Baptism: A new Exodus Print
Guest column
Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
Patrick Gorman

Lent is a season of preparation and recollection of our Baptism. This is the third in a series of several articles reflecting upon the Sacrament of Baptism.

One of the most compelling stories in the Old Testament describes the Exodus (Ex 14-15:1), when God brought the people of Israel from slavery to freedom.

At the climax of the story, God parted the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through the water. As the Egyptians pursued, God allowed the water to rush back, destroying Pharaoh’s chariots and charioteers and saving the people of Israel.

The Scripture describing all of this is read each year at the Easter Vigil because it so clearly prefigures Baptism as we go through the baptismal waters from the slavery of sin to the freedom of a life in Christ.

Water in the Bible

In the beginning, God created water to be abundant and life-giving. Water is a leitmotif of the entire Bible.

The waters of creation lead us to the Great Flood (Gen 6), when God destroyed the earth, saving Noah and his family. Through the waters of the Red Sea, God led Israel from slavery into freedom. Namaan the leper was cured by plunging himself into the Jordan River (2 Kings 5).

Jesus himself stepped into the Jordan River to submit to the Baptism of John the Baptist (Mk 1). After Jesus' death, blood and water flowed from his side, causing the centurion to proclaim him the Son of God.

After Christ's resurrection, he instructed his disciples to "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit . . ." (Mt 28:19). (1)

Importance of water

Like so many parts of God's mysterious plan, he hides the extraordinary within something that is ordinary.

How often do we think of water in this part of the U.S.A., where we are blessed with an abundance of it?

The paragraph above describes the extraordinary grace hidden within, that turns our hearts and minds to God's continual mercy toward all humanity from creation until today.

This is the water in which Baptism will take place. It’s also the water into which we dip our fingers while signing ourselves with the cross, declaring our belief in the Trinity each time we enter or leave church.

Ritual richness of water

We've lost some awareness of water’s symbolic and ritual richness over centuries in the Church.

At first, Baptisms took place in a natural body of water. Later, baths in the houses of wealthier Christians became the font. In some places, there were baptismal rooms (later called baptisteries) in which a large pool, fed by a subterranean stream or other water source, were in fashion.

Fonts sometimes were created to look like wombs, for this is where the Christians were reborn. Christians were plunged into the water of these fonts and submerged, literally "going through the water" and dying and rising in Christ.

In those first years of our faith, being a Christian was not all that common and could lead to oppression and death. The usual candidate for Baptism was an adult. Sometimes a household would all be baptized together and this would include children. Otherwise, the Baptism of infants was not common.

As centuries passed and Christianity became much more common, fewer adults and many more infants were baptized. Large pools or baptismal fonts became much smaller (since adults were less frequently baptized and never submerged). Very little water was used, dripped on an infant’s head and dried immediately.

Much of the dramatic sign-value of the early days faded away. This is the centuries-old custom we received.

Revised rites

The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for a restored catechumenate and revised rites for Baptism of both adults and infants.

It also called for a new rite to be established for people who were baptized in another denomination who wished to become one with the Catholic Church. (2) This led to the development of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), which has enlivened many parishes. The RCIA will be addressed in a future column.

Next time you sign yourself with the cross while dipping your fingers in the font, think of God’s marvelous creation of water, and how it has been a sign of his mercy and grace throughout all of history.

Recall that he has saved you. You have gone through the waters, dying to sin and rising with Christ.

(1) This paragraph is adapted from the "Rite for the Blessing of Water" in the Roman Missal.

(2) See the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, paragraphs 59-70, for more information on the reform of the baptismal rites.


Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison.