The Sacrament of Baptism

Introducing Baptism

  • Why be baptised?
  • What difference does baptism make?
  • My Buddhist friend is much more kind and considerate than many other people in my year level and she’s not baptised.
  • Why don’t we let people choose their religion when they grow up?
  • What’s the point of all that messing about with water? Isn’t believing in Jesus, or living a good life enough?
These and many similar questions occur from time to time as young people (and also older people) come to grips with the meaning of baptism. They are good questions and worth exploring. This module of RESource hopes to indicate lines of thinking about Baptism which will provide not simply answers to questions but indicate ways of thinking about the sacrament which cast light on its meaning and purpose.

Note for Teachers

As you look through this module and especially the web sites recommended remember to ask yourselves these questions:
  • Is it readily understandable? Do I need to seek further explanation?
  • Is it in accordance with what I understand to be our shared Christian faith? Do I need to discuss this with other informed people? Do I need to read further?
  • Could I give this article to secondary students? Why or why not? At what secondary class level could it be discussed?
  • What ideas could I use from this article that would be of value and interest to my students?

What is Baptism?

Baptism is the first and foundational sacrament which incorporates believers into the Church, the Body of Christ. It is, in its essentials, a simple ritual. Candidates for baptism, either adult or infant, are immersed in water or have water poured over them while a priest (or in an emergency, anyone) says the words: ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
Adults who wish to be baptised prepare themselves by a period of prayer, study and experience of the life and faith of the Church normatively through the Adult Catechumenate, or RCIA, before they are received. On the other hand, infants of Christian families are baptised before they come to explicit personal faith. Presented by their parents, their baptism shows, particularly clearly the faith of the Church.  


Baptised in water

Water is the main sign or symbol used in this sacrament. It is a great natural symbol because water is full of meaning for human beings. Quite simply, without it we could not live. It is the medium in which we spend the first nine months of our existence. Water sustains all life on earth, quenches thirst, cleanses, refreshes, is powerful, buoyant and an archetypal symbol of purification and life. For all these reasons water is a rich sign of the life of God without whom we could not live. Passing through the water of the font to freedom and new life in Christ is the essential meaning of baptism. 

Water can also be a devastating force which can drown and destroy. For some, it is an archetypal symbol of chaos. This negative aspect as well as the positive makes water a powerful sign of dying and rising with Christ which is integral to the sacrament of Baptism.

Religious symbolism of water

Apart from its natural symbolism, water is of extraordinary significance in many faith traditions.
In the Jewish religion, water is used in rites of purification and cleansing. Both washing of hands and full immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath are used in traditional Jewish practice. Ritual cleansing in the mikvah is part of the rite of initiation for those converting to Judaism.
Water is also immensely significant in the great stories of Judaism. In the Old Testament we read of:
  • the creation: God’s spirit hovers over the waters and creation begins
  • the flood: waters cleanse the earth of evil and provide a new beginning for the human race
  • the exodus: Israel, passing through the waters of the Red Sea, is delivered from slavery in Egypt and after its sojourn in the desert crosses the river Jordan to enter the promised land.

There are many other references to life-giving waters throughout the Old Testament. Water is important in the New Testament also.

In the Gospels:

  • Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus’ first sign is to change water to wine at a wedding feast
  • He speaks of himself as living water to a woman at a Samaritan well
  • He walks upon the waters of Lake Galilee
  • Several of the healings of Jesus involve water or washing
  • On the cross blood and water flows from his side.
Each of these images from scripture open us to insights into the nature of God’s relationship with the world and human beings which have been pondered by Christians for 2000 years. Some of these water stories are referred to in the blessing of the baptismal water during the Easter Vigil while the account of Creation and the deliverance of the people of God through the waters of the Red Sea are included in the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil.  A short meditation on the symbolism and significance of water includes reference to the images used in the Blessing.

Further reading

  • A long but worthwhile introduction to sacramental symbols and their origins in everyday substances and their connection to human life is the article by Brian Gleeson Symbols and Sacraments: their human foundations on the Australian Catholic University site.
  • Some beautiful Australian images of water and its impact and effects are contained in a letter entitled The Gift of Water prepared by Catholic Earthcare Australia and endorsed by the Bishops of the Murray Goulburn districts.?


