CNA - Saint of the Day

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Essay 5 - Submitted Essay - Christians are made not born - Sacrament of Baptism

Tertullian and Conversion
When one reads into the life of this ecclesiastical writer, one can say with confidence that Tertullian was born of pagan parents and converted to Christianity.[1] His conversion from paganism to Christianity, revealed in his apologia, was a journey from enquiry into service[2], presumably through the gateway of Baptism. It was from this experience of radical change that he came to the conclusion that “Christians are made Christians and not born so.”[3] For most Catholics, this immense conversion experience has escaped our senses simply because of the age at which Baptism, the first of all the Catholic Sacraments to be received, is conferred. Yet it remains a most unique moment in the life of the individual because Baptism “the gateway to the sacraments, is necessary for salvation”[4]. Through this sacrament, “people are freed from sins, are born again as children of God and, made like to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church.”[5]  Those who have received Baptism as infants rely more on the “nurture of grace which often yet gradually brings one to the grace of conversion.”[6] This journey is one that is dependent on being surrounded and formed by those who follow Christ; in the first place parents then teachers, religious, friends and many significant others.  If Christians are made, not born, then someone is responsible for introducing them to and nurturing them in the faith, and for structuring circumstances that confer God’s sanctifying grace and aid their lifelong formation. 
Sacraments are outward signs
William A. Van Roo states that “A symbol is a meaningful sensuous image which terminates a human intentional operation, represents the imaged reality and may affect the human world with a manifold efficacy.”[7] Outward signs are messages, delivered through physical matter through which one communicates with the senses of another to promote an invisible truth. It is therefore necessary that not only the recipient but also those witnessing the conferral of any sacrament be immersed in the sensory signs of the invisible reality so that all may be renewed and strengthened in their Christian faith. Signs affecting sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste also serve to teach all involved that what they are witnessing is a supernatural action delivered through human means. Outward signs of the sacraments are a diptych of words and actions. In relation to Baptism, symbols of water, oils, light and the white garment are given significance through the actions of pouring, anointing and prayer. This combination of form and matter, essential to all sacraments ‘terminates the intentional operation’ and reveals the supernatural reality that it is Christ who acts to cleanse, heal and regenerate. The symbols observed and response returned, however, will remain inadequate if not understood with the context in which they rest. Symbols used in the conferral of a sacrament have their origin in the actions of Christ and their power in the grace that Christ attached to them. In other words, God’s grace is conveyed into our souls through material symbols that are permeated by grace.
               In the sacraments, we believe that Jesus is truly present, especially in the person of the minister of the sacrament who acts in persona Christi and in the sacramental signs. This “incarnational principle”[8] is the basis of the entire Catholic sacramental system. In this way, God makes himself known to us and accessible to us in and through material things we can relate to. In turn these material things are further filled, animated and elevated by the love of God.’[9] St. Cyril of Jerusalem when referring to the oil of chrism said “...this holy oil in conjunction with the invocation in no longer simple or common oil but becomes the gracious gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit producing the presence of His deity.”[10] They are signs because they point to the reality of God's presence and action which continuously remakes, renews and reforms not only human nature, but through it human culture and history itself. Pope Benedict XVI in his recent Lenten message also refers to this reality when he said “Baptism is not a rite from the past, but the encounter with Christ, which informs the entire existence of the baptized, imparting divine life and calling for sincere conversion; initiated and supported by Grace, it permits the baptized to reach the adult stature of Christ.”[11]
Of singular significance and worthy of mention is the baptismal font, which is considered to be the womb of the Church through which a person is reborn by water and the Holy Spirit. The word reborn does not contradict the title of this dissertation as it does not refer to a birth, but to a grafting in the spiritual sense; both are life giving actions with the latter giving new life to something already in being.  This is an action of the Holy Spirit through which using the allegory of the vine and branches[12], “the Paschal mystery is ... grafted onto the history of ... every individual”[13] and the individual is grafted onto the true vine and thus draws life from the Father. Christ is the stock from whom all grace flows, the newly baptised the scion which receives life from the stock and grows. If the scion becomes separated from the stock, it simply cannot bear “fruit that will last.”[14]
Sacraments were instituted by Christ to confer Grace
According to St Thomas Aquinas, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan was the moment of institution of the first of the seven sacraments, yet the obligation of a Trinitarian Baptism for salvation was not expressed until after Pentecost.[15] Seven sacraments were instituted by Christ and all give sanctifying grace so that he may be present in every baptised person and that they, in turn, may remain and grow in his love. Baptism brings sanctifying grace to the soul for the first time, “opens the soul to the flow of God’s love, and establishes union between the soul and God.”[16] In doing so, Baptism produces “a ineffaceable quality or character to the soul”[17] and orients it towards the other six sacraments. They not only give an increase in sanctifying grace, but provide differing sacramental graces which are keyed to our particular spiritual needs and our particular state in life.  Therefore Baptism, the basis of the whole Christian life, is “completed only at our death”[18] and serves to build up over a lifetime, “Christianus alter Christus”[19].
Besides the two principal effects involving the removal of original sin and bestowal of grace, three other effects or fruits of grace are realised through the Sacrament of Baptism. It is the lifelong exercise of these other effects that move our membership of the Church from ontological to functional.[20]As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”[21] Through the anointing with Chrism we are called to share in the priesthood of Christ, which means that we are to participate in the sacramental life of the Church and to share in Christ’s mission. It is Baptism that bestows ontological membership of the Church, but functional membership is realised by actively responding to the call of the Holy Spirit to be people who are self emptying, people of prayer and people who serve others. The post baptismal sacred anointing, which “announces a second anointing”[22] bestows the theological virtues upon the newly baptised. These gifts, imparted by God through the action of the Holy Spirit, if actively engaged with, will strengthen the Christian and empower them throughout life to work effectively within the realms of kenosis, koinonia and diakonia which “provides the basis for communion with all Christians.”[23] This metanoia, symbiotically aided and supported by parents, godparents and the wider Christian community should exemplify our lives as something radically transformed through Christ Jesus.
For the newly initiated into the faith, especially adults, the period of mystagogia, the making of the Christian, is the final stage of Christian Initiation. This period describes the life of a Christian believer after baptism and the first initiation rites in relation to the work that now must be done to ensure growth of the mind and heart in the ancient Christian faith. One might be forgiven for thinking that this period of growth applies more directly to RCIA candidates, however St. Augustine reminds us that for the infant, “Mother Church lends the feet of others that they may come; the heart of others that they may believe, and the tongue of others that they may affirm their faith.”[24] It requires all believers to not only reflect on the Paschal Mystery, but to actively incorporate this mystery into our daily lives. By continually immersing ourselves into the death and resurrection of Christ through the Sacrament of Baptism, “we are moved to free our hearts every day from the burden of material things, from a self-centred relationship with the “world” that impoverishes us and prevents us from being available and open to God and our neighbour.”[25] Sharing of our common faith is most effective when we worship and visibly share our theological beliefs with everyone around us. In doing so we recognise that through Baptism we form “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy people;”[26] who must continuously “praise God who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light.”[27]


