Swimming the Tiber 16: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part One)

Tell me the story again
Tell me the story again
A Child in a manger bed
See the Virgin smile, for she understood

Now grow up and break your bread
Pour your cup of wine
On a cross of wood
A cross of wood
A cross of wood

– Chris Rice, “Tell Me the Story Again”

The faithful, incorporated in the Church through baptism, are destined toward the cultivation of the Christian religion by its character and, regenerated into sons of God, they are bound to profess, in the presence of men, the faith that they accepted from God through the Church. By the sacrament of confirmation they are bound more perfectly to the Church; they are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit, and thus they are held more closely to the faith, which ought at the same time to be poured out and defended, as true witnesses of Christ in word and deed. Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine Victim to God and their very selves along with It.

Lumen Gentium 11 (my translation)

The Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. I am tempted to put qualifiers–“perhaps” it is the greatest mystery, or “maybe” it is–but no, I can say with confidence that the Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. It is with no small amount of trepidation, then, that I undertake this task of explaining such a mystery in the sort of brief terms that my medium allows.

The first step, I think, is to lay out clearly what the Catholic Church really teaches. With most topics, I think, I try to build up to the teaching of the Church, or at least reveal it a step at a time, but there is so much confusion and misinformation about the Eucharist–even among Catholics, who ought to know better–that I think it important to state it up front.

The Eucharist, that is, the unleavened bread and wine offered at every Catholic Mass, is physically, really, actually, for all intents and purposes, the literal Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ’s presence in the species of bread and wine is called the Real Presence, not because his presence through prayer or Scripture isn’t real, but because, in the Eucharist, he is substantially present.

Here, species means something like vehicle. The bread and wine do not disappear, and indeed, the Eucharist still tastes like bread and wine, but they truly become Christ’s own Body and Blood. Every piece of the host (another term for the species) is the wholeness of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which is why Catholics are so cautious about the whole deal. If you drop a crumb, you must pick it up immediately and, if it is clean, consume it; if it gets too dirty to eat, you must dissolve it with water and pour it directly into the earth; if it is taken by some nefarious person and sold or given to Satanists for their “black mass,” the profanation of our Savior’s Body is deplorable.

And when I say substantially present, I really mean present in substance. The Eucharist does not represent or symbolize the Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ.

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re flipping out. If you haven’t just closed the site in frustration, I appreciate your patience. Because while I’ve defined the Eucharist, I haven’t explained it. I haven’t justified a word of it yet. So let’s dig in a little bit and take a look at why the Catholic Church believes this.

The Simple Explanation

The so-called “simple explanation” is that the Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood because he said it is. It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just read Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. These are the moments of institution for this sacrament, when Christ laid out for us how to receive it, and he says quite plainly, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” He does not say that it symbolizes his Body, or represents his Blood, but he says that it is.

Too simple for you? Easily refuted, you say? Fair enough. Let’s step up our game.

The Johannine Explanation

The Gospel of John doesn’t actually include the institution of the Eucharist. Surely this must be some mistake, right? The “wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life” isn’t represented in one of the Gospels? Probably not that important, then, huh?

Well, John does include talk of the Eucharist–more, in fact, than the synoptic Gospels do. But he doesn’t include it via the Lord’s Supper, but rather through Christ’s teaching. Read John 6:25-65. Here we see Christ declare, in very clear terms, that eating his Body is necessary for salvation. Without it, he says, “you have no life in you” (NRSV). This is some of the strongest Eucharistic language in all of Scripture. “But-but-but!” you say, “What about John 6:63? It clearly says the flesh is useless, so he must mean something else.”

Well, I struggled with this for a little while, because it wasn’t quite clear, but as usual, St. Augustine provides us with an easy (if loquacious) answer.

What is it, then, that He adds? “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, while You have said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him”? Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Your flesh? Then what means “the flesh profits nothing”? It profits nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit. Wherefore it is said that “the flesh profits nothing,” in the same manner as it is said that “knowledge puffs up.” Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means “Knowledge puffs up”? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, “but charity edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Therefore add to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, “the flesh profits nothing,” only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profits very much. For if the flesh profited nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profited us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profited us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore “it is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing,” as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.