  • Why do you think water plays such an important role in so many religious traditions?
  • Prepare a collage or PowerPoint of images suggesting the significance of water in the sacrament of Baptism. If you choose the PowerPoint option try to find a suitable piece of music or a song to accompany the images.
  • Make a mind-map of references to water in either the book of Genesis or in one of the Gospels. Use it to explore connections and contrasts in its meaning and symbolism. If you wish, use the concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to prompt you with references.
  • Could you explain how the waters of baptism are like: a bath; the waters of the womb; spring rains; a flood torrent?
  • If a Martian looked in the window of a church during a baptism by immersion what might he or she or it think was going on? How could the Martian’s first reaction give us a clue to what is actually happening in this sacrament?
  • Make a class anthology of water writings/paintings/photographs. What connections can you make between what poets and artists make of the experience of water and the use of water in Baptism?
  • The Bishops’ statement The Gift of Water says ‘We need a renewed spirituality of water that recognises its centrality for all life. We need to treasure it as the life-giving gift of God and as a beautiful sign of the life of God.’ As a class discuss steps you can take to develop a more holistic attitude to water.

Baptism in the Scripture

Old Testament

Baptism is not explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament though, as we have seen, Christians later interpreted many of the great foundational stories as signs or types of Baptism. However, ritual washing and cleansing was an important part of the life of every Jewish person, signifying not simply physical or moral cleanliness but the ritual ‘setting apart’ for God of both human beings and indeed various other things eg. objects, food, utensils. An article on infant baptism explains how baptism has its origins in a Jewish customSo when John the Baptist came calling people to repentance signified by baptism in water, those to whom he preached would not have been mystified by either his message or his method.

New Testament

The Baptism of Jesus
The Baptism of Jesus is described in each of the gospels (though indirectly in John). At the Baptism in the Jordan the great truths of our faith are suggested. Father, Son and Spirit are manifest (Trinity); Jesus is seen in his human flesh among the others coming for baptism (Incarnation); He is submerged in the Jordan, a token of his death and burial and rises from the waters to receive the Spirit. (Redemption).
The Baptism inaugurates his public ministry, a ministry that all those baptised in his name continue.
The explanation of an icon of the Baptism of the Lord might help you to grasp the significance of this event in the life of Christ while a reflection on the readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord may also be useful.
Baptism in the Gospel of Matthew and in Acts
The writings of the New Testament suggest that the baptism of believers was a response to the command of Jesus and that it was practised in the Church from the very beginning. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples and says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Jesus, speaking with authority, passes to his followers the mission of making disciples of all the nations. Matthew’s gospel is explicit that they are to do this by teaching and baptising in the name of God who is Father, Son and Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles contains many accounts of baptism as the entry to the life of the Church.
Further Reflection on Baptism in the New Testament
The New Testament letters, especially those of St Paul, contain much reflection and teaching on the meaning of Baptism. When we look at these we can see that the mystery of Baptism is understood in at least five ways:
  • Union with Christ
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.’ (Romans 6:3-4) The radical language of death and rebirth in this part of Paul’s letter is so strong that though Christians have often preferred to speak of baptism in other terms (eg cleansing, community membership, becoming a child of God etc.) there is no doubt that Paul understands baptism as a profound identification with Christ, dying with him so as to share life with him. Baptism is thus the most significant happening in the life of a Christian: the beginning of a new and eternal life.
  • New birth as beloved sons and daughters of God
Jesus’ own baptism mentioned in all the gospels is a starting point for understanding the meaning of baptism for all who receive it. As Jesus rises from the waters of the Jordan, God’s voice is heard proclaiming him as Beloved Son. Our identification with Christ in Baptism brings us into the same relationship with God as he enjoyed. ‘For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:26).  As Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan began his ministry, our baptism also begins our commitment to his mission and ministry. Every baptised person is called upon to witness to Jesus and the Kingdom of God through the way they live and act in the world. Baptism commits Christians to living the pattern of self-giving love which was characteristic of Jesus’ life.
  • Incorporation into the Church.
Baptism is the rite which draws those who hear the word and believe in it, into the Church (Acts 2:41,47). We form a visible community or family of faith which is both local and universal, that is, it stretches back in time to the apostles and forward to the end of history and exists throughout the world. This community of the Church is often called the Body of Christ within which there are to be no distinctions: as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28) and in which unity in Christ is of first importance. The Church extends the work of Christ throughout time and space.
  • Forgiveness of sins
Probably the most familiar understanding of baptism is that of cleansing from sin, both original and personal. In Baptism, sin is forgiven, grace prevails and the possibility of living in union with Christ conferred.
Original sin is the traditional term used to describe the alienation of humankind from God and from the original goodness in which human beings were created. It is an attempt to name the predisposition within every human being to rejection of God, to passions such as envy, jealousy, greed and violence and to the search for happiness and satisfaction in the self. Read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about original sin.
Personal sin on the other hand is the deliberate choice of a human being to act against what he or she knows to be good. John the Baptist invited his hearers to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus also called for repentance and proclaimed the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy.
Baptism brings about a share in the restored relationship with God won by Christ through his life, death and resurrection. Though we are still tempted and still can choose to sin, our baptism enables for us the possibility, in every moment, of choosing what is good as Christ has so chosen. Paul puts it this way ‘If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:17)
  • Gift of the Holy Spirit
Forgiveness of sin is also related to the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter preaching to the crowds at Pentecost invited them to 
..repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts2:38-39).
The Holy Spirit comes to the baptised in their weakness and need. Through the action of the Holy Spirit we have the capacity to live unselfishly, with love, joy peace and patience and all the other good things Paul lists as fruits of the Spirit.


