It is said that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. God can. He does it every time there is a baptism. He takes an individual who has been born into a race which is out of harmony with God, a descendent of countless sinners and of a long line of monkeys and lesser animals before that, and he turns this human being, a mere creature made from the substance of the earth, into his own son or daughter, sharing with the new Christian his own divine life, so that he or she is born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1, 11). For this introductory exposition of baptism I shall base myself on the De Misteriis of St Ambrose whose thinking is liturgical rather than abstract.
Ambrose calls baptism “entering into the Holy of Holies” and entering “the sanctuary of regeneration”. This recalls the High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies just once a year on the Day of the Atonement. It recalls the imagery of the Letter to the Hebrews which I interpret as talking about the Eucharist: we approach the holy of Holies through the veil which is Christ’a flesh (). However, we must remember that, for St Ambrose and his contemporaries “baptism” is a process of joining the Church which involved three sacraments not one, which were parts of the same ceremony and belong to each other, even when they are separated. They are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Being baptized, confirmed and taking part in the Eucharist brings about the most intimate relationship with God, in which we not only enter into his presence, but we share in his very life, the life of the Blessed Trinity.
St Ambrose presents us with several Old Testament texts which tell us something about baptism. The first is the Holy Spirit hovering over the primeval waters (), the cosmic soup, drawing order out of chaos. This tells us that baptism is of cosmic importance, an event at a cosmic level. The next scenario from the Old Testament is Noah and the Flood. This tells us that baptism is an event that concerns the whole human race. God is doing something of historic importance for the whole of humanity when he baptizes one individual. The third scenario is the crossing of the Red Sea and the rescue of the People of God, Israel, from the hands of Pharoah. This teaches us that baptism is important for the People of God which is the Church. Finally, there is the curing of Naaman the Syrian from leprosy. Elishah told Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan, which he did and was cured. This tells us that baptism about the salvation of the individual. Let us take a look at each of these levels.
Jesus Christ, who has passed through death to resurrection to ascension into the presence of the Father, is the new heaven and the new earth in nucleus; and we saw in the chapter on the Christian Mystery that the whole universe is destined to pass through the same death in order to be transformed into an eternal reality by sharing in his resurrected life. Meanwhile, the Church ascends through the Paschal Mystery into the Father’s presence; and, together with the angels and the saints, takes part in the dialogue of love between the Father and the Son by the action of the Holy Spirit whose Source is the Father and whose function in the Holy Trinity is to be the unity if Father and Son in love...The very fact that water, chrism, bread and wine are used in the sacraments of initiation indicates that these sacraments say something about the material universe and the material lives of human beings. In St John’s Prologue it says that all things came into being through Christ, and without him not one thing came into being (1, 3). St Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God (…) for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible (…) He himself is before all things and through him all things hold together (Col. 1, 15ff).” He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. Because of who he is, and the fact that everything is what it is because it is being “spoken” by the Father’s Word, Christ’s incarnation, his life, death and resurrection, and his continued existence in this world through the Church, have cosmic importance, being directly concerned with the relationship between the universe with its Creator. St Maximos the Confessor wrote:
Christ is the great hidden mystery, the blessed goal, the purpose for which everything was created (…) with his eyes fixed on this goal God called things into existence. He (Christ) is the goal to which Providence is tending, together with everything in its keeping, and at which creatures accomplish their return to God. He is the mystery which surrounds all ages (…) In fact it is for the sake of Christ, and for his mystery, that all ages exist and all that they contain. In Christ they have received their principle and their purpose. This synthesis was determined at the beginning: a synthesis of the limited and the unlimited, of the measured and the immeasurable, of the bounded and the bounded, of the Creator and the creature, of rest and movement. In the fullness of time this synthesis became visible in Christ, and God’s plans were fulfilled.
(Questions to Thelassius P.G. 90, 612)
Therefore the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word in itself contains the whole meaning of the riddles and symbols of Scripture, the whole significance of visible and invisible creatures. Whoever knows the secret of the cross and the tomb knows the meaning of things. Whoever is initiated into the hidden meaning of the resurrection knows the purpose for which God created everything in the beginning.
