On October 27th, 1996, I was baptized.
I’m pretty sure I screamed; as is wont with most humans, I didn’t take any pains to realize that something good (incredibly wonderful, rather) was actually happening to me, but rather focused on everything I didn’t like (WATER, and NO FORMULA IN MY MOUTH).
It’s difficult to believe that, two decades ago, I was that double-chinned baby (pictured above) who was eventually coaxed into complacent yawning (meanwhile wondering why in Heaven’s name they weren’t feeding me?) under the cavernous ceiling of the Cathedral of St. Paul . . .
. . . and I had no idea what had gone on in my soul.
Baptism is truly amazing; a Sacrament of awe in which God exhales downward and erases the infinite gap between Him and the soul with a single breath of His infinite mercy and grace . . . and the threefold pouring of water.
Rather interestingly, if you open a pre-1962 Missal (as I recently have) and peruse through the Rite of Baptism, your eyebrows will lift as though gravity’s left them altogether. Here is something far soberer, something far longer, something far more forceful, mysterious, intimidating, and (symbolically and liturgically speaking) far more attention-grabbing than you ever thought Baptism was. Today as it is done in the New Rite, Baptism is still certainly beautiful and moving, but it is comparatively a little brief, generally woven into the Mass, whereas in the Old Rite, Baptism remained distinctly outside of Mass (and, for the first part, even out of the nave itself, for reasons explained below!).
Of course, new or old rite notwithstanding, the Sacrament of Baptism is beautiful and efficacious in its total cleansing of Original Sin and its bestowal the spirit of adoption on the sweet new Catholic baby. But the outward, liturgical reminders of what is truly going on in the baby’s soul—what a truly infinite outpouring of grace on God’s part is occurring upon an infinite inherited offense—are rather fewer and weaker.
As deeply and eternally grateful as I am for my Baptism (no matter what its exterior form!), I can’t help but wish that, as the double-chinned baby I used to be, I could have been breathed on by the priest in the Exsufflation (quoted above), had salt poked into my mouth, been exorcised, then been actually admitted into the nave, then received another exorcism, than had the priest’s spit (you thought salt was bad?) on my ears and nostrils, then anointed with chrism, and then, finally, baptized, receiving the Consoler into what was now His own temple (my body and soul), and receiving the inheritance of Eternal Life . . .
. . . but perhaps someone might have called DHR and my baptism wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Oh, well. (God-willing, my future babies will experience the traditional rite of Baptism and I will get to joyfully soak in what I wouldn’t have even have remembered as an infant. I can deal with the DHR 😉 )
My favorite phrases from the traditional rite are as follows:
Depart from her, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Ghost, the Consoler . . .
Take from her all blindness of heart. Free her from the snares of Satan which until now have held her. Open to her, Lord, the gate of Thy mercy . . .
Therefore, accursed devil, acknowledge your condemnation and pay homage to the true and living God; pay homage to Jesus Christ, His Son, and to the Holy Ghost, and depart from this handmaid of God, (Mary), for Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, has called her to His holy grace and blessing, and to the font of Baptism. Accursed devil, never dare to desecrate this sign of the holy cross which we are tracing upon her forehead . . .
Heard enough about devils yet?
While they do make us squirm, the potential problem with the removal/rewriting of these and other forceful phrases from the current rite of Baptism is that we are now probably not reminded quite so much of how grave our condition is pre-Baptism. After all . . . aww, it’s a sweet little baby in her beautiful christening gown; aww, this is such a lovely time with all the out-of-town family; aww, Father’s pouring water over her head; aww, the baby is now a child of God! So, where’s the cake and punch? (Yes, I am always wondering where the cake and punch is!)
Yet how troubling that we should forget that, although any baby is absolutely the most intoxicating, innocent and squeezeable sight on earth (in my opinion, anyway!), the state of any soul pre-Baptism can be accurately summarized as, Without the grace of God.
No grace. The Holy Ghost does not dwell within the soul. The soul is captive to Original Sin; or, even more bluntly, captive to Satan. Period.
That’s quite a sobering reality.
And yet the utter graveness of our lack of grace is what consequently makes Baptism so unfathomably powerful and beautiful. Our total poverty is what makes Baptism nearly unthinkable in its richness of mystery and initiation. It’s an overwhelming and indispensable act of mercy and grace on God’s part. It is, indeed, a rescue, a ransom, after which we should heave a sigh of relief and fall on our knees that God has seen fit to give our child grace and adopt him or her as His son or daughter.
Baptism is not simply a sweet little dedication ceremony and an occasion for a tulle-swathed reception afterwards. Baptism is life. It is our first spiritual gasp after our plunge into the water; we are pulled out of darkness and into the light of life. In Baptism, rather than needing to be resuscitated from the water, the water resuscitates us.
The traditional rite for Baptism reminds us quite clearly of this. Along with many beautiful traditions of the Church that have been sadly forgotten or misunderstood since Vatican II, it is a pearl that is in need rediscovery. The faithful are in real need of the return of the traditional Rite of Baptism; in need of its beauty and power of form and of liturgy. To be honest, we all are in dire need of remembering the gravity of sin (including Original Sin) and the undeserved gratuity of God’s grace. We must realize the depth of our spiritual poverty before Baptism; because how else can we give Our Father in Heaven due praise for what He has wrought in us through this Sacrament?
Thus passing through the baptismal waters the soul, as St. Paul tells us, is buried with Christ in Baptism, that “as Christ is risen from the dead” so it also may walk in newness of life.
~Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962