– St. Augustine, Tractate 27 paragraph 5 (trans. John Gibb)

But perhaps you are unconvinced. Let’s carry on.

The Pauline Explanation

St. Paul reminds us that, just as there is only one Body of Christ, there is also only one bread, though we break it and share it and eat it. Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:27-32. Combined with the institution narrative we saw earlier, this clearly indicates the sameness of the Body of Christ and the bread of the supper we share. See also Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4-6.

If you’re still unconvinced, let me run through one final explanation in the hopes that overwhelming evidence will sway you.

The Typological Explanation

We Catholics looooove typology. It comes from being intellectually descended of the school of Alexandria rather than exclusively that of Antioch. Being able to look at Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and find precursors of the New Testament–it’s a good feeling. God gave us these hints all along the way, and we couldn’t see them for what they were until he revealed the full truth later. So it is that we talk about Israel as a type of the Church, the parting of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, and Adam as a type of Christ.

Some important things to remember about types: (1) They’re always inferior to the thing they foreshadow. Adam fell, but Christ rose. The escaping Israelites almost immediately constructed a golden calf to return to their dead ways, but baptism grants an indelible mark of grace. Israel strayed time and again, but the Church clings to the teachings handed down to us by Christ and his Apostles. (2) They’re typically both literal and allegorical, meaning they had a real, historical existence that made sense in context, but they also prefigure a deeper reality. This also means that you can’t extend the metaphor too far; the type is only an incomplete representation.

So let’s sprint through a few types of the Eucharist, shall we?

Our first stop is the garden of Eden, where eating is extremely important. Obviously, the fruit of the tree of life is a precursor of Christ, whose Body hung on a tree, from which we eat his flesh and gain eternal life. But there is also the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; it’s a kind of reverse type, which we will see again in this series later. For by the consumption of one food (of death) we were condemned and died, so by the consumption of another (one of life) we are granted eternal life.

Next, we join Abram for his blessing by the priest-king Melchizedek (Genesis 14). Here, we see that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine” (verse 18), and of course we know (from Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5-7) that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, but we know that he offered not bread and wine, but his own Body and Blood.

Then of course there is the Passover (Exodus 12). The parallels here are drawn when Christ uses this backdrop to institute the Eucharist. But not just the bread and wine are precursors here; so also the sacrificial lamb, which they killed and ate. And they spread its blood on the doorposts. (If you don’t see Christ crucified every time someone talks about blood on an upright wooden structure, you’ve been missing out.)

Quick, to the wilderness with the Israelites (Exodus 16)! Jesus himself draws this comparison in John 6, which I hope you’ve already read; Jesus is the bread from heaven, the true bread, which satisfies forever. Manna came from God, but only satisfied for a time; Jesus’ one sacrifice on the cross fills us for all eternity. Note also that a jar of this manna was placed in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16:33-34; Hebrews 9:4), which was so called because it contained the covenant of God (Exodus 25:16) and it was there that God’s presence came forth to speak to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22). There’s also the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:7). And what contains or holds these breads (you might call it the vehicle) should not be touched by any unworthy person (2 Samuel 6:7-8; see again 1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Let’s jump ahead to Elijah, who was fed bread by ravens (1 Kings 17) and cake by an angel (1 Kings 19). This latter kept him nourished for forty days, just as Christ fasted forty days in his own wilderness.

Then to Elisha, who fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley in 2 Kings 4. This reminds us instantly of Christ’s feeding of the multitudes, which were similar miracles, but all the more vast (five and seven loaves instead of twenty, thousands instead of a hundred), and were themselves a type of the Eucharist (a small body of bread, broken and shared among many).

Skip to the Prophets. Ezekiel ate a scroll (Ezekiel 3). That’s kinda weird, huh? At least until you think about how Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and we consume his Body for our salvation.

But enough Old Testament. Let’s look at some New Testament types!

Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 15:20) that Jesus was the first fruits of those who died. On the one hand, we know that this means more will follow, but it also means we sacrifice him and eat his Body (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Leviticus 2:14; 23; Deuteronomy 18:3-4; 26; Nehemiah 10:35; Judith 11:13; etc.).

I’ve already mentioned the miracles of feeding the multitudes, but they’re worth another shout-out (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38; Mark 6:35-44; 8:1-8; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).

