Mystagogical catechesis: baptism

‘Baptism incorporates us into Christ and forms us into God’s people’

By Father Randy Stice

In Sacrament of Charity, Pope Benedict reminds us that Christian formation centers “on a vital and convincing encounter with Christ” that “gains depth through catechesis and finds its source and summit in the celebration of the Eucharist” (64).

As I noted in last month’s column, the pope recommends a mystagogical (“leading into the mystery”) catechesis that respects three elements. First, it interprets the sacramental rite in the light of salvation history. Second, it presents the meaning of the signs within the rite. And third, it explains how the sacrament touches every aspect of one’s life.

This month I would like to present a mystagogical catechesis of the sacrament of baptism. Let’s begin with a summary of the theology of baptism as it appears in The General Introduction to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: “Baptism incorporates us into Christ and forms us into God’s people. This first sacrament pardons all our sins, rescues us from the power of darkness, and brings us to the dignity of adopted children, a new creation through water and the Holy Spirit. Hence we are called and are indeed the children of God” (RCIA, 2).

The first element of a mystagogical catechesis interprets the rite in the light of salvation history. The blessing of baptismal water situates baptism within God’s saving acts in the Old Testament. The blessing begins with a concise summary of the sacramental principle: “O God, who by invisible power accomplish a wondrous effect through sacramental signs.” God always mediates his presence to us through signs, such as how he appeared to Moses in the burning bush.

The blessing next recalls how God’s Spirit hovered over the waters at creation “so that the very substance of water would even then take to itself the power to sanctify.” It next recalls the flood, which illustrates how “from the mystery of one and the same element of water would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue.” Finally, it cites Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt, “dry-shod through the Red Sea, so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized.” Thus Creation, the Flood and the Exodus prefigure in diverse yet complementary ways what God now accomplishes in Baptism: a new creation, the beginning of the life of grace, and freedom from the slavery of sin.

The second element of a mystagogical catechesis is a presentation of the meaning of the sacramental signs. For reasons of space, I will consider only one sign—the white garment with which the newly baptized is clothed. The Church fathers developed a rich theology for this simple sign. Theodore of Mopsuestia (died 428) saw it as a sign of incorruptibility: “you are clad in a vestment that is all radiant. This is the sign of that shining world, of that kind of life to which you have already come by means of symbols.”

For St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 395), it recalled the restoration of grace lost by the Fall: “You have driven us out of Paradise and called us back; you have taken away the fig-leaves, that garment of our misery, and clad us once more with a robe of glory.” He also related it to the Transfiguration, “the tunic of the Lord, shining like the sun, which clothed Him with purity and incorruptibility when He went up on the Mount of the Transfiguration.” The white garment symbolized Adam’s state in Paradise; restoration of grace by Christ; and a prefiguration of our future glory.

Finally, a mystagogical catechesis explains how the sacrament touches and affects every aspect of our life. Baptism makes us “sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal office” in the manner appropriate to each of us, calling us “to exercise the mission that God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world, in accord with the condition proper to each one” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 871). By making us sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and royal office, baptism confers both responsibilities and rights. It commits us to serve others “in the communion of the Church, and to give the Church’s leaders respect and obedience with affection” (CCC, 1269). In order to fulfill these responsibilities, it also grants us certain rights: “to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the Word of God and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church” (CCC, 1269). In short, it calls us to “always walk in newness of life” (Collect, Mass for Conferral of Baptism).

A mystagogical catechesis that follows the structure proposed by Pope Benedict XVI unfolds the richness and power of the sacrament of baptism. It teaches us that baptism is rooted in the power of Creation itself. The sign of the white garment recalls Paradise, the Transfiguration, our restoration in Christ, and the glory that awaits us. Finally, baptism calls us to communion with and participation in the redemptive work of a loving God. The Prayer after Communion from the Mass for the Conferral of Baptism beautifully expresses the comprehensive transformation of baptism: Grant, O Lord, that by the power of this Sacrament we, who have proclaimed in celebration the glorious mystery of your Son’s Death and Resurrection, may also profess it by our manner of life.”

Father Randy Stice is director of the Office of Worship and Liturgy. He may be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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