(Ambigua P.G. 1360)
Baptism is not just an event in the life of a private individual: In fact, by baptism the individual ceases to be a private individual, merely a member of his or her own family, and becomes an important player in the cosmic process by which God unites the whole of creation to himself in a new relationship based on the Incarnation. Because the Holy Spirit uses material things in the sacraments, words, water, oils, bread and wine to establish God’s kingdom, the material world more than regains its true dignity as a manifestation of the divine,
We are as big as that which we love; and those whose capacity to love has been expanded by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to embrace the Father in Christ find no difficulty in embracing the whole of creation. St Benedict saw all that exists in a ray of light. St Gregory the Great adds in his account of St Benedict’s experience in his Dialogues that when someone loves God as St Benedict did, all created things appear small in comparison. Mother Juliana of Norwich has a similar experience in one of her visions.
(Christ) showed a little thing the size of a hazel nut, which seemed to be in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a tiny ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” I was answered in a general way, thus, “It is all that is made.” I wondered how long it could last, for it seemed as though it might suddenly fade away to nothing, it was so small. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall last, because God loves it. Everything that exists has being because God loves it.” (Revelations of Divine Love ch.5)
The story of Noah and the flood which is about the survival of the human race links baptism with human destiny as a whole. Central to God’s purposes is a humanity which is both intelligent and free. It is intelligent so that it can understand; and it is free so that it can love. By means of human intelligence creation recognizes God as Creator of all; and freedom enables the human being to offer all that he has received to God in love and gratitude. Sin is the obstacle that makes us deaf to God’s communication and causes us to grasp for ourselves what should be offered freely to God in love. Sin denies the basically sacramental nature of material creation and reduces it to the level of consumeristic fantasy. Our destiny to become sons and daughters of God is corrupted by sin into a desire to be gods by our own efforts: divinity is something to be snatched rather than received as a gift. This ambition is doomed to failure because true divinity is the very opposite of egotism: it is a share in the life of the Trinity which is a mystery of self-giving. For St Irenaeus, (2nd Century) this is a sign of the human being’s immaturity:
People who will not wait for maturity are utterly unreasonable (…) In their ignorance of God and of themselves these insatiable and ungrateful wretches would like (…) to see, even before becoming adult the disappearance of every difference between the the uncreated God and a humanity that has only just been created (…) first of all creation had to appear. Only later did the mortal have to be vanquished and swallowed up in immortality, and humanity be fully conformed to the image and likeness of God, having freely discovered good and evil. (Irenaeus of Lyons: Against Heresies, IV, 38,4 SC 100 bis, pgs 056-8)
The Word who enlightens every man coming into this world () became flesh, taking on human nature, and thus uniting himself in the Holy Spirit by an unbreakable union to the whole of mankind. The purpose of the Incarnation is directed to the salvation of the whole human race, every single person without exception. As in Adam all men died, so in Christ all men are made alive. Salvation is as wide as original sin, but goes much deeper. Jesus is the human face of God, and knowing him is salvation. To make him known and to live in communion with him, Christ founded the Church. However, evangelization is a human process, and, even two thousand years later, has not brought the majority of human beings into communion with Christ. This being the case, how can the goal of universal salvation be achieved? When you measure the efforts of the Church, impressive as they are, against the sheer mass of unevangelized humanity, when we accept that salvation is union with the Father, can only be achieved through the humanity of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and that people are not saved without their cooperation, how can the whole human race be saved?
The quick answer is given by the angel to Mary at the Annunciation, when Mary asks how a virgin can conceive a child; and the same answer is repeated by Jesus after he told his apostles that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle. It is implied in the story in which all the disciples had to feed five thousand men together with women and children were five loaves and two fishes. It is also implied at every Mass we celebrate, when, in order to approach the presence of God we need a sacrifice; and all we have is some bread and wine. What is impossible for man is possible for God. It is God who saves in Christ, not us, and it is a grave mistake to believe that God’s mercy is limited by our inability to achieve God’s will. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven; and this happens only when there is a synergy between the Holy Spirit and the human will that is in harmony with the Holy Spirit. This happens more perfectly, not in our evangelistic programs so much as in our celebration of the liturgy.