And there are more, but this post grows long, and there’s just one more that I want to mention. In all God’s wisdom and authority, when he became man and dwelt among us, in his very first moments out in the light, breathing air alongside us, he could have been laid anywhere–but he was laid in a manger.1

Next week, I want to keep looking at the Eucharist–now that I have established, in some small way, what the Eucharist is, I still need to look at what it does in the Christian life. It will likely be a much shorter post than this one, but it covers some important topics that still need to be addressed.

1 The English word manger derives from French mangier (“to eat”), originally from Latin mandere (“to chew”). In English, it technically means the place where food for animals is placed (like a trough).

Swimming the Tiber 15: The Sacraments: Confirmation

To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about confirmation. It’s one of the three rites of Christian initiation (the other two being baptism and the Eucharist), which means it’s integral to unity with the universal Church, but I can’t recall thinking of any particular controversy around it. Perhaps I just didn’t run in the right circles.

To that end, this week’s post is pretty short. (No, I’m not done with it quite yet; calm down.) I’ll just do a quick run-down of confirmation–how it looks and what it does, basically. Confirmation is covered in full in Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, available for free at a number of different websites (like this one). Here’s the short version:

  1. Confirmation furthers the endowment of grace begun in baptism.
  2. In the past two weeks, I talked about how baptism grants us grace from the Holy Spirit and unites us to the Church, the Body of Christ. Confirmation is the next logical step; it opens us up to the Holy Spirit even more, enabling us to persist in the Church and pursue holiness. This is a mystical reality, not merely a symbolic gesture.

    In essence, confirmation is placing a seal, an indelible mark of ownership, on a Christian. From that point forward, that person belongs not to themselves nor to any temporal person or group, but to the Holy Spirit of God. This is efficacious toward salvation, and so confirmation (like baptism) should be done as early as possible, but in the Western tradition is frequently delayed until the “age of discretion” (one might say the “age of accountability” or “age of reason”), except in emergency circumstances. (I’ll get to more on this separation in a moment.)

  3. Confirmation is shown in Scripture by the descent of the Holy Spirit.
  4. Confirmation is participation in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In this way, it is tied closely to baptism with water, which is the first rite of Christian initiation. I even talked in the last two weeks about how one leads to the other naturally. Nevertheless, there is an ordinary process: the laying on of hands. We see the extraordinary process frequently in Scripture (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32; Acts 2; 10:44-47; 11:15), but we also see this ordinary process, which we are to follow (Acts 8:14-17; 19:5-6; 2 Timothy 1:5-7).

    (Note that 1 Timothy 4:14 refers to Timothy’s ordination by the elders, which I will get to in a few weeks, and not to Timothy’s confirmation by Paul.)

  5. Confirmation is technically separate from baptism.
  6. Confirmation as a sacrament is technically separate from baptism. They are linked as rites of Christian initiation, but they do not necessarily need to happen simultaneously.

    This is important to note, because as I wrote a moment ago, the Western tradition separates them temporally. You see, confirmation is bestowed by one’s bishop, signifying the new convert’s unity with the whole Church (and not merely the local parish). As time passed in those early days, the rapid increase in baptisms meant that the bishop could not be present for every one, so confirmation was separated to retain his place in the process.

    In the East, by contrast, the bishops have granted authority to parish priests to confirm converts, so that the process of initiation is kept unified temporally. In the West, we aim to retain this unity through the renewal of baptismal promises during the act of confirmation, but delegation of that authority has not been as widespread.

  7. Confirmation is recommended, but not strictly required, before the Eucharist.
  8. Ordinarily, it makes sense that confirmation should precede the Eucharist, as the Eucharist completes the rites of Christian initiation (more on that next week). However, since confirmation has been separated temporally from baptism, it is frequently put off until adolescence (especially in the United States). And traditionally, the first reception of Holy Communion was delayed until after confirmation, but because of the lateness of confirmation, many young people were not receiving the Eucharist until their late teens, which meant they spent several formative years without the graces granted by the Eucharist.

    In an effort to correct this, Pope Pius X declared in 1910 that children of the age of reason (about 7) could receive the Eucharist. This basically reversed the order of sacraments and has created some confusion among the faithful. Bishops also have the authority to adjust ages for these sacraments in their dioceses, so some have restored the original order and some have not. As a family, you can also speak to your parish priest and bishop about receiving them in the proper order. (This is really only necessary for children, as adult converts retain the original order of sacraments.)

