In order to symbolize the spiritual benefits derived from the reception of the Sacraments, the Church uses for each of them (except the Sacrament of Penance) certain ceremonies which are, for the most part, of very ancient origin. They are intended to denote mystically the gifts and graces bestowed on the soul through the Sacrament which is administered.
Baptism is the first of the Sacraments. In the language of the Apostle, it “clothes us with Jesus Christ.” The sacred rites with which it is given remind us of the corruption in which we were born, the trials that await us in this world, and the immortal heritage for which we are destined.
In the Early Ages. The ceremonies of Baptism Baptism, as now practised, are a survival of the solemn rites with which it was administered in the early Church. We find a complete and curious account of this in the work of St. Ambrose “On the Mysteries.” In his day Baptism was given publicly to adults on Holy Saturday only, and this fact is still indicated in the Church’s liturgy by the blessing of the baptismal water on that day. The minister of the Sacrament at this solemn administration was always a bishop, assisted by priests and deacons.
On those occasions Baptism was usually given by immersion—by putting the person entirely under water. This was never considered essential, but was generally practised until about the ninth century.
In the ancient ceremonies, after the baptized person had been anointed with holy oil and clothed in a white garment, he immediately received the Sacrament of Confirmation, assisted at Mass and usually received Holy Communion.
At the Present Day. In our times the Sacrament of Baptism is given to infants much more frequently than to adults. The sponsors or god-parents bring the child to the baptismal font, and the priest, clad in surplice and purple stole, asks (mentioning the name which the child is to bear): “What dost thou ask of the Church of God?” The sponsors answer: “Faith.” “What does faith bring thee to?” “Life everlasting.” “If therefore thou wouldst enter life, keep the commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and soul and mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.”
He then breathes on the face of the child, saying: “Depart from him, thou unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.” This ancient ceremony of breathing is always symbolical of the imparting of the Spirit of God.
The Sign of the Cross. The forehead and breast of the infant are then marked with the sign of the cross, to signify that he must be sanctified in mind and heart. An appropriate prayer is then recited, asking that the child thus marked with the cross of Christ may keep His commandments and gain everlasting life.
The priest then places his hand upon the head of the child — which ceremony is always symbolical of the giving of strength and power. He prays that this servant of God, who has been called to the light of faith, may be freed from all blindness of heart and all snares of Satan; that he may be imbued with wisdom, may joyfully serve God in His Church, and advance daily in holiness.
The Giving of the Salt. Then follows a curious ceremony. A small quantity of salt, previously blessed, is put into the mouth of the person to be baptized, with the words: “Receive the salt of wisdom. May it be unto thee a propitiation unto eternal life.”
Salt, in the symbolic usage of the Church, has many meanings. It denotes wisdom, regeneration, purification, preservation from corruption — as we see in the passage of the Gospel wherein our Lord calls His Apostles “the salt of the earth.” These meanings are expressed in the next prayer, in which God is besought to sanctify the person who has tasted this salt; that he may be rilled with heavenly food, that he may be fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, and faithful in the service of God.
The Exorcisms. According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the soul of an unbaptized person is particularly under the dominion of the spirits of darkness. Therefore a solemn adjuration is pronounced, in the name of the three Persons of the Trinity, commanding the devil to depart from the servant of God. Then the sign of the cross is again traced on his forehead, as a shield and protection against any further attacks of Satan.
With the imposing of the priest’s hand on the child, another solemn prayer is offered, beseeching God the Father, the Author of light and truth, to illumine this His servant with the light of understanding — to cleanse and sanctify him — to give him true knowledge, that by the grace of Baptism he may possess firm hope, right counsel, and holy doctrine.
The priest then lays the ends of his stole on the infant—a relic of the ceremony of early days, when the catechumens were conducted into the church in solemn procession. Then the sponsors, together with the priest, make a profession of faith in the name of the child, by reciting aloud the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by the Our Father.
The “Ephpheta” and the Vows. After another exorcism comes the ceremony of the “Ephpheta.” The priest moistens his finger with saliva from his own mouth, and touches lightly the ears and nostrils of the child, saying: “Ephpheta, which is: Be thou opened, in the odor of sweetness; go out from him, O evil spirit; for the judgment of God will come.”
The touching of the ears signifies the opening of the understanding to the Word of God; that of the nostrils denotes the sweetness of the spiritual life. The use of saliva reminds us of a ceremony used by our Lord in one of His miracles, as recorded in the Gospels.
The baptismal vows are next in order. The priest asks the child, by name: “Dost thou renounce Satan?” And the sponsors answer: “I do renounce him.” “And all his works?” “I do renounce them.” “And all his pomps?” “I do renounce them.”
The Anointing. The first anointing is then made, with the Oil of Catechumens. The priest dips his thumb into the blessed oil and marks the sign of the cross on the breast of the infant and on the back between the shoulders, saying: “I anoint thee with the oil of salvation, in Christ Jesus our Lord, that thou mayest have eternal life.”
The cross on the breast means that our holy faith is a shield against temptation. That on the back signifies that to obtain salvation through Jesus Christ we must “take up our cross and follow Him.”
The priest then puts on a white stole in place of the purple one, and solemnly inquires: “Dost thou believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” The sponsors answer: “I do believe.” “Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was born and suffered?” “I do believe.” “Dost thou believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church,” etc. ; and the same answer is given. Then, addressing the child by name, the priest asks: “Wilt thou be baptized?” —and the sponsors answer: “I will.”
The Baptism. The sponsors hold the child over the font, and the priest takes a small vessel which he fills with the baptismal water, pouring it upon the head of the infant three times in the form of a cross, saying at the same time the sacramental words: “N—, I baptize then in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
The top of the child’s head is immediately anointed with Holy Chrism in the form of a cross, to denote that he has been made a Christian. Then comes a ceremony which is a survival of the ancient practice of attiring the newly baptized person in white robes. The priest takes a white cloth and drapes it over the child’s head, adjuring him to “receive this white robe and carry it spotless before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A lighted candle is then placed in the hands of the sponsors typifying the light of faith and the flame of charity; and the baptized person is urged: “Keep thy Baptism without blame; observe God’s commandments; so that when the Lord cometh to the wedding-feast thou mayest meet Him with all the saints in the halls of heaven, and mayest obtain eternal life.”
Then the simple words of farewell and benediction, “Go in peace, and the Lord be with thee,” the ceremonies come to an end.
Thus we see how the beautiful symbolism of our Church’s rites expresses clearly the wonderful effects of Baptism on the soul of man. These ancient ceremonies are intended to illustrate the freeing of the human soul from the domination of Satan, the cleansing of it from original sin, and the strengthening of it against the world, the flesh and the devil. They denote the receiving of a new and holy character, and the adding to the flock of Christ of a new member, destined to everlasting life in God’s heavenly Kingdom.