The Sacraments of Initiation                                                (E.J.Tyler)

1. The Church’s liturgy 

Whenever we think of the Church, and whenever we think of the Church’s liturgical life and Sacraments, we should think of this as Christ and his action within the Church. He is the great reality within the Church, and it is he who makes the Church a single, holy, enduring body since the time of the Apostles all over the world wherever the Church is. He acts in the Sacraments and in the Church’s ministry of the word. So the Church is much more than the community of Christ’s faithful, and her action is much more than their actions. It is not just a vast body of people engaged in their own religious rites and activities. It is more than anything the person of Christ present in the Church as her head. In the ministry of the Sacraments the action of Christ is being symbolized and effected. The Sacraments are the moments of our encounter with the person of Christ in the life of the Church. He is present and active in them and in them we are meeting him.   

There are seven Sacraments. Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist are said to be the Sacraments which initiate a person into the Church. Penance and the Anointing of the Sick are said to be the Sacraments of healing, and Holy Orders and Matrimony are the sacraments at the service of communion and mission. They touch all the most important moments of the Christian life and they are ordered to the Eucharist as their end because the Eucharist is the very person of Jesus in all his risen reality. The spiritual life of the Catholic ought be marked by a profound appreciation of the Sacraments because they are the means Christ has chosen to enter our lives and sanctify us.

2. The fundamental Sacrament is Baptism.

Baptism has the stupendous and immediate effect of taking away all original sin, all personal sins we may have committed to that point, and all punishment due to sin. So great is this effect that in the early Church there were often cases of people choosing to delay their baptism till the point of death so as to be able to go to heaven almost immediately. I have some idea that the emperor Constantine the Great made something of this choice and so remained for a long time a catechumen. But of course this is against the will of God, it constitutes an enormous risk, and it makes impossible true progress in holiness to which we are called. For this reason the Church states in the Code of Canon Law that parents should bring the child along for baptism as soon as possible after birth so as to allow the child to receive the immense blessings that will come to it at baptism. What are those blessings? Baptism makes the person a participant in the divine life of the holy Trinity through the gift of sanctifying grace, the grace which justifies a person and incorporates him into Christ and into the Church. It gives the person a share in the priesthood of Christ and provides the basis for communion with all Christians. It bestows the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and love which enable the person to enter into a profound relationship with God, and it gives the other supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. A baptized person is a new creature who belongs forever to Christ, and he is marked with the indelible seal of Christ.

3.  The necessity and effect of baptism 

So important is baptism that Christ said that it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God unless one is born of water and the Spirit. Of course, we know that one can receive the grace of baptism in certain circumstances without baptism by water. For instance, if one were to die desiring to be baptized, but having no one nearby who could administer baptism validly, one would receive baptism of desire. So too if an unbaptized person were to die bearing witness to Jesus but without there being anyone nearby who could baptize him, he would receive the grace of baptism by blood. Many theologians claim also that if an infant were to die without baptism such as a child dying in the womb, while his parents intended baptism for him, that child would receive the grace of baptism because of the desire and prayer of the parents and the Church. It would be an extension of baptism of desire. Nevertheless, all that having been said, baptism and the grace of baptism are necessary for salvation in the normal providence of God - even though God is not bound to his normal procedure. That is why we ought advise any parent to bring the child to baptism as soon as possible after birth. Let us remember too that anyone can baptize, even a person outside the Church, such as a non-Christian nurse or doctor, provided that person does exactly what the Church says must be done in any baptism and has the intention of doing all that the Church intends. Even apart from the danger of death, the immense graces that come with baptism ought impel every parent to bring their child for baptism as soon as possible after birth. At our baptism we are immersed in the death of Christ and emerge from our baptism sharing in his new life. We rise, as it were, with Christ to his new life and abide in it. We become a new creature by the action of the Holy Spirit, and are born again to a new life. The light of Christ comes to the soul of the newly baptized and, provided that light is cultivated, will be the light guiding the newly baptized to holiness and to heaven. Baptism is the greatest thing that has happened in the life of each of us.

4. Baptism in the Old and New Testaments   

The waters of the Flood and of the Red Sea and of various other occasions such as the crossing of the Jordan river showed water as the source of life and death. It was Christ who brought these pointers to their fulfilment in salvation history. He himself was baptized by John in the river Jordan, and on the cross blood and water, signs of the Eucharist and of Baptism, flowed from his pierced side. These images from Scripture and sacred history  lend to the rite of baptism rich overtones which help us appreciate what is being symbolized. At baptism by the power of God we pass over from a state that leads to death to a state that, with our active cooperation, participates in and leads to abundant life. So after his resurrection Christ gave to his apostles this mission: “Go forth and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Our Lord instituted the sacrament of baptism and made it an essential part of redemption and the following of him. So ever since the day of Pentecost the Church has administered baptism to those who believe in Jesus and accept the Church as his representative and abode here on earth. The words of our Lord that I have just quoted show that he himself instituted it and added something absolutely unique to the baptisms that had been in existence before him. John the baptist baptized the people with water. Our Lord received that baptism, and at his baptism the Holy Trinity immediately became involved. We could perhaps see this involvement of the Father and the Holy Spirit as the original inspiration of the baptism he instituted. Like John’s baptism, Christian baptism involves a washing and an immersion in water in some sense. But Christian baptism has this notable difference that in invoking God it calls on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The person is baptized into one God who is three divine persons. 