[1] From Tertullian the African by David E Wilhite p 24
[2] Tertullian’s Apologia Chapter XVIII par. 1 documents a journey of conversion probably like unto that he himself experienced “from enquiry about God, and having enquired, to find Him, and having found, to believe, in Him, and having believed, to serve Him.”
[3] Ibid Here, Tertullian confesses that  “These (Christian) things we also once laughed at: we were one of yourselves;”
[4] The Code of Canon Law 1983 Can 849
[5] ibid
[6] Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace – Paul K. Jewett P190
[7] The Christian Sacrament – William A. Van Roo S.J. p154
[8] ibid p166
[10] The Holy Chrism by St. Cyril of Jerusalem par 5 p132
[11] Pope Benedict XVI – Lenten Message 2011 par. 1
[12] John 15:1 - 8
[13] Crossing the Threshold of Hope – John Paul II p74
[14] John 15:16
[15] See Summa Theologica – St Thomas Aquinas at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.TP_Q66_A2.html
[16] See The Faith Explained – Leo J. Trese p299
[17] See New Advent online Catholic Encyclopedia – Character - http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03586a.htm
[18] See The Breaking of Bread – Cardinal Cahal B. Daly Biblical Reflections on the Eucharist p187
[19] See Crossing the Threshold of Hope – Pope John Paul II p12-13.
[20] The Essence of Christianity – Michael Schmaus p 230
[21] See Rite of Baptism for Infants – Anointing with Chrism after Baptism
[22] See The Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1242
[23] See Compendium of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church Q263 p 91
[24] Summa Theologica Online - St Thomas Aquinas - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.TP_Q69_A6.html
[25] Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for Lent 2011 Section 3 Par. 1
[26] See 1 Peter 2:9
[27] ibid


MĂșlier, ecce fĂ­lius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal

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