thus, in some religious myths, water symbolizes the chaotic state of things before life began. In other religions, death is sea from across which no one returns.

Ritual washing and bathing were common in the religions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In ancient Israel, persons who had sexual intercourse or who touched a dead body were considered unclean and unfit for religious worship until they went through a ritual of purification. In Palestine at the time of Christ, gentiles who wanted to become Jews were initiated by circumcision, baptism and sacrifice. A Jewish sect called Essenes also practiced a regular ritual washing in order to purify and sanctify themselves.

The Greek word bapto means "to dip" or "to immerse". John's baptism and the early Christian baptism meant being completely submerged underwater. Jesus underwent John's baptism before he began teaching in public but the message he preached went further than John's (cf Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church, USA, Image Book edition, 1982, pp. 163-164).

The target of Christian Baptism is cleansing from Original Sin and initiation into a new life in Christ. Baptism marks a dividing line between the old and the new, between waiting for the Messiah and finding him, between living with guilt and living with forgiveness, between being in a community of law and being in a community of love. After this holy exercise, the person who was nobody before, becomes somebody. A slave becomes a freeborn and can now call God Abba.

A public property becomes a private property of God guarded with a jealous eye. It can be compared with a thick forest that belonged to nobody but as soon as a portion of it is cleared and cultivated, it becomes a private property of the farmer who now begins to take special care of it. Little wonder after Jesus was baptized the voice of the Father was heard from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son."

Think also of animal offered to a dreaded idol. It is viewed with the fear of the sacred. If it were a lady, no 'normal' man in ordinary sense of the word can ask for her hand in marriage. That is exactly the osu case system in Igbo land. By Baptism, we are offered to the Supreme Deity who now takes special care of his property which we thus become. This being the case, why all this fear in the lives of our Christians today? All that God requires of us is to reject Satan and his evil schemes and effectively live our Baptismal calling and He will surely show that we are His valued private property.

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