    Would it have been easier to order bishops to confirm children earlier? I think so, but evidently, Pius X did not. The way things are is not illegitimate or invalid, but it can be a little confusing.

I think that covers the highlights. Next week, I’m going to start talking about one of the biggest points of contention between Catholics and Protestants: the Eucharist. I’m going to go ahead and assume it will take more than one week to cover properly.

Swimming the Tiber 14: The Sacraments: Baptism (Part Two)

Last week, I talked about how the purpose and effect of baptism is to forgive sins and unite the believer to the Body of Christ (as opposed to merely signifying a declaration of faith on the part of a person old enough to make such a decision).

This week, I’m going to tackle the second point of contention: when to baptize somebody.

As a Baptist, I always had a ready answer to the question of infant baptism: “It’s not Scriptural!” Indeed, infant baptism is never mentioned explicitly in Scripture. All attempts to root the practice in Scripture are ultimately reliant on Tradition, rather that the text itself, to establish that interpretation. But to be fair, “believer’s baptism” for children at the age of reason is never mentioned in Scripture, either. At no point is the baptism of the children of believers ever mentioned, either as infants or as adolescents.

In fact, every instance of baptism in Scripture is the baptism of a convert.

So we must rely on some other principle of interpretation to determine when a person ought to be baptized. For the Baptist, this is an extrapolation of “believer’s baptism,” with the assumption that a five- or six- or seven- or eight-year-old child is capable of belief. (Looking back, I think that was not at all the reality for me; genuine faith may well be possible for some children, but it was so far beyond my comprehension then that you may as well have asked me to be baptized on account of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or that that photons behave as both particles and waves, or that black holes are so massive that they generate enough gravity to prevent even light from escaping them. I’d have probably agreed to it because you made it sound like I should.)

But for the Catholic, there are a few things we rely on. First, we rely on the strength of Tradition. Certainly, infant baptism was the tradition of the early Church, because Church Fathers as early as St. Irenaeus defended it–and he would not likely have defended the practice in AD 190 if he had not been baptized as an infant himself 50-60 years before, probably by St. Polycarp. By that time, Polycarp was a bishop, but in his younger years he was a student of St. John (the Evangelist, who wrote five books of the New Testament, and was the beloved disciple of Jesus). Could the message of Christ have been so corrupted so quickly? Or is it more likely that St. John taught St. Polycarp to baptize the infant children of the faithful, who then taught it to St. Irenaeus, whose writings on that very subject we still have to this day?

As Catholics, we also rely on the purpose of baptism, which, as you may have now surmised, is why I have addressed these questions in reverse. That is, if the purpose of baptism was merely to signify a declaration of faith, then of course, we should wait until a child is old enough to declare his or her faith. (You may as well say that an infant or a child is capable of declaring their future career or whom they will marry, except that matters of faith are not so trivial as these things–which suggests we should wait even longer to be sure of a child’s faith.) But if, as I discussed last week, baptism is efficacious to forgive sins and unite someone with the Church, the act is independent of the chosen faith of the child, and it should not depend on their state of belief, but on whether or not their parents want them to be part of the Body of Christ.

I don’t know any Christian parent who does not want their children to be part of the Church. And if someone did not, could you really call them Christian?

This capacity of baptism to forgive sins and grant access to the sacraments of the Church also means that a child who has not been baptized remains subject to original sin, the old self, their sinful nature, almost to adolescence (or beyond, if something interferes with the development of their faith). And we live in a broken world where life is unexpectedly short. Does it make any kind of sense to leave our children enslaved to their own sins, knowing full well they may die at any moment, and be lost forever? Or, rather, should we intervene on their behalf, not hindering them, but letting them come to Christ (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)?

I have read an objection to this argument, saying that this vignette opposes infant baptism, because Jesus did not baptize the children, but only blessed them. But we know (John 4:1-2) that Jesus did not baptize anyone at all with water, but his disciples did, so why would he have baptized these children? But he blesses, he forgives sins, and, by his presence, people are healed. These are the extraordinary means of salvation, and, by design, we have access mainly to the ordinary means; that is to say, Jesus can forgive and heal by word and touch, but we obtain forgiveness through baptism and obedience.