  • One of your school mates is to be baptised soon and has asked you to help prepare the readings to be used during the ceremony. Which ones might you suggest and why. In addition to readings you may have already looked at, you will find a selection of possible scripture within this outline of the baptismal ceremony.
  • What light do the Old Testament stories (especially creation, the flood and the account of the Exodus – which are read each year at either the Easter or the Pentecost Vigil ) cast on how we might understand our Baptism? The blessing of the baptismal water at the Easter Vigil will give you clues as to how the Church understands these great stories.
  • Compare the synoptic accounts of the baptism of Jesus. How are they similar and how do they differ? Look at John’s account. What is the main difference?
  • Write an account of the Baptism of Jesus as it might have been perceived by one of the crowd beside the Jordan on the day Jesus came to be baptised.
  • Look at this icon of the Baptism of Jesus and compare it with He Qi’s Baptism and also this depiction. Which is truest to the account in the gospels? Can you explain the presence of people/things not mentioned in the gospels? Which picture is richest in meaning for you? (There are many other images of the baptism of Jesus on the Textweek site for you to look at and discuss in relation to the gospels.)
  • Part of the promise of baptism is not that God will solve all problems but that God’s love will accompany our trials, transitions and losses. How is the pattern of death and resurrection mentioned in Romans part of how you understand the losses and gains of your day to day life?
  • Imagine you have been commissioned to provide art for four panels of a baptismal font or four windows in a baptistery. What four scriptural episodes would you choose. Explain your choice and sketch cartoons for each picture.

In the Church’s Story

As the New Testament writings show, baptism was part of the tradition of the Church from very earliest times. An extract from a book by Bernard Cooke presents the early practice of the Church very clearly and well.
Great writers on Baptism from the Church’s tradition include St BasilSt Cyril and St Augustine. The article on the history of baptism contains a good and quite detailed introduction to the thinking of the Fathers of the Church about Baptism and how it the ceremony was prepared for and celebrated.

Baptism in the Middle Ages

After the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, as society gradually became Christianised, the baptism of infants became the usual means of entry into the Church, though adults continued to be baptised by immersion or pouring as Christianity extended throughout the known world.
This continued until the 16th Century when some of the Protestant reformers, called Anabaptists, felt that baptism should never be administered without the consent of faith and rejected the baptism of infants. However in the Catholic Church and in the Orthodox traditions, baptism of infants continued to be the usual practice. Adults who were received into the Church were instructed and received privately often with a conditional baptism. Articles on both baptisteries and fonts provide some historical background as well as images that help us get a sense of baptismal practice within the Church during this time.

Vatican II and Baptism

After Vatican II, the Adult Catechumenate was restored and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults became the normative way in which adults wishing to join the Church enter it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on Baptism provides a concise explanation of the Sacrament as it is understood in the Church today.


