We begin our look at the seven sacraments most properly by giving our attention to the first sacrament: baptism. In this first of three installments, we will particularly look at the origins and history of this first and necessary sacrament.
In the Scriptures, we find several passages that either directly or indirectly speak of baptism – in both the Old and New Testaments. Old Testament stories such as the flood in the time of Noah and the crossing of the Red Sea by Israel in the Exodus from Egypt both point toward baptism – as these events accomplish renewal of life and deliverance from slavery – both of which are parts of the effects of baptism. In the New Testament, the baptism that was offered by John at the Jordan River is very significant, as people sought to repent of sin and make ready for the coming of the Messiah. Important as these passages are by themselves, it is Jesus who takes baptism to its highest level, particularly when he enjoins the apostles to “baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” sending them out to preach after His resurrection (see Matthew 28:19), expressing the necessity for baptism as part of their mission. Likewise, Jesus states in his conversation with Nicodemus that one must be born anew “of water and Spirit” so as to enter the Kingdom of God (see John 3:5) – stating directly necessity of baptism to enter heaven.
These Scriptures being only a few of the several passages that allude to baptism in Christ and the necessity of such baptism for heaven, it is also clear that baptism was emphasized by the Church in her beginning (as we see in the Acts of the Apostles and throughout Paul’s letters, among other places). In the earliest centuries, while baptism often took place by full immersion, the Church also recognized that baptism through “infusion” (wherein water is simply poured over the individual’s head while saying the formula) was already in use. Likewise, baptism was given to people of all ages from the earliest days of the Church – as testified to in such passages as Acts 16 where the entire households of Lydia and of the jailer who held Paul and Silas in custody each received baptism, among other similar passages elsewhere.
In early centuries, the emphasis on baptism as the first sacrament was well established. What we call the RCIA process in our own times (that is, the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults”) was centered upon preparing the non-baptized to be baptized, through their being led to renounce the world and to fully accept Jesus Christ and the Gospel. (In fact, in the early centuries it was customary for the one who was about to receive baptism to stand on the west side of the font and while facing west to recite the renunciation of sin and Satan, after which they would turn toward the east [facing the font] and make their profession of faith). Only after receiving baptism were these individuals led to learn about and then receive the other sacraments. Furthermore, what we now know as “Lent” was originally meant as a time of discipline and self-denial that was lived by those preparing for baptism. All told, when we look at the very extensive history of baptism from the Church’s beginnings down through our own day, it is clear that this sacrament has always been understood as primary in entering into the Church. It has always been carried out such that one is outwardly washed with water by the Church’s minister who announces that this person is baptized and states the formula of the Trinity – expressing both the reality of the baptism and the belonging to God through it.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1213-1228 give the overview of origins and history of baptism.