The meaning and grace of the sacrament of Baptism are clearly seen in the rites of its celebration.” CCC, no. 1234
The eight major elements in the baptismal ceremony teach us the meaning of this Sacrament of Initiation and help us appreciate our life in Christ. Signs and symbols have their own capacity to communicate their meaning. Yet, the Sacrament is more than an instructive symbol; it accomplishes what it signifies.
The Sign of the Cross
At the beginning of the celebration, the celebrant traces the Sign of the Cross on the forehead of the one being baptized. This recalls Christ’s saving death and the redemption it brought. Baptism is a Sacrament of salvation.
Readings from Scripture
Proclaiming the Word of God in the midst of the community sheds divine light on the celebration and is meant to build the faith of all the participants. One of the traditional names for Baptism is “Illumination.” The Holy Spirit fills the heart and mind with the light of revealed truth and enables the response of faith.
Exorcism and Anointing
Baptism liberates us from sin. An exorcism prayer is recited over the one being baptized, preparing the person to renounce sin and be released from evil. The celebrant anoints the person to be baptized with the Oil of Catechumens (an oil that has been blessed by the bishop for the candidates for Baptism) or imposes hands on the person. In this way, the person is being called to renounce sin and to leave behind the domination of the power of evil.
Blessing the Baptismal Water
Baptismal water is blessed at the Easter Vigil. Outside the Easter Season, the water used for Baptism can also be blessed at each celebration of the Sacrament. The blessing prayer asks the Father “that through his Son the power of the Holy Spirit may be sent upon the water, so that those who will be baptized may be ‘born of water and the Spirit’” (CCC, no. 1238, quoting John 3:5).
Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith
Those being baptized are asked to reject sin and Satan, and to profess their faith in the Triune God. In the case of infants, parents, godparents, and the entire community present for the liturgy do this on behalf of those who cannot yet speak for themselves.
The Essential Rite of the Sacrament
The bishop, priest, or deacon either pours water three times on the person’s head or immerses the candidate in water three times. In the Latin Church, he accompanies the act with the words, “[Name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The celebrant matches each pouring or immersion with the invocation of each of the Divine Persons. The ritual of immersion or washing helps us understand that our sins are buried and washed away as we die with Jesus, and we are filled with divine light and life as we rise from immersion in the water or are cleansed by the pouring.
In the Eastern liturgies the catechumen turns toward the East and priest says: “The servant of God, [Name], is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” At the invocation of each person of the Most Holy Trinity, the priest immerses the candidate in the water and raises him up again. (CCC, no.1240)
“Today in all the rites, Latin and Eastern, the Christian initiation of adults begins with their entry into the catechumenate and reaches its culmination in a single celebration of the three Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist” (CCC, no. 1233, cf. Ad gentes 14, Code of Canon Law, canons 851, 865, 866). After the completion of initiation, the neophytes or new members begin the period of continued learning and formation in Christian life called Mystagogy.
With regard to infants, in the Latin Church, the Sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist are received at a later time after Baptism. This is partly because of the emphasis on the bishop as the ordinary minister of Confirmation. Through the bishop cannot baptize everyone, he has a role in everyone’s initiation into the Church by confirming them. In the Eastern Churches, the Baptism of infants is followed in the same ceremony by Confirmation (Chrismation) and Eucharist.
The Anointing with Sacred Chrism
The celebrant anoints the newly baptized with the sacred Chrism (perfumed oil signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit), so that united with God’s people the person may remain forever a member of Christ, who is Priest, Prophet, and King. In the liturgy of the Eastern Churches, this anointing is the Chrismation, or the Sacrament of Confirmation, and is done immediately after Baptism. At the initiation of adults into the Church at the Easter Vigil, Confirmation follows Baptism.
Reception of the White Garment and the Candle
Following the Anointing with Chrism, the minister of Baptism presents the newly baptized with a white garment and a candle. The white garment shows that the newly baptized have put on Christ and have risen with him. To be clothed in the baptismal white garment is to be clothed in Christ’s protective love. Included in this ceremony is the admonition to keep the garment unstained by sin. The Book of Revelation describes the significance of the white robe: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
The candle is lit from the Paschal Candle, which represents the Risen Christ. The lighted candle reminds the newly baptized of the light of Christ they have received. It also reminds us that all those baptized in Christ are to be lights for the world.
These two symbols used at Baptism appear again in the Latin Church’s funeral liturgy in the forms of the white pall covering the casket and lighted Paschal Candle, which ordinarily stands near the casket. This is to remind us that salvation and new life promised at Baptism can now be experienced fully by the one who has gone to God.