Theological Reflection: Baptism

This morning at St. Mary’s, we celebrated the rebirth of three infants by water and the Holy Spirit. The ceremonies of Baptism were celebrated beautifully and with great joy by the families and their loved ones in attendance. Among the many splendid rites, I was especially struck today by the anointing with chrism upon the newly baptized infants’ heads. At once, the fragrance of the chrism seemed to fill the church and, since I was carrying the jar of oil and the cotton balls used by the priest for the anointing, lingered also on my hands for hours after. One child had been crying frantically since the water was poured over her head, but when she was anointed with the chrism, she became calm. The exultant prayer of the Bride in the Song of Songs came to my mind: “Draw me: we will run after thee to the odor of thy ointments!” (Song 1:3).1 Is there any odor more beautiful in the world than the smell of this Chrism of salvation, by which the Bridegroom of souls first draws us to Himself and makes us His own?

St. Thomas teaches that “in the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament … The use of water in Baptism is part of the substance of the sacrament; but the use of oil or chrism is part of the solemnity.”2 Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and licit celebration of the sacrament, it is most fitting that the newly baptized infant be anointed with chrism to signify outwardly the glorious, hidden reality of his new identity in Christ. The ritus explanativi provided before this anointing in the Rite illustrates well its theological meaning: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”3 The use of sacred chrism here in particular, since it is employed also in the ordination of priests and the consecration of bishops, churches, altars, chalices and patens, emphasizes that the child has been set apart (analogously to the way that priests, churches, and sacred vessels are “set apart”) by Christ himself to be a part of “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people” (1 Peter 2:9). By the “sheer gratuitousness of this grace of salvation,”4 the newly baptized child will forever be numbered among those blessed ones to whom the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims the mysterious words: “Holy things are for the holy!”

Sacred chrism, being a mixture of oil and balsam, also bears its own innate symbolism:

Olive-oil, being of its own nature rich, diffusive, and abiding, is fitted to represent the copious outpouring of sacramental grace, while balsam, which gives forth most agreeable and fragrant odours, typifies the innate sweetness of Christian virtue. Oil also gives strength and suppleness to the limbs, while balsam preserves from corruption. Thus anointing with chrism aptly signifies that fulness of grace and spiritual strength by which we are enabled to resist the contagion of sin and produce the sweet flowers of virtue.5

I wonder how much of this beautiful symbolism is understood by the Catholic parents and godparents who witness the anointing! Despite the otherwise excellent way in which the priest led the people through the Rite today and catechized them about its meaning, this anointing was given with no further explanation than the Rite itself provides. As a priest, I would like to preach often on this sacred anointing, since it expresses so much of what is given invisibly in Baptism and also of the future glory for which Baptism prepares these children: “However young, they are bathed in [Christ’s] light, his heavenly grace and his peace. Moreover, by making in Baptism as it were his or her first steps along the path of faith, the child is directed toward growth by grace in human and spiritual maturity so as to attain ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph 4:1) and, knowing and loving him, to inherit his promises.”6 I would like the parents to smile and give glory to God in their homes when they catch the odor of the sacred chrism on their newly baptized little ones, recalling with holy awe that He Himself has now set their son or daughter apart, like themselves, “as members of his body, sharing everlasting life.”


Footnotes

  1. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 66, a. 10, at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  3. Ordo baptismi parvulorum (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003), no. 62.
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1250.
  5. Patrick Morrisroe, “Chrism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), at New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org.
  6. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 7.1.7.

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