Baptism: Immerse yourself in mystery Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 19, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
Patrick Gorman

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

When I was studying liturgy, there was a running joke with both teachers and students -- "If you don’t know the answer to a question, write down that it is a mystery" (because so much of our faith is a mystery -- something which we will never understand completely in this life).

The mysteries of our faith are not like the mysteries we read. They are not a puzzle to be figured out if offered enough clues but rather realities that need to be lived and that each of us reflect upon.

Immersion into the mystery

In fact, the early Christian fathers (St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, etc.) had a beautiful style of preaching which we now call mystagogia -- a term still used in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) today.

Mystagogia is an "uncovering" of or "immersion" into the mystery. The more we uncover, the more we immerse ourselves in living a Christian life, the more we are called into even deeper waters.

In our Baptismal liturgies, there are a few things that happen immediately after the Baptism. These are referred to as the "Explanatory Rites," and include an anointing with Sacred Chrism, clothing with the white garment, and the presentation of a lighted candle. When adults are baptized, the anointing with Chrism is omitted since they will be confirmed with the Chrism in Confirmation during the liturgy.

These three rituals start to send us deeper into the mystery. In that way, they are mystagogical. Through symbols, we are enlightened and see some of the deeper dimensions of our faith.

Anointing with Sacred Chrism

Immediately after the Baptism itself, the anointing with Sacred Chrism takes place.

Anointing has deep roots in our faith, particularly in the Old Testament. It signifies that God has set us apart. He has chosen us for service.

So, at God's command, Moses prepared an unction and anointed Aaron and his sons as priests (Ex. 22); the Prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha (1 Kings 19); Samuel anointed King David (1 Sam. 16).

So too, we are anointed as Priest, Prophet, and King. We are chosen by God to serve him and others.

White garment

The white Baptismal garment reflects the new life that is pure. The priest says, "See in this white garment an outward sign of your Christian dignity . . . bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven."

The white garment is also indicative of the vesture of martyrs described in Revelation 6:11. When I wear a white shirt to work, it's inevitable that I will come home with coffee stains, spaghetti sauce, or some other stain. This is what sin does to our souls which have been washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb.

To cleanse the soul, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which allows our Christian dignity a chance to shine once again.

Lighted candle

Finally, a lighted candle is entrusted to the godparents for the person baptized. The prayer that accompanies this reminds us that Christ is the Light of the World, and we are now enlightened by him. They are to walk in this light and the family and godparents are to keep fanning this flame of faith.

The prayer concludes referencing the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt. 25), "When the Lord comes, may they go out to meet him with all of the saints in the heavenly kingdom."

Notice that a lighted candle (the Easter Candle, the Baptismal Candle) stands at the head of each coffin during a funeral Mass. This is the light of Christ, the light we are to carry so we can stay on his path to our eternal home.

Remembering our Baptism

A person may only be baptized once. This is one reason why the Church asks us to remember our baptism -- we need to recall that it changed us!

When the light of faith starts to flicker, our garment becomes stained, or the royal aroma of our anointing becomes stale, the Church offers cleansing, healing, and renewal through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

On several occasions, Pope Francis has asked people if they remember the date of their Baptism. He speaks of it as a "blessed day." If we don’t reflect on our Baptism, he says, we run the risk of thinking of it as a past event rather than God's work which affects us even to this day.

In my family -- thanks to my wife! -- we recall the Baptismal anniversaries of our daughters by lighting their Baptismal candle at dinner and thanking God for giving us new life. My wife bakes a favorite dessert for them, too -- always a sign of an important day! It's simple, but it's a nice way to celebrate God's love for each of us.

You may want to try something similar. If you don't recall the exact date, celebrate it on a patron saint's day or select a day in the months following your birthday.

Next week we will look at the origins of the RCIA and how it affects the life of the Church.


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