Perhaps it is a natural reaction, because it means that Mass will take a few minutes longer than usual. But how sad that we are not filled with joy to welcome into our community of faith a new member of Christ’s body. The day of our baptism is the most important day of our life: it is the moment when we “put on Christ,” are marked with the sign of the cross, are welcomed by God into the company of believers and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is not a private matter, concerning only the immediate family. No, this is a wonderful moment for the whole community, whose responsibility it is, over the coming years, to turn this little child into a fully-fledged Catholic. The community must support the parents of this child in their task of handing on their faith to their son or daughter. The community must give both parents and child an example of strong faith, share with them prayer and worship, befriend and encourage them.
Baptism is the beginning of our life of faith. Making the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead, the priest claims him or her for Christ and then invites the parents and godparents to acknowledge this as they too mark this little child with the sign that identifies us as Christians.
In baptism by immersion, the symbolism of water is even more powerful than in baptism simply by pouring water on the child’s head. As St Paul says, “when we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death;…we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead…we too might live a new life.” (Romans 6:3-4) It is in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” that the child is baptised, indicating that this little baby is being drawn into the wonderful exchange of love that exists between the persons of the Trinity.
Anointing with chrism – the perfumed oil consecrated by the bishop at the Chrism Mass – follows. It signifies the strength and joy of the Holy Spirit and anticipates the anointing that will take place when the child is confirmed.
The white garment in which the child is clothed proclaims to the community that he or she now shares in the holiness of Christ. We say that we have “put on Christ”. What a beautiful expression and what an extraordinary reality. This was so for each one of us at our baptism, and the truth is that we are more closely bound to our baptised brothers and sisters than we are to the family with whom we share flesh and blood. We are all part of the body of Christ, without distinction: “There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
The candle presented to the child is lit from the Paschal Candle, the symbol of Christ present among us. The light of Christ enables the child to “see with the eyes of Christ” and in time, be that light for others. In the early Church another name for baptism was ‘illumination’ or ‘enlightenment’. With the eyes of Christ we can see goodness in others and know that they too are loved completely by God. With the eyes of Christ we do not judge but are ever ready to forgive and share with others the mercy that God shows to us.
And so when next there is a baptism during Mass in your parish, do not groan inwardly, but open your heart with joy to this little person who is to join you in the body of Christ. Welcome the parents and godparents, make them feel at home, because that is where they are.
Jenny O’Brien is liturgy educator at the Office for Worship.