And while there is no direct mention of infant baptism in Scripture, we do see whole households being baptized under the faith of their heads. Acts 16:13-15 tells the story of the conversion of Lydia and her household; Acts 18:8 of Crispus and his household; and 1 Corinthians 1:16 of Stephanas and his household. Now, of course, you may argue that these households might not have had infants or children at all, or that they might have been excluded from the baptism of their family–but the text doesn’t say that, either. As long as we’re arguing from silence (which is a terrible thing to do), the text makes no mention of anyone in Lydia’s household believing before their baptism, or of anyone in Stephanas’ household believing at all. The head of a household is responsible for the faith of that household; that’s why fathers have such weight of responsibility (see Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:18-25). Whether there are infants in each of these households is not relevant to the question; what’s important here is that those with responsibility to pass on the faith do so, and part of that is including one’s children in the Body of Christ (perhaps even the most important part, though certainly raising a child cannot be in the least discounted).

It is crucial to remember that baptism is the covenantal sign of our faith, as circumcision was before Christ. St. Paul makes this clear in his epistle to the Colossians:

In whom also [you] were circumcised1 with a circumcision not made by hand in the divestment of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried together with him in baptism, in which also [you] were assembled through the faith of the action of God, the [one] having roused him out of [the] dead; and you, being dead {in} the blunders and the uncircumcision2 of your flesh, [he] made you alive together with him, having forgiven for us all the blunders, having plastered over the [note] against us handwritten3 with doctrines, which [note] was opposed to us, and [he] has lifted it up out of [our] midst, having nailed it to the cross.

– Colossians 2:11-14

1 Lit. “cut around”; compare with circumcision, from Latin circum, around, and caedo, to cut.
2 Lit. “the foreskin”
3 Here means a note of debt, in this case a legal one (from “doctrines,” just following); on top of having this meaning, the word χειρόγραφον (handwritten) is wonderfully juxtaposed with ἀχειροποιήτῳ (not made by hand) above. Baptism is a spiritual and divine reality which “plasters over” the frail pages recording human sin.

We see again that it is baptism which buries us with Christ and raises us up with him, whereby also our sins are forgiven us. It joins us to God’s family through his Son. And circumcision was commanded for every male at least eight days old, not because those infants grasped what it meant to be united to the covenant of God, but because anyone who was not circumcised was “cut off from his people” as one who had broken God’s covenant (Exodus 17:14).

Before I close, I do want to address one final point about when to baptize someone: rebaptism. In many Protestant circles, and among Baptists especially, it is common practice to rebaptize someone who either was baptized outside of a Baptist church or who had lost their way and wanted to recommit themselves to God. According to Catholic teaching, this is inappropriate at best. Baptism is once for life. You can’t get baptized again, not really. And whenever a sacrament has the proper form, it is assumed to be valid until proved otherwise–so baptisms (and marriages, which I’ll get to later) performed outside the Church are presumed valid, so we don’t rebaptize. The second “baptism” would be a farce. Consider Ephesians 4:4-6, which teaches us that there is one baptism into the one Body of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

The one exception to this is when the first “baptism” is done improperly (lacking the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as directed by Christ in Matthew 28). Compare this with Acts 19:1-7.

So you see how the Church understands baptism, and how I could go so far from what I believed before to what I believe now. I think that the proper perspective makes the Church’s teaching on baptism clear, but I spent a long time thinking that Catholics were not just wrong, but completely batty. It can be a hard change to make, but, looking back, I’m sure it was the right one.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the next of the seven sacraments: Confirmation.

Swimming the Tiber 13: The Sacraments: Baptism (Part One)

There are, generally speaking, two primary points of contention regarding baptism: (1) when to do it, and (2) what it’s for. That may sound like just about everything, but at least I don’t have to argue that we should do it–that much should be obvious (Matthew 28:19-20).

I grew up in the Baptist tradition, which means that my answers to the above issues were (1) upon or beyond the age of accountability (or age of reason), usually five to eight years old (depending on the child), and when the person expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and (2) as a statement to the church community that a person had accepted the aforementioned faith.