5.  Confirmation  

o then, we ought live in the thought of our baptism and the benefits that have come to us as a result of it. Because of our baptism we live in Jesus and he lives in us, and because of this we live in the Father and in the Holy Spirit. We are, in St Paul’s words, a new creature with new possibilities of enjoying a share in the holiness of God and of growing in it. This marvelous entry into the Christian life is deepened and extended in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Holy Spirit comes upon us again, this time to confirm and make mature our life in Christ. That is to say, while in our baptism we become adopted children of God, at our confirmation we are empowered to live this adoption in an adult and influential way. We receive the gifts enabling us to bring to bear on others and on the world around us a Christian influence and witness. It is similar to the action of the Holy Spirit on the infant Church at Pentecost. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the infant Church gathered in the upper room, and from that point the infant Church became a witnessing force beyond itself. It became a sharer in Christ’s power to bear witness to the truth, the truth revealed by God. Our Lord told Pontius Pilate that it was for this that he was born into the world, to bear witness to the truth, and it was for this that the Church was born in a new way at Pentecost. When we are confirmed we share in the grace granted to the Church at Pentecost. We participate in what happened to the Church then, although, of course, we must activate the grace and the gifts given to us on our Confirmation day. Many do not activate these gifts and in the case of many Catholics it is as if they had been present at Pentecost but then failed to take part in the impetus received and shown by the Church, in the work of bearing witness to Jesus.

6. The rite of Confirmation and its effect.

Confirmation is administered by the anointing with sacred Chrism which is done by the laying on of the hand of the minister who pronounces the sacramental words proper to the rite. The words are “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” The effect is this special coming of the Holy Spirit which impresses on the soul of the one confirmed an indelible character marking the soul with the seal of Christ, and producing a growth in the grace of baptism. It roots the recipient more deeply in the divine sonship, binds him more firmly to Christ and to the Church, and reinvigorates the gifts of the Holy Spirit in his soul. Most especially it gives him a special capacity to bear witness to Christ, and the Church has consistently taught that this element is essential to the Christian life.

   How ought we think of this sacrament? We ought think of this sacrament as a kind of extension of Pentecost. There are many other parallels in the Scriptures that can help us appreciate the sacrament of confirmation.  In the Old Testament the prophets announced that the Spirit of the Lord would rest on the coming Messiah and on the whole messianic people, which is the Church. The whole life and mission of Jesus - which was to bear witness to the truth - were carried out in communion with the Holy Spirit and under his impetus. This impetus that marked the life of our Lord was transmitted to the Apostles and disciples at Pentecost, and is passed on to each one of us at our Confirmation. We ought often think of this sacrament, what we received then, and resolve to live it out in our everyday life.

7. The Eucharist 

The greatest moment, though, of initiation into the Christian life comes in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist comes veiled in the most humble of appearances, appearances that are so uncommanding as easily to be absolutely ignored. We can easily ignore the Eucharist because of its appearances of mere bread and wine. Yet the Eucharist, with its appearances of bread and wine, is the very person of Jesus in all his human and divine reality, the living Son of God made man, risen from the dead. Moreover, the Eucharist is not merely his very presence, stupendous as that alone would be. It is also the very sacrifice of his body and blood which he instituted at the Last Supper to perpetuate and make present the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages till the end of the world.  It is the memorial of his death and resurrection, a memorial which makes it present and which enables us there and then to receive its heavenly benefits. In the Eucharist, by which I especially mean the Mass and Holy Communion, the mind and heart are filled with grace and we receive a pledge of our future glory. Of course, for us to benefit fully from all that Christ offers us in the Eucharist, we need to be properly prepared and disposed. This is precisely where we so constantly fail.

8. The Eucharist contains the whole good of the Church.

The Eucharist is Christ and what he did for us at Calvary. It is therefore the summit and the source of the Christian life for the Church and the Church’s members. It was foreshadowed in the Old Testament above all in the annual Passover meal which commemorated their liberating departure from slavery in Egypt. Our Lord foretold it in his teaching and instituted it when he celebrated the Last Supper in a Passover meal. He commanded them to do this in his memory. Since then the Eucharist has always been the pinnacle and source of the Church’s entire life. It makes present the sacrifice of Calvary, and the Eucharist and Calvary are the one and the same sacrifice. When we participate in the Mass we make our Lord’s sacrifice our own, as does the entire Church in heaven. So we ought make it the very centre of our spiritual life, realizing that it increases our union with Christ, renewing and preserving the grace of baptism and confirmation, enabling us to grow in charity, and cleansing us from venial sin and strengthening us against mortal sin. Every time we go to Mass and receive Holy Communion we ought pray for a renewed impetus in our quest for holiness of life and Christian influence on those around us.   

(Comp 250-294)