Signs, Symbols, and Reality

Yesterday's RCIA class was about baptism. An interesting question was raised by one of the students. He wondered when and why the Western Church switched from full immersion baptism to sprinkling. Going under water is supposed to symbolize death. We are baptized into Christ's death and rise with Him into life. How does sprinkling symbolize that?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the sacrament, when performed in that manner, is void. It's just that the symbolism seems to be lacking. It reminded me of a 'Not So Quiet' Catholic corner post I've been meaning to comment on. It's about a priest who doesn't understand the point of ringing bells and washing hands.

Comments 6

  1. Fred K wrote:

    I don’t know anyone who was baptised by sprinkling. Every baptism I’ve ever been to has involved infusion, aka pouring.

    Sprinkling is mainly used as a reminder of the covenant of baptism. See Exodus 24: “Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.'”

    Unlike some groups that make the form of baptism a fundamental tenent of faith, the Catholic Church recognizes any well-intentioned baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Immersion involves certain dangers (and immersion in living water more so): drowning and freezing to death. Also, one needs to take into account the “wet t-shirt factor”, one reason that the early Church designated Deaconesses specifically to baptise women.

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 5:10 pm
  2. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Immersion is verboten in the Roman Church? I could have sworn that some people were even returning to that practice within the Latin Rite…

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 7:14 pm
  3. Funky Dung wrote:

    Immersion may not be forbidden (I’ll have to check), but it’s certainly discouraged.

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 7:28 pm
  4. Funky Dung wrote:

    My choice of words was poor. I’ll edit the post later to reflect your correction. By sprinkling, I meant pouring water over the head, as opposed to immersion, full or otherwise.

    I understand the difficulties associated with immersion, but the Eastern churches still do it, so why can’t we? I’m not saying it should be universal, but at least the norm, with pouring used for reasonable exceptions (i.e. pastoral reasons).

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 5:41 pm
  5. EmilyE wrote:

    My priest came up with an interesting symbolic solution. When the adults are baptized at the Easter Vigil, they are actually baptized in a little pool that is somehow hooked up to the baptismal font (with some sort of mechanism to cycle the water).

    The catechumens kneel in the water. Then Fr. Fete takes two pitchers full of water and pours it over their heads (three times, of course, one for each person of the Trinity). The net result is that they are completely soaked — you certainly get the symbolism of washing — but they were not immersed, since the Western Church doesn’t do baptisms by immersion.

    I thought it was an interesting compromise.

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 7:30 am
  6. Fred K wrote:

    The Neocatechumenate movement practises baptism by immersion as the normal way of baptism. From what I’ve heard, they are very big on symbolism (restoring midnight Mass on Easter, building beautiful pools for baptism, etc).

    Here’s an interesting interview with the founder:

    Posted 11 Nov 2004 at 7:35 pm

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