Help yourselves come to grips with the three ancient writers on baptism mentioned in the text. Some simple general questions to ask about any document are:
    • Who wrote it and who was this person and when and where did he live?
    • Was it originally written down or spoken?
    • What was the author trying to bring about?
    • Why has it been preserved and remembered?
    • Does the author have a main point or idea? State this simply in one sentence.
St Basil wrote extensively on Baptism. This excerpt is short but it contains a great deal. To help you work it out, as well as answering the general points above, try to answer these questions:
  • What is a covenant? (The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains many references to this word. This is one of them but looking at several references gives you a better insight into the concept.)
  • Basil says the water represents two very different realities. What are these?
  • He compares going into the water to …..… .
  • He says we come to life again by …………. .
  • What does this piece of writing tell us about how baptism was administered in Basil’s time?
  • What four teachings of Jesus on how Christians should live especially impressed Basil?
  • What are some of the advantages he sees of living in the Holy Spirit?
St Cyril of Jerusalem is speaking to newly baptised people on the day after the ceremony. He is explaining the meaning of each action of the baptismal rite. Complete the table:



Removing old clothing
Being anointed with oil
Being immersed in the baptismal pool
Cyril reminds the newly baptised that baptism is about not merely the remission (pardon) of sin, nor even their adoption as sons and daughters of God through the Holy Spirit but means being ‘planted’ together with Christ. New Christians were and are called neophytes which means newly planted. Brainstorm ways in which newly baptised Christians are like new plants.
  • Choose three images of baptism that St Augustine uses in his talk to newly baptised Christians and describe how they help us understand what this sacrament is all about. 
  • Name and explain briefly the stages of the Adult Catechumenate and the rites which celebrate them.

Baptism Now

Baptism as it is understood and explained in our time

Does Baptism set us apart from the world or call us to be one with others? Ronald Rolheiser OMI explores the tensions within the baptismal calling while a baptism blogspot discusses a few commonly asked questions.

Further Reading

Since the Rite of Adult Initiation has stimulated much debate on the meaning of Baptism, some have questioned the longstanding practice of the church in baptising infants. 


We began this unit by looking at a number of questions about baptism. Having spent some time studying and thinking about this sacrament we ought to be better able to respond to questions like ‘Why be baptised?’ and ‘What difference does baptism make?’ and:

  • “My Buddhist friend is much more kind and considerate than many other people in my year level and she’s not baptised. Does the church think she is less worthy than those who have been baptised?”
  • Should your parents/adults have made the huge decision to determine your religion for you long before you had any say in it?
  • Why isn’t believing in Jesus, or living a good life enough? Why do we need water and ceremonies and candles and oil and so on, to be part of the church?
  • Surely a loving God would welcome all into eternal life so why does anyone actually need to be baptised or belong to the Church?
  • ‘My friend says it doesn’t make sense to baptise babies who are too young to have any faith.’ How would you talk about baptism with someone from a tradition that does not practice infant baptism?
What are some of the arguments for and against infant baptism?
Even if baptized as an infant, a person must still affirm his or her faith later in life. What conscious decisions have you made to follow and ratify your baptismal promises?
What actually happens at a baptism? Write about it. You could mention the structure of the ceremony, the community which received the new Christian, the role of sponsors or godparents, the kind of font, clothes worn by the candidate (infant or adult) and the priest, significant words and actions, singing or acclamations and what happened afterwards.
What can your parents or godparents tell you about your own Baptism.

Online Resources for the Classroom

View a slide presentation of photographs of baptismal fonts from ancient times to the modern day. These images will tell you something about the evolution throughout Christian history of the Church’s practice of baptism.

Surprisingly, there are not many visual presentations of baptism online but one suited to primary students is located on the English RE:Quest site. Students could compare Catholic baptism with baptism in other Christian traditions.  

The Textweek site has some useful suggestions for films that touch on and explore themes of initiation and baptism while this example of a lesson plan and worksheet could help a teacher organise his or her thoughts.
For teachers and senior secondary school students Flannery O’Connor’s novel The River is an evocative, ambiguous story that might help unlock the crucial meaning of Baptism.

Flannery O’Connor writes:

When I write a story in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole story–its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.