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Baptism: God Calls Us Each by Name

When I baptized a baby recently, one of the folks in attendance felt that she had missed something.
Approaching me afterwards in the narthex, she asked, “Didn’t we used to put salt in the baby’s mouth?”
Yes, the hypothetical “we” did do that before the ritual commonly used now was adopted. I guess it had been five decades or more since our visitor had witnessed a baptism.
The salt in question symbolized wisdom, which is one of the gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit—in fact, it’s usually the first gift mentioned.
The salt was left out of the ritual that was promulgated after the Second Vatican Council, but the Holy Spirit was not.
The salt—like the holy oil, the chrism, the white garment, and the candle—was a symbol of the grace we receive in baptism, but the grace comes from the Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus, not from the signs and symbols.
Still, the material things we use in our rituals are important, because they emphasize the connection between the physical world and its Creator, between the realities of our daily lives and the reality of God.
This is a critical point. I believe that many people become disillusioned with religious faith because they have been conditioned to think of God as existing in a reality other than the one we experience every day. God is always “there,” not “here.”
At a certain point in the intellectual growth of many people, I believe, they find this concept—quite reasonably—untenable.
But those who studied under the old Baltimore Catechism will remember the answer to the question, “Who is God?” The answer was: “God is the Supreme Being who made all things and keeps them in existence.”
Each of us and everything that we can perceive with our senses at this moment exist only because God is willing it—now. God doesn’t exist in another reality; he exists in this reality.
In the symbols and gestures of baptism, God is so present in our reality that he touches us repeatedly.
Yes, there’s a minister there, and he has oil and chrism and white linen and flame at his disposal, but it is God, using the minister and the material signs to touch us.
And he touches us, perhaps most significantly, in an audible sign, in the first words of the ritual, when the minister asks the parents, “What name do you give your child?”
Before I ask this question, I always explain that it is a sign that God calls each of us by name—meaning that each of us has a unique relationship with God in which God both cares for us as his children and calls on us to be—through our particular vocations—the ministers of his compassion and generosity and justice.
The child, of course, knows none of this, which is why its parents and godparents are asked if they accept the responsibility of raising the child in the practice of the faith.
Today’s new parents are unlikely to have tasted salt at their baptism, but they were visited by the Holy Spirit nonetheless, and they were offered the divine gifts, including wisdom.
We can do nothing more important in the Church than to accompany parents in a way that ignites that wisdom, reminds them of the grace of their own baptism, and inspires them to raise their children to live as God’s missionaries wherever life takes them.
RENEW International is developing Baptism Matters, a program that will reinforce for new parents, godparents, and parish staff the importance of baptism as initiation into a life of Christian discipleship.
This post was initially published in
The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese.

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