Baptism is the first sacrament. Typically, within a couple months of a child’s birth, the family will bring the baby to the church, and the priest (or deacon) will pour water over the child’s head while saying the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But why do we do this? The most obvious reason is that the Lord Jesus commanded it. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Our Lord instructs His disciples to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). For two thousand years, baptism has been a central part of the mission of the Church. But why? Why is baptism so important to Christ?
To understand why, it’s helpful first to look at the Old Testament account of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh. They had been in bondage for centuries, and when they cry out to the Lord for help, He raises up Moses who becomes the Lord’s appointed ambassador and who gets Pharaoh to let the people go. But when the people are leaving Egypt, Pharaoh repents of his decision to free them, so he sends his army after the Israelites to wipe them out. With the armies of Pharaoh bearing down on them, the fleeing Israelites find their escape blocked by a natural barrier – the Red Sea. So they are stuck, and their destruction seems immanent. When we consider the inescapable situation of the Israelites, we should stop to consider the inescapable reality of our own mortality. All of us will die someday, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Thus, we understand to a certain degree the dreadful feeling of the Israelites in that moment. But then, God commands Moses to raise his hands over the waters, and a great wind blows on the sea. The waters are split in two, revealing dry land. The Israelites pass through the waters of the Red Sea to the other side, and when the armies of Pharaoh try to follow them, the waters close over them, swallowing them up. The people are thus saved from the power of Pharaoh by the saving power of God.
This central event of the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the sacrament of Baptism. Like the Israelites who passed through the waters of the Red Sea, the person who is baptized passes through the waters of the baptismal font. Water is an ancient symbol of both death and birth, and both come into play in baptism, which is the passing through death to new life. When the child (or adult) is baptized, they receive new life – the life of the resurrected Christ. That’s because the passage through the Red Sea doesn’t just foreshadow Baptism, it more importantly foreshadows Christ Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Our Lord passed through death when He was crucified on Good Friday, and then rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. He shares with us that new life through the sacrament of Baptism. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the waters of the earth received the power to confer upon us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. The waters of the font become the means by which we pass through death in Christ to new life in Him. Not just symbolically, but actually.
All the baptized receive a share in the life of the risen Christ. With Baptism, His life suddenly flows through us, washing away Original Sin and binding us together supernaturally as members of the Church. The Israelites were a nation bound together by blood ties. The members of the Church, however, are bound together in grace, which transcends such things as ethnicity, language, race, making the Church truly Catholic, ie: universal.
Interestingly, after their liberation from the power of Pharaoh and before they entered the Promised Land, the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, where they learned what it meant to be a member of God’s chosen people. There, the Lord cared for them by giving them the Law as well as bread from heaven and water from the rock. There, He healed them from the deadly bites of serpents. After our liberation from the power of sin and death by our Baptism, the members of the Church spend this time in the wilderness of the world, learning what it means to be followers of Christ. Here, we avail ourselves of all that the Lord gives us to sustain us along the way, including the teaching authority of the Church and the life-giving power of the sacraments, so that when our lives in this world come to an end we might enter the Promised Land of Heaven.
We call Christ Jesus our Savior, because that is what He is. He saves us from the power of sin and death and frees us from the terrible oppression of Satan. Through our baptism, we become members of God’s family and are transformed from God’s beloved creatures to God’s beloved children. We cannot overstate the importance of Baptism, which is the “gateway” sacrament, introducing us to the life of grace and allowing us to receive the benefits of the other sacraments. And that’s why Our Lord commanded His disciples, and Christians throughout the ages, to Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.