As a Catholic, however, the answers are (1) as soon as possible, and (2) for the forgiveness of sins.

These are not close together at all, as you can see. So why the change? Well, let’s look at these one at a time–but just to mess with you, I’m going to tackle them in reverse.

Let’s first examine the Scriptures in favor of baptism as a sign of our faith, but nothing more.

And [he] said to them, “Having been conveyed unto quite the whole cosmos, herald the good news to all creation.1 The [one] having believed and having been baptized will be saved, but the [one] disbelieving will be condemned.”

– Mark 16:15-16 (my translation)

But Crispus, the synagogue-head, believed in the lord with his whole house, and many of the Corinthians, hearing, were believing and were being baptized.

– Acts 18:8 (my translation)

For Christ did not dispatch me to baptize but to evangelize, not in cleverness of reckoning, in order that the cross of Christ may not be emptied. For the reckoning, the [one] of the cross, is folly to the [ones] being destroyed, but to us, the [ones] being saved, [it] is the power of God.

– 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 (my translation)

1 Or every creature.

In the first passage, we see that believing is the real crux of the matter (no pun intended). If you believe (and get baptized), you will be saved, but disbelieving is the path to condemnation; so, it seems, the believing is the part that saves, not the baptizing. In the second place, we don’t even see mention of Crispus being baptized, so it must not have been important. And in the third passage, we read St. Paul telling us that he came to preach, not baptize, so of course, preaching is more important.

There are also other passages that do not suggest anything special about baptism, treating it almost as an afterthought–for example Acts 2:41; 8:35-38; 16:14-15, 31-34. At most, these passages suggest that baptism is a sort of statement, a declaration of intent, but nothing spiritually efficacious. So baptism is, in essence, a sign of faith. But is that the whole story? Is it only a sign of faith, or does it actually accomplish something as well?

Before we move on to other passages, let me first address the objections raised here. For the first passage, it seems that belief saves, and not baptism–but we already know this isn’t the whole story, of course, and it’s not quite so simple with baptism, either. As we shall see shortly, baptism is efficacious, and a lack of mention here is not the same thing as denying power to baptism altogether. For the second, the tense of the latter clause is important–we see that many Corinthians were believing and being baptized, so Crispus (and his whole house) is included in this group, which is juxtaposed with the response of the Jews in verse 6 of that chapter (they opposed Paul and reviled him).

The passage from 1 Corinthians is quoted often by opponents of baptism as a real sacrament with power to accomplish things in our lives. “If baptism is so important,” people say, “why did Paul say preaching was better?” Well, for one thing, St. Paul didn’t say that preaching was better, only that he came to Corinth to evangelize, not to baptize. The context here is that he is angry that the Corinthians have divided themselves and call themselves after Paul, after Cephas (Peter), after Apollos, after Christ, but there is only one Christ (a topic to which St. Paul returns in his letter to the Ephesians, as we shall see next week). Evangelism and baptism are not opposed, of course, but steps in a process; first, you are evangelized and converted by the power of the cross (not by eloquence or sophistry), then you are baptized, then you proceed in a lifelong pursuit of Christ through discipleship and faith. As St. Paul wrote later in this same letter (and as we saw a couple of weeks ago), “each [man] has his own grace from God, the [one] thus, the other thus.” Paul’s gift, and his task, was to evangelize; it fell to others to baptize. Or, as Jesus said, “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37, NRSV).

Now, let’s look at a few more passages.

“I, on the one hand, baptize you in water unto repentance, but the [one] coming after1 me is stronger than me, whose sandals [I] am not competent to carry;2 [he] himself will baptize you in a holy spirit and [in/with] fire; whose winnowing-shovel in his hand both purges thoroughly his threshing-floor and gathers his grain into the storehouse, but the chaff-heap will burn down in unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus comes near from Galilee upon the Jordan to John in order to be baptized by him. But John was hindering him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” And having answered, Jesus said to him, “Let [it] go just now, for thus [it] is conspicuously fitting3 for us to fill all justice.” Then he let him go. And Jesus, having been baptized, went straight up from the water; and behold, the skies opened {to him}some manuscripts omit this word, and [he] saw {the} spirit of God descending just as a dove {and} comingsome manuscripts: coming; others omit upon him; and behold, [there was] a sound out of the skies saying, “This [man] is my son, the beloved [one], in whom [I] am well-pleased.”

