Article 98 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1212-1222 This section of the Catechism brings us to the beginning of several articles that deal with the seven sacraments of the Church, including the three Sacraments of Initiation “Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist – [which] lay the foundations of every Christian life” (ccc 1212). Through the Sacraments of Initiation, we are “born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life” (ccc 1212). The purpose of all these Sacraments is to “advance [us] toward the perfection of charity” (ccc 1212). The first several paragraphs in this section deal with the Sacrament of Baptism, “the basis of the whole Christian life … and the door that gives access to the other sacraments” (ccc 1213). “Through Baptism,” the Catechism tells us, “we are freed from sin and reborn as children of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission” (ccc 1213). Why is the sacrament called “Baptism”? The sacrament is called Baptism because “to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to ‘plunge’ or ‘immerse’; the ‘plunge’ into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he [or she] rises up by resurrection with him, as ‘a new creature’” (ccc 1214). Fourth-century theologian and doctor of the Church, Gregory of Nazianzus, summarizes it well: “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.” The next few paragraphs explain the prefigurations of Baptism in the Old Tes- tament as outlined in the prayers for the blessing of baptismal water at the Easter Vigil and when celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism.
Prefiguration plays a big part in the Sacred Scriptures. Scripture scholars have identified several people, places, things and events in the Old Testament that point to or “prefigure” people, places, things and events in the New Testament. For example, Adam prefigures the New Adam (Jesus) and Eve prefigures the New Eve (Mary). Prophets, such as Jeremiah, who was killed for doing the work of God, prefigure Jesus, who did the work of God. His enemies would even try to entrap him in his speech as Jesus’ enemies also did (Jeremiah 18:18-20). Later, in Isaiah, we see the theme of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 50:4-7), which prefigures Jesus, the Suffering Servant. The Old Covenant or Old Testament is even a “prefiguration” of the New Covenant or New Testament.
With regard to water, the mention of water in the opening verses of the Bible in the Book of Genesis (1:2) prefigures the waters of Baptism.The Catechism tells us, “Sacred Scripture seesit as ‘overshadowed’ by the Spirit of God” (ccc 1218). Quoting the blessing at the Easter Vigil, the Catechism states, “at the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all
holiness” (ccc 1218).
Additionally, “the Church has seen in Noah’s ark a prefiguring of salvation by Baptism” (ccc 1219) according to the Catechism. Again, quoting from the blessing at the Easter Vigil, “the waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness” (ccc 1219). Even the crossing of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus is identified as prefiguring the Sacrament of Baptism. “The liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt,” the Catechism tell us, “announces the liberation wrought by Baptism” (ccc 1221). To say it another way, the children of Abraham set free from the slavery of Pharaoh, is “an image of the people set free in Baptism” (ccc 1221).
Finally, the Catechism teaches, “Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of the Jordan River by which the People of God received the gift of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, an image of eternal life. The promise of this blessed inheritance is fulfilled in the New Covenant” through the waters of Baptism (ccc 1222).
Some other examples of prefiguring include: Exodus 30:17-21 and Numbers 19:11-13 show how the water purification rites of the Old Covenant prefigure baptism and how the priests cleansed themselves with the water from the laver so that they were ritually cleansed and able to enter the Holy Place of the desert Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem.
Ezekiel 36:24-27 prefigures baptism explaining Ezekiel’s prophecy that Yahweh will pour clean water over His people and they will be cleansed and filled with a new heart and a new spirit when God places His very spirit within them.
Joshua 3:14-17 prefigures baptism documenting the crossing of the Jordan River, when God parted the waters and the priests stood midway across the River with the Ark of the Covenant as the children of Israel passed through the waters of the Jordan, leaving their old lives behind to become citizens of the Promised Land.
Matthew 3:4-5; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:3-4 and John 1:31 show how the baptism offered by St. John the Baptist prefigures the Sacrament of Baptism. All four gospels tell us of the baptism of John the Baptist, which called the people of Israel into the baptismal waters of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah’s ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
We ought to show our gratitude to God in prayer every day for the privilege of having been “freed from sin” and born again “as children of God” through the waters of baptism. Whether we received the Sacrament of Baptism as an adult or as an infant, the great gift of God’s grace present in this sacrament keeps on giving.
Father Hillier serves as Director of the Office of the Pontifical Mission Societies, Censor Librorum and oversees the Office for Personswith Disabilities