On Baptism

This is a rather short post. Let’s do a bit of a trace through Scripture between a Hebrew/Jewish custom and Christian atonement. First, let’s go to the end of the prophecy of the prophet Michaeas (aka. Micah):

“Was there ever such a God, so ready to forgive sins, to overlook faults, among the scattered remnant of His chosen race? He will exact vengeance no more; He loves to pardon. He will relent, and have mercy on us, quashing our guilt, burying our sins away sea-deep. Thou wilt keep Thy promise to Jacob, shew mercy to Abraham, Thy promised mercies of long ago.”

Michaeas, 7: 18-20

Now, let’s have a look at an interesting Jewish custom called Tashlich, which is related to this line in the prophecy of Michaeas. Here, particularly during the ceremonies surrounding the annual Day of Atonement (yowm kippur) and to the recitation of lines from Scripture, the congregation gathers at a body of water and dusts off garments or tosses stones into the water, to symbolise sin being cast away in atonement.

As usual, the prophecies are addressed to the nation of Israel, called here God’s ‘chosen race.’ But, if we consider that the same prophets spoke of the ingress of the non-Jewish (gentile) tribes into this people, we may assume that the Holy One would eventually have mercy on us gentiles as well, ‘quashing our guilt, burying our sins away sea-deep.’ In the depths of the waters. What waters? Saint Paul may give us a clue.

“In our baptism, we have been buried with Him, died like Him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by His Father’s power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence. We have to be closely fitted into the pattern of His resurrection, as we have been into the pattern of His death; we have to be sure of this, that our former nature has been crucified with Him, and the living power of our guilt annihilated, so that we are the slaves of guilt no longer. Guilt makes no more claim on a man who is dead.

Romans, 6: 4-7

See also the Catechism, #1227. This is a vivid picture we receive when we read about baptism and what the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church taught about it. We take our sinful nature and bury it in the depths of the waters of baptism, entering into the grave with Christ. With that nature now dead, the guilt of former sin is ended. And then we emerge as new creatures, from the waters of baptism, into the resurrection of Christ. We may compare this also to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (penance, confession), which the Church commands we receive at least once a year, and indeed more often than that; again, sin is cast away with (preferably) a contrite heart. Saint Paul thinks that, this being the case, we have to make sure that our behaviour reflects this reality. That means, no to sin, always, all the time. And, were we to fall back into sin, we must return at once to God in penance, and so prevent sin to fester and establish a habit of sin. Sadly, we’re not very good at this. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church on burying in baptism, quoting S. Gregory Nazianzen:

“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift….We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”

CCC #1216, quoting S. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40, 3-4: PG 36, 361C