I am enjoying an email correspondence with a regular reader of this blog (the only one left I think, now that the others have deserted me over my criticism of a fan favorite), who is not Catholic, and who has asked me many thoughtful questions on Catholic doctrine. Lately, we've been discussing Baptism. My correspondent objects to Baptism as nothing more than an empty ritual. I point out that Baptism is, on the contrary, a sacrament in which we die to the old self and to sin and in which we are reborn to a new life through Christ. And so my correspondent asks ...
"So perhaps you might say that baptism is the point at which one turns from the world to Christ?"Which is a good way of putting things. But of course there's more. So I reply ...
I think that's one way to say it.
However our understanding of infant Baptism is that infants don't have this capacity, but their godparents do, and pledge that they will make sure the infant eventually does. So consciously turning to Christ is not the whole of Baptism, but it is, I would say, the center of it - subjectively speaking.
Objectively speaking, it is really a participation in the death of Christ. "For I was buried with Christ in Baptism, in which I was also raised with Him through faith," as St. Paul says. It is a participation in the cross and resurrection. That's what Christian life is all about.
And yet it's also a passive thing. Like faith, it's a grace that comes to us and that we don't earn - thus infant Baptism. Like faith, we must affirm the gift and act on it - thus adult Baptism (and its corollary, Confirmation), which is based upon the consent of the baptized person, and which presumes his growing in faith.
The merits of the cross are passed on to us when we die and rise again in the baptismal font. We do not deserve this at all. But we are expected to embrace these gifts and act on them, "for faith works through love" as Paul tells us. And so Baptism is, from our personal psychological point of view, the point at which we turn from the world to Christ. From an objective point of view, it is simply a gift, unearned and free.
Like life. And like death. And like life from death.
It's a real mystery - like the Trinity. You could spend a lifetime meditating on Baptism and not get to the bottom of it.