– Matthew 3:11-17 (my translation)

And being gathered, [he] gave a command to them not to separate from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the father, which [you] heard from me, that John, on the one hand, baptized with water, but you will be baptized in a holy spirit after not many of these days.

– Acts 1:4-5 (my translation)

But having heard, [they] were stabbed [in] the heart and they said to Peter and the remaining apostles, “What should [we] do, men, brothers?” And Peter to them, “Change your minds(repent),” {[he] said}, “and be baptized, each of you, upon the name of Jesus Christ unto the acquittal of your errors and [you] will receive the gift of the holy spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all the [ones] up to a faraway [place], how many soever the lord God called of us.” And with more, other arguments [he] testified and [he] was calling to them, saying, “Be saved from this crooked generation.” The [ones], therefore, having accepted his argument were baptized and about three thousand lives were added in that day. And [they] were adhering firmly4 to the teaching of the apostles and to the communion, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.

– Acts 2:37-42 (my translation)

With Peter still speaking these sayings, the spirit, the holy [one], fell upon all the [ones] hearing the argument. And the faithful [ones] out of the circumcision, as many as gathered with Peter, changed,5 that also upon the nations the gift of the holy spirit has been poured out; for [they] were hearing them speaking with tongues and magnifying God. Then Peter answered, “Does anyone have power to withhold the water from baptizing these [men], whosoever received the spirit, the holy [one], just as also we [did]?” And [he] ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then [they] asked him to stay for some days.

– Acts 10:44-48 (my translation)

Note: for comparison, see also Mark 1:4-11; Luke 3:16-22; John 1:26-34; and read Acts 11:15-18 for important context on the passage from chapter 10 above. Acts 22:16 mentions again the power of baptism.

1 The word here (ὀπίσω) literally means “behind” or “backwards”; this is an idiom in Greek for the future, which is unknown and unseen (therefore behind us), as opposed to the past, which is seen (and therefore ahead). We preserve this in English when we say that the future comes “after” us, even though we frequently think of ourselves marching forward into the future.
2 There may be several plays on words here. First, the verb “to carry” (βαστάσαι, from βαστάζω) resembles the verb “to baptize” (βαπτίζω), and we will see John shortly baptizing Jesus under protest that he is unworthy to do so. This verb also literally means to lift up or raise, which metaphorically means to exalt or glorify, which is one of the purposes of John’s ministry. A synonymous verb (ὑψόω) is also used by the Apostle John in John 3:14 to connect with Jesus’ crucifixion.
3 This is a periphrastic form. (See my note 6 on periphrastic forms from a couple of weeks ago.) Here, Jesus emphasizes the nature of the deed, rather than the effect (it is seemly, rather than it seems to so-and-so).
4 This is another periphrastic form. Here, the sense is focused on the converts’ state of mind, rather than the specific action (though of course the action is important, even more important is its reflection of who they became as a result of their conversion).
5 This is often translated as a passive, e.g., “They were astounded,” or, “They were amazed,” but the word is technically active. It literally means to displace, but in this case, perhaps it means something like changed [their minds]. (This should not be confused with the word translated “change your minds” in the above passage, which is frequently translated “repent”; the words are not related, but the theological sense–i.e., conversion to the truth–may be.)

There’s a lot to unravel here, but some of it is self-explanatory. I’ll try to be brief.

In the first passage, we hear John declare the purpose of baptism: repentance. Mark calls it a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (NRSV). This is the effect of baptism. But we immediately see Jesus baptized by John; surely he had no sins that needed to be forgiven. But Matthew tells us why Jesus’ baptism by John is different, but still appropriate: in the first place, it was appropriate that Jesus fulfill the law and do as he taught us to do (Matthew 5:17). Also, Jesus’ sins are not forgiven by baptism, because he has committed no sins to forgive, and he does not possess the stain of original sin, but the act does spark off his earthly ministry, complete with a theophany (the revelation of God to the people, by God’s declaration of his Son’s identity). This is the effect for Jesus, and the effect for us is similar: it cleanses us of original sin and of all our sinful deeds prior to baptism, so that, washed clean by the blood of Christ, God can declare of us a sonship. (See Romans 8:12-17; Galatians 3:25-29; 4:4-7.)

