This is part of a continuing series of posts on the Mass, salvation and the sacraments. Acknowledgments may be found at the end of this post.
Why do we get baptized or baptize our children? Why do we even need to go to church? I often hear people ask these questions of various believers, some of them teachers of the faith. Rarely do I hear them receive a good answer. Even more rarely do I hear them receive a true answer. I’ve heard people say that we go to church because we need the fellowship of other believers in order to stay faithful on our walk with the Lord. I’ve heard people say that we get baptized to show the Lord that we’re serious and ready to commit our lives to Him. I’ve heard that we Catholics baptize children because of some silly notion that baptism actually does something when anybody can see that it is merely symbolic of a decision made by a person who can reason about such things; so obviously a mere child isn’t capable of benefiting from it, much less, a baby.
But is that what the early Christians thought? Is that the way baptism was viewed by those communities of Christians whose actions are recorded for us in the Bible? And most importantly, were those the views of our Lord Himself? Consider the following exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee.
This man came to Jesus by night and said to him: Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him. Jesus answered and said to him: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. — John 3:2,3.
Some versions read “born again” or “born anew” but some read “born from above”. This, according to a Bible study I heard once by Scott Hahn, I believe, is the sense in which Jesus is speaking. Nicodemus actually misunderstands him as meaning “born again”. His spiritual eyes are not open and though he hears the words Jesus speaks, he does not hear what he is saying.
Baptism is the first of the rites of Christian initiation; and though it often takes place at the end of a period of inquiry and instruction in the faith, this rite is really the beginning of the spiritual journey for the neophyte. Only after baptism and reception into the Church is one eligible to receive Holy Communion. Only after being born from above of water and the Holy Spirit can one receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Only after this death of the old man and birth of the new does one have eyes that can see and ears that can hear. Only in this way does one become a member of the Body of Christ, the Church, in full communion with that Body, partaking of the true manna from heaven, the Bread of Angels.
Did Nicodemus continue on his own spiritual journey? Did he ever seek out Peter or some other Apostle and request to be baptized? I wonder. I like to think so. I’d like to think that, having once been so close to Jesus— close enough to stand in His presence, close enough to engage Him in conversation, close enough to reach out and touch the hem of His garment—I’d like to think that that seeker in darkness who once sought out his Savior under the cover of night, came at last to stand in the broad light of day, in the waters of regeneration, lifting his hands in praise of the Lord his God. And, turning, was then received with much rejoicing by the communion of saints into the community of believers, joining them in attending to the teachings and the prayers and the breaking of the bread.*
To be continued in The Mass, Salvation and the Sacraments: Baptism, Part 3.
*See Acts 2:42: “And they were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles and in the communication of the breaking of bread and in prayers.”
All Scripture quotes in this article are from the Douay-Rheims Challoner version in The Word free Bible study software (or you can read Genesis in the DRC ). I owe much of the following line of thought to many sources over the years, not the least of whom are Scott Hahn in his many and marvelous works; Pope John Paul II in his staggering work of genius, the Theology of the Body; and Fr. Richard Hogan and Katrina Zeno in their series, The Theology of the Body, available as a free downloadable audio series in EWTN’s Audio Library (link broken, May 22 2019, will try to search for it and update this post).