Column: Baptismal waters represent both death and life

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

In the past few generations, most Catholics have been accustomed to seeing baptism by the pouring of water over the head of the person being baptized.

This method is called infusion. More recently, though, baptism by immersion has appeared in many Catholic churches. In fact, the official ritual book presents this as the preferred method: “He immerses the child or pours water upon it.”

This preference for baptism by immersion rep- resents a return to the practice of the early church. It also brings out the meaning of baptism as an immersion into the death and resurrection of Christ. That symbolism lies behind the words of St. Paul, heard in the epistle reading of the Easter Vigil: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death . . . so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life (Rom. 6: 3, 4).

Water can stand for death, as well as life. Water can drown people, bring destruction and havoc through flooding. That is the meaning of the immersion under water of the person being baptized. The coming up out of the water represents the resurrection from the dead, the new life that results from union with the risen Christ.

One of the required readings for the Easter Vigil, Ex 14:15 – 15:1, recounts the escape of the Hebrews from the hands of Pharaoh and his army. The Hebrews pass dry shod through the midst of the sea, while Pharaoh and his army, in hot pursuit, drown in the waters which rush over them.

It is highly ironic. The Egyptians had planned to destroy the Hebrew people through drowning: “Pharaoh then commanded all his subjects, ‘Throw into the river every boy that is born to the Hebrews’” (Ex 1: 22). Instead, the Egyptians themselves perish by drowning.

It is a paradox. The water brings death to the Egyptians. At the same time, the water brings life and salvation from their enemies to the Hebrews, because it enables the Hebrews to escape. The water stands for both death and life in this incident in Exodus, just as it does for us in the sacrament of baptism.

“For baptism recalls and makes present the paschal mystery itself, because in baptism we pass from death of sin into life. The celebration of baptism should therefore reflect the joy of the resurrection, especially when the celebration takes place during the Easter Vigil or on a Sunday” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, No. 6).

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