The sacrament of baptism as a participation in the death of Christ

To be baptized in Christ is to be baptized into his death as well as his Resurrection.

The Easter season is ultimately a time for rebirth, expressed most dramatically at the Easter Vigil by the life-giving waters of baptism. To impart new life, however, baptism must destroy the old life of sin and our fallen aversions to Christ. That is why the rite of baptism makes it clear that the person baptized is baptized into Christ’s death: “We ask you, Father, with your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the waters of this font. May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with him to newness of life.”1 It is precisely the signification of immersion in water as a descent into Christ’s death which eloquently addresses the questions of today’s seekers.

This article will seek to address this question: what does it mean to be baptized into Christ’s death and how does this speak to us in a manner that is relevant to our current experience? It will first do this by delineating the link between baptism and death. Secondly, because baptism is understood as an immersion, or a descensus, it will then examine the issue of Christ’s descent into hell as symbolized in baptism. Finally, it will consider the anthropological dimension of baptism and baptism’s ramifications for the moral life of Christians.

The waters of baptism and death

For the early Christians, the Old Testament understanding of water in the events of salvation was the foundation for the symbolism of water in the baptismal rite. While there is clearly a link between water and cleansing in the Old Testament (just think of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5), the stories of the Flood and the Red Sea also reveal that water is connected with destruction and death. In the story of the Flood, water is a symbol of destruction. Water is the instrument of judgment through which God destroyed the sinful world (cf. Gn 6:17). The other principal reference to the destructive nature of water is in God executing judgment on the Egyptians and his defeat of the Egyptian army as they crossed the Red Sea in pursuit of Moses and the tribes of Israel (cf. Ex 7:4-5).

In the Psalms, we witness the man who, drowning in deep water, is in dire need of God’s rescue: “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Ps 69:2). We also read, “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me” (Ps 42:7). Later the fate of this suffering individual, who seems to be abandoned, will be allegorically attributed to Christ and his cry for help on the Cross (cf. Mt 27:45-46).

 

In the Old Testament, just as water is linked with death, it is simultaneously connected with victory and salvation. The sinful world is destroyed in the Deluge, but at the same time, Noah is spared to be the principle of the new creation (cf. Gn 9:1-15). With the crossing of the Red Sea, there is death and judgment, but there is also God’s victory over Pharaoh and the salvation of the tribes of Israel (cf. Ex 15:1). In his work, The Bible and the Liturgy, Jean Danielou argues that underlying this notion of a victory through the waters is the ancient myth of a serpent that dwells in the depths of the sea (cf. Is 27:1; 51:9-10).2 Thus, the victory which is to be obtained through the waters also follows a great struggle with the forces of evil.

In the New Testament, these images of descent into water, judgment, and victory through a physical wrestling with a great power are typologically applied to Christ’s crucifixion. The stories of the Flood and the Red Sea are seen as being fulfilled by the promised salvation won by Christ on the Cross. First Peter establishes a connection between Noah’s salvation through water and Christ’s victory over death communicated to the Christian through baptism (cf. 1 Pt 3:20-21), while St. Paul interprets the crossing of the Red Sea as a prefiguring of Christian baptism. Paul understands the crossing of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, which is then typologically applied to the Christian, who, passing through the waters of baptism, is baptized into Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:11-12).

In St. Paul’s theology of baptism, there are images of descent, burial, and immersion (cf. Rom 6:4, Col 2:12). However, he also links baptism with a sharing in Christ’s victory over the powers of evil (cf. Rom 6:9). Just as God overcame the tyranny of Pharaoh through the waters of the Red Sea, Christ overcomes Satan in the life of the Christian through the waters of baptism. These themes of death and victory are taken up with the baptismal liturgy in the early Church: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3). Therefore, through baptism into Christ, the Christian undergoes a configuration to Christ dead and risen signified by immersion in and emersion from water. Taking their lead from St. Paul, the Church Fathers developed these themes within the context of the baptismal liturgy, associating baptism with Christ’s death and explicating the Christian’s participation in that death.

Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this victory when he refers to Christ’s struggle with Satan in his baptism. Referring to this struggle, Benedict states that Christ descends in the “role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss.”3 In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict refers to the iconographic tradition that depicts Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan as a liquid tomb with the form of a dark cavern, which is a symbol of hell. Benedict quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s allegorical reading of Christ’s baptism and its connection with his descent into the dead: “Jesus’ descent into the watery tomb, into the inferno that envelops him from every side, is thus an anticipation of this act of descending into the underworld: ‘When he went down into the waters, he bound the strong man.’”4 St. Cyril also refers to the triple immersion as symbolic of Christ’s three days in the tomb: “For just as our Savior spent three days and nights in the hollow bosom of the earth, so you upon first emerging were representing Christ’s day in the earth, and by your immersion his first night…. In one and the same action you died and were born.”5 St. Ambrose develops the connection between baptism and Christ’s death even further when he likens the baptismal font with the grave: “[I]t is not earth which washes, but water. So it is that the font is a kind of grave.”6 It is interesting to note that many baptismal fonts in the early Church were often shaped like tombs.7

The early Church saw the liturgy of baptism as a real participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. In the Apostolic Constitutions (late fourth century), we find a prayer for the blessing of water so that the baptized person may be crucified with Christ: “Sanctify this water so that those who are baptized may be crucified with Christ, die with him, be buried with him, and rise again for adoption.”8 St. Gregory Nazianzen expresses something similar: “We are buried with Christ in baptism so we may rise again with him.”9As mentioned earlier, St. Cyril sees the three immersions as a symbol of the three days of the Paschal Triduum and therefore, through his immersion, the Christian is plunged into Christ’s death and resurrection. In responding to those who hold that baptism only forgives sin and procures divine adoption, but is not a participation in the sufferings of Christ, St. Cyril maintains: “We well know that not merely does [baptism] cleanse sin and bestow on us the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is also the sign of Christ’s suffering…. So in order that we may realize that Christ endured all his sufferings for us and our salvation actually, and not in make believe, and that we share in his pains.”10 Finally, for St. Ambrose there is a mystical union between the Christian and the Crucified Christ brought about through baptism, so that in baptism the Christian can be said to have received a “sacrament of the cross.”11

Thus, in examining the symbolism of water in the Scriptures and in the liturgy of the early Church, water is clearly linked with the death of Christ. For the Christian, baptism means the participation in this death. At the same time, water is connected with a struggle and victory over the powers that threaten God’s Chosen People. Therefore, it can be said that the baptized share in Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Descendit ad infernos: A total solidarity with sinners

Situated between Good Friday and Easter Sunday—through which Christ’s victory over death is accomplished, a victory celebrated in baptism—is the mystery of Holy Saturday. Consequently, Christ’s death does not end with Good Friday, it extends into Holy Saturday. The hiatus between Christ’s death and resurrection is summarized in an article of faith referred to in the Apostles’ Creed: “Descendit ad infernos” (“He descended into hell”). God’s solidarity with sinners is such that he will even descend into the “pit” of our own grief and darkness. He will descend into the abyss of “all Godlessness” into that which is contrary to the Divine.12 The innocent One who becomes sin will therefore undergo the forsakenness of those who have become estranged from God (cf. 2 Cor 5:21).

Many years ago the Holy Father wrote in Introduction to Christianity: “Jesus’ cry on the Cross [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]…contains the heart of what Jesus’ descent into hell, his sharing of mortal man’s fate really means…radical aloneness, complete abandonment.”13 Thus, the destruction and judgment visited upon sinful humanity in the Flood and upon Pharaoh in the Exodus is now freely embraced by the Son, who reveals the end to which his love would go (cf. Jn 13:1). This is the dramatic twist in the story of salvation, where “God turns against himself,” thereby revealing love in its most radical form.14 God takes upon himself the punishment and death symbolized by water.

Christ’s descent into hell is rarely preached on today. Ratzinger referred to it as an article of the Creed that is “far from the present mindset.” He added further that even when it is found in the passages of Scripture, these passages are so difficult to understand that they can be explained in different ways and therefore are never really addressed.15 Paradoxically, despite the doctrine’s falling out of vogue today, for Ratzinger, “Holy Saturday is the day of the ‘death of God,’ the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks.”16 God seems distant to many people today. The devastation of marriage and family life, recent financial crises, and the fear which permeates so much of our culture have the effect of seemingly rendering God silent. However, Christ’s descent into hell reveals that God is on man’s side, he is on the side of sinners. God is not silent, through the Word taking flesh, and through this Word’s death and descent into God-forsakenness, God has spoken the Word of total solidarity with sinful humankind. In this way the rite of baptism has tremendous relevance to the lived experience of the human person today. This is a wonderful opportunity for catechesis in order to assist the faithful in understanding that the rites of the Church are not removed from daily life but rather presuppose life in its historical circumstances and these rites transform this life through grace.

Baptismal immersion signifies Christ’s descent into hell and his radical solidarity with sinners. Jesus presented himself to be baptized in anticipation of his death and in his solidarity with the “gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan.”17 Thus the Christian is baptized in a manner similar to that of Christ. The Christian also descends into the waters, which for Danielou, is “a sacramental imitation of the Descent into hell.”18 In his descent into hell, Christ works out the “logic” of sin in his God-forsakenness. This is the nature of sin. Sin is death, that is, sin is estrangement from God. The baptized person descends into this hell, but he is not alone. The entire breadth and depth of this estrangement, the “radical aloneness” and “complete abandonment” is known by God in and through his Son (cf. Heb 4:15). When one is baptized he is never abandoned; through everything that he undergoes, from the distance created by sin to the joy of reunion with the Father, Christ is with him. Such is the Son’s solidarity with man.

Baptism into Christ’s death: “Dead to sin and alive to God”

Baptism understood as descent into Christ’s death underscores that the work of salvation is in the first place the work of God. It is God who is the author, director, and principal actor in the drama of salvation. It is the Son who obediently responds to the Father’s sending him in the Holy Spirit, even should it involve being sent into the abyss of hell.

Through their incorporation into the Church at baptism, Christians become “co-crucified.”19 Everything that the Bridegroom has he gives to his Bride, but she must enter into this willingly. Thus, the role of the Christian is never passive, but requires his or her “full, conscious, and active participation.” The person baptized is therefore called in Christ to an authentic receptivity and availability to him. Everything that happened to Christ also happens to the Christian and is worked out in all areas of his life, including death to sin.

As such, baptism into Christ’s death contains an ethical element (cf. Rom 6:4). To this end, German Scripture scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg described the Pauline theology of baptism thus: “From sacramental dying with Christ and being raised with him grows a perpetual discipleship and conformity to the likeness of Christ.”20 Pope Benedict uses similar language in his description of St. Paul’s baptismal theology:

Baptism is more than a cleansing. It is death and resurrection. Paul himself, speaking in the Letter to the Galatians of the turning point in his life brought about by his encounter with the Risen Christ, describes it with the words: “I am dead.” At that moment a new life truly begins. Becoming Christian is more than a cosmetic operation that would add something beautiful to a more or less complete existence. It is a new beginning, it is rebirth: death and resurrection.21

Because it entails an ethical imperative, baptism into Christ’s death is not a one-time-only event—once saved always saved. Baptism reveals the great drama of Christian existence: the Christian life is a life of continually being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ in the Holy Spirit. Baptism is truly asequela Christi, whereby the death of Christ is always made manifest in the life of the Christian (cf. 2 Cor 4:10). This death to sin reaches its culmination in the Eucharist, which is true death and life because it makes present Christ’s death and Resurrection. Thus we see how baptism is ordered to the Eucharist as source and summit of the Christian life.

An understanding of baptism as a sharing Christ’s death reveals that Christian life is ultimately self-surrender and death; it is giving oneself away. More simply, Christian life is the death that is involved in love. When baptism is seen as a sharing in the death of Christ—he who gave himself out of love for the Father in the Holy Spirit—we see baptism’s completion in the Eucharist, but baptism also becomes the form of Christian existence.

Conclusion

To be baptized with Christ’s baptism is to participate in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The signification of immersion in water makes sacramentally present a sharing in Christ’s death, his descent into the hell of estrangement from God, and his complete victory over sin and death in his Resurrection. Since in our sinfulness we remain separated from God, the symbolism of descent in the baptismal rite has a particular relevance today. In undergoing this descent himself, Christ does not ask us to undertake this task alone but to follow him into the depths of the water. By inviting us to share in his baptism, Christ invites each person into his life of communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit, calling all to a transformation of life through grace so that each Christian may truly be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.

Therefore, Christ’s triumph over sin, accomplished by his death and Resurrection, is made available to each Christian in baptism. This is what we all must hear today. We need to hear that Christ’s triumph over sin and death radically alters everything, because through Christ’s victorious descent, the Christian has the knowledge that waiting on the other side of the abyss is the one who has gone before:

Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness…. [I]n his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there he is. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it…. The door of death stands open since life—love—has dwelt in death.22

  1. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA), Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: Study Edition (Chicago: Liturgical Training Publications, 2007), 135. 
  2. Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), 85-98. 
  3. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 20. 
  4. Ibid., 19. 
  5. Edward Yarnold (ed.), The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 78. 
  6. Ibid., 117. 
  7. Ibid., 117, see footnote, 31. 
  8. Danielou, Bible, 44. 
  9. Ibid., 44. 
  10. Yarnold, Awe, 79. 
  11. Ibid., 119. 
  12. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 13; 51. 
  13. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 297-298. 
  14. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), §12. 
  15. Ratzinger, Introduction, 293-294. 
  16. Ibid., 294. 
  17. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 16. 
  18. Danielou, Bible, 78. 
  19. Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 134. 
  20. Rudolf Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St. Paul: A Study in Pauline Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1964), 155. 
  21. Benedict XVI, General Audience, December 10, 2008. 
  22. Ratzinger, Introduction, 301.
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avatar About Owen Vyner

Owen Vyner is the director of marriage and family life at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, Colorado. He has a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Western Australia, a Graduate Diploma of Education from the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and a Master of Theology degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family (Melbourne). He is currently pursuing a Licentiate in Sacramental Theology at the Liturgical Institute (Mundelein). His wife Terri and he are the parents of a baby girl from Korea.

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