The second passage is an echo of John’s teaching in each of the Gospels: after the baptism with water comes a baptism with the Holy Spirit, a greater baptism, sent by Christ. At first glance, this sounds like an abandonment of the baptism by water in favor of the baptism by the Holy Spirit, but consider the third passage: no sooner had the apostles been baptized by the Holy Spirit than they preached to the gathered crowd and, upon their conversion, Peter and the apostles baptized them with water, according to the command of Christ (see Matthew 28 again).

In the fourth passage, the revelation of the Gospel to the Gentiles converts their hearts, and God bestows his Holy Spirit upon them–and immediately, Peter orders that they be baptized with water. Is this merely a formality? If they have the Holy Spirit already, what need have they of this other baptism? But this reinforces the truth: baptism is an essential part of the process, by which we are granted graces by God and gain entrance into Christ’s Body, the Church, and by which our sins are forgiven. Acts 22:16 reminds us of this important step; for who can deny that Saul, on the road to Emmaus by Christ himself, and again in Damascus by Ananias, was ordained to go unto the world as an apostle? But still he needed to be baptized, to be washed of his sins, before that ministry could begin in earnest.

In case you remain unconvinced even now, consider also the cleansing, healing, and saving power of being washed with water. In Genesis, we read of Noah and the great flood, washing away all the sins of the world–but as merely a type of baptism, imperfectly cleansing the world, for immediately Ham sins against his father and the cycle starts all over again. But 1 Peter 3:18-22, in some of the strongest support for baptism as a saving sacrament in all of Scripture, tells us that the great flood prefigured baptism, because in the flood, the sinful were washed away and eight people were saved for God’s kingdom.

Later, in Exodus, we read of the people of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s armies through the Red Sea. Again, through water, the people were saved from evil. 1 Corinthians 10 reminds us that the people passed through the sea, were baptized into Moses, and were saved from Egypt–but only for a time, for soon they began to fall prey to idolatry. Again, we see the same symbols: water cleanses, but only for a time.

In 2 Kings 5, we come to the story of a man named Naaman, who had leprosy. By the command of Elisha, he washed in the Jordan seven times (the same Jordan where John the Baptist preached and baptized) and was cleansed of his leprosy. And Naaman believed, and worshiped God, but he, too, still had his shortcomings (fearing the wrath of his master for not worshiping in the house of Rimmon, for example).

Jesus himself gives us symbols of baptism. We see in John 9:1-7 that Jesus healed a man born blind, in no small part, by having him wash his eyes. The man does not know all the details, but he has been cleansed. (In verses 35-39, Jesus finds him again and tells him more, and he believes.) Later, “before the festival of the Passover,” Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Baptism is not the only message in this moment (John 13:1-11), but it should not be forgotten, especially in verse 8: “Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me'” (NRSV).

Consider, finally, the baptism with fire. Jesus spoke of undergoing this baptism himself (Mark 10:38-39; Luke 12:50), of the pain and suffering he would endure. This is the “baptism into death,” to which we are joined in our own baptism, as St. Paul explains in Romans 6:3-4. This wraps baptism up in the crucifixion and the resurrection, laying us down to sleep in death, raising us up in newness of life. In this, baptism accomplishes what its analogue accomplished; it is but one step by which we fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (see Colossians 1:24). Baptism puts to death the old self, crucified with Christ, and brings us forth anew, that we may live for God in Christ Jesus. In this way, too, by baptism we clothe ourselves with Christ himself (see again Galatians 3:27-29).

Can we really doubt that baptism is efficacious to forgive sins? And not just any sin, but the “old self,” the fallen nature–original sin. (You may recall that I talked about that topic in some detail last week.) It is by baptism that we put to death our original sin, our slavery unto death, and enter into a new life in Christ Jesus. This is the purpose and effect of baptism, not merely a declaration of our changed hearts, but the very method of marking our souls with an indelible mark, a mark which can never be removed.

This post grows long indeed, and I still have a great deal to cover about when baptism ought to occur. Look forward to that discussion next week!