Catholic Activity: Teaching Baptism Through Scripture
Article by Sister Jordana from Orate Fratres, Vol. XXV, February 1951, No. 3. Discusses her approach in the high school classroom explaining the Sacrament of Baptism through Scripture, particularly the story of Naaman.
Although our school has official textbooks for Christian doctrine, they seemed to me to analyze the life out of religion and to need, at the very least, some supplementing. So I managed to get permission to teach the content as I pleased so long as the material was "covered"; and then I launched out into the deep. Baptism I planned for Lent, when the Church is teaching her lessons of regeneration. The many stories from the Old Testament I presented, when I had the wit, through the sacramental lense. For does not the Church herself, with her mind on baptism, pray: "O God, who by the light of the New Testament hast made known to us the miracles wrought in earliest times...." (Collect of second prophecy, vigil of Pentecost). Thus, when scanning the missal, I caught at the epistle for Monday in thE third week of Lent, that of Naaman the leper. The story, moreover, is lighted up in the gospel of that day, with the radiance of the New Testament. This became my central story of presentation, although the doctrine learned from it attracted our momentary attention as it was faceted in the liturgy daily in that season.
Now I could never recall my procedure step by step -- the grace of the time certainly works wonders while one is doing the job! -- but the result, measurable result, of course, was highly satisfactory. The interest of the high school students, both boys and girls, was great. They liked the story intensely when they saw it as a figure of baptism. I brought to their attention the stational church for that day, St. Mark's built by Pope St. Mark "who healed from the leprosy of unbelief by baptism" the Egyptians of Alexandria and the appropriateness of placing the epistle of the Syrian Naaman against strong reminders of his oriental background.
We read together the epistle, I from the Knox version, while they followed in their Lenten or daily missals. The history once learned, I proceeded to its sacramental significance. We saw Naaman as the unbaptized gentile, and Eliseus representing Christ (on this I was too cloudy, seeing him as a priest rather than Christ Himself). We saw the Jordan as the font, and likewise a foreshadowing of what was to happen there when Jesus would come to John. Here we looked at the institution of the sacrament, and I told them of a friend who had brought home from the Holy Land and earthen flask of Jordan water, bottled for use in baptism, a palpable link with Christ in its institution. That it is the power of God alone that can institute we realized in the light of the terror-struck King of Israel, who rent his garment: "Am I God, to be able to kill and give life, that this man hath sent to me, to heal a man of his leprosy?" As God alone can give natural life, so it is He alone from whom supernatural life derives. His power alone makes fecund with inward grace the outward sign of baptism. I missed the point, incredibly, that the Jewish maid who, like Greece, "led her captor captive," is the Church; and the completement of her (I think), the king of Israel, powerless to heal, the Synagogue.
The institution of the sacrament, looked at in connection with the Jordan as font, kept our eyes on Christ, whose baptism we had recalled in the Epiphany seasons as one of the triple manifestations. Again we went over the main events of that story that was a prelude to His public life. (Right here I should have stressed the effect of baptism in deputing the baptized, now a member of Christ's Mystical Body, to increase that Body by his apostolate. I had treated this only through Fr. Ellard's BCO Society -- baptized, confirmed, ordained -- and pointed out the role of the layman in the command: "Going, therefore, teach all nations, etc.") In Christ's public life he had healed lepers, and in recalling this story studied earlier, I could have used effectively the gospel of the third Sunday of Lent, which highlights this healing, but I forgot completely.
Leprosy, of course, was seen as a figure of sin, original sin specifically here. We saw Naaman's flesh restored to that of a little child, "born again," as Christ told Nicodemus. The leper has a strong appeal, and I leaned heavily on a mission talk the students had heard earlier that year, describing the lepers on a Pacific island. A dramatic repetition of the missionary's experiences seemed to arouse greater appