The Symbols and Meaning of Baptism


Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, marking the end of the Season of Christmas.
The image of water runs through the readings for Mass. Isaiah calls all who are thirsty to "come to the water" and likens the word of God to rain which waters the earth and brings forth a rich harvest. In the refrain of today's psalm we sing: "You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation". "I have baptised you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" announces John the Baptist in the reading from Mark's Gospel.
In the Sacrament of Baptism the use of water expresses the reality of God's action in a person's life. The climax of the ritual is immersion in or washing with water.
The action of immersing in water allows the symbol to speak more powerfully. The word baptizio originally referred to cloth being repeatedly plunged into dye until the colour took.
Immersed in the waters of the font, the candidate goes back into the womb, so to speak, to be reborn to new life in the Spirit. Immersion also suggests dying and rising. As Christ died, was buried in the tomb and was raised to new life, the candidate too enters the tomb in baptism, dies to sin and rises to new life in Christ.
The symbol of washing is evident in the ritual of baptism. We are weak human beings, prone to sin. God's mercy and grace alone can wash us clean of our sinfulness. Because water is essential to all life, the water of baptism also symbolises the life-giving grace that sustains those who have become children of God.
Among other rich symbols in the celebration of baptism, that of the Christian community gathered to welcome a new member is most important. Baptism is not a private family occasion; it is about being incorporated into the Body of Christ, being made a part of the community of faith. It is the right and duty of all the baptised to celebrate the initiation of new members and support them in the life of faith. The Rite of Baptism recommends celebrating baptism during Sunday Mass so that the whole community can be present and to show the relationship between baptism and eucharist.
Oil is used twice in baptism. Before the water bath, the breast is smeared with the oil of catechumens as a sign of healing and strengthening. Afterwards the crown of the head is anointed with perfumed chrism as a sign of gladness and thanksgiving.
The white garment with which the newly baptised is then clothed symbolises being clothed in Christ and is "the outward sign of Christian dignity".
In the early Church, the neophytes wore their white baptismal robes in public for a whole week after Easter. A baptismal candle is lit from the paschal candle beside the font and presented to the new member as an image of the light of Christ. It is to be "kept burning brightly" and lit again on significant anniversaries and sacramental moments.
In the opening prayer of Mass today we renew our baptismal commitment: "Keep us, your children born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling".

Elizabeth Harrington