If we want to try to find a more detailed answer, using what we know from revelation, then I think we need to look at the idea of humanity as an organism and the Church as part of that organism. The unity of the human race is so basic to Christianity that it has never been defined as a dogma: it simply has not been doubted. Without it original sin would be inexplicable, as would the universal effect of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In the Tower of Babel story sin was the cause of divisions. However divided and for whatever reasons, the Incarnation in which the Word took on our common humanity has brought about a unity that cannot be broken. It is something that God has done, not us. Indeed, most people are scarcely aware of it and many are not aware of it at all. Nevertheless, nothing is more concrete and certain as this.
The next ingredient in the answer must be the Church where human weakness and the Holy Spirit unite to do things that are impossible for human beings to do on their own.
When we compare the capacity of the Church to evangelize with the size of the human race that needs to be evangelized, we are reminded of the five loaves and two fishes. The Church by itself is as radically incapable of fulfilling the task that Christ gave it as the apostles were of feeding the five thousand. However, like the apostles, the Church is not alone. It is continually challenged to work in harmony with the Holy Spirit and thus to bring about what it could never do alone. The people it cannot reach are still enlightened by the Word who shares their nature, they are still people for whom Christ died; and therefore they are still capable of being presented before God in the Mass. As the body of Christ and by the power of the Spirit; the Church offers Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of the world. The Church is organically joined to Christ as priest, victim and altar; and it is organically joined to the rest of the human race by the same Spirit that brought about the Incarnation and, by so doing, bound the Word to the human race. Unable to separate itself from the world to which it is joined by the Spirit,. it offers the whole race to the Father when it offers itself in Christ, and it sanctifies the lives of all people by identifying them and all that is authentically human in their lives with Christ on the cross. Thus their lives receive a supernatural value they would not have had if it were not for Christ and the Holy Spirit working through the Church.
Baptism of desire must be understood in this context. Baptism introduces us into the process of death and resurrection in Christ and baptism of desire is no different. A Buddhist or an atheist does not know that; but God works through his human experience, the choices he makes, his quest for good and his rejection of evil, even when he identifies that evil with the Catholic Church; and this attempt to be human, flawed as it is, is united to Christ’s cross in the Mass celebrated by the Church and is offered up in the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, “Through Christ, in him and with him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory is yours, for ever and ever.” And the Christian people exercise their priestly duty on behalf of mankind by answering, “Amen”. Thus Thomas Merton could enter into dialogue with contemplatives of many faiths to their mutual advantage, not at the level of doctrine, but at the level of basic religious experience, because it is at this level that baptism of desire works. Hence St Peter can say about the Roman authorities that were persecuting the Church of his time, “Conduct yourselves honourably among the gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (1 P. 2, 12) On Judgement Day they will realize that the good lives they have witnessed among Christians were also for their benefit and salvation.
The Letter to Diognetus (c.200AD). describes the Christian vocation:
They marry like everyone else. They have children but never abandon them at birth. They share the same table but not the same bed. They are in the world but do not live according to the world’s ways. They spend their time on earth but are citizens of heaven (…) They love their fellows but are persecuted. They are misunderstood and condemned. .They are killed and in this way they win life. They are poor and make many rich. They lack everything, and abound in all things. They are despised, and in this contempt find their glory (…)
In a word, what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread over all the limbs of the body, as Christians are spread over all the cities of the world. The soul inhabits the body, as Christians inhabit the world without being of the world (…) The soul is shut up in the body, yet it is the soul that maintains the body. Christians are as it were imprisoned in the world, yet it is they who maintain it.
This was written a long time ago, but this function of maintaining the rest of humanity by living as intensely as possible our Christian lives, united as they are to the sacrifice of the Christ in the Mass, is the dominant theme in the apparitions of Our Lady in this last hundred years. It was the message of Fatima that our prayer and penance can terminate wars, bring empires down and avert disasters. The baptism is an event in the history of humanity because the baptised person is introduced into the Eucharistic Community. As long as he or she conforms his or her life to the Eucharist that is celebrated, the baptised person becomes a channel of grace for the whole of humanity. Hence, baptism is not just concerned with the soul of the individual: it is an event in history of God’s plan to sanctify the whole race.(G)
Of course, it is by means of baptism that someone becomes a member of the Church. That is the most visible effect of the sacrament..
(This post is in no way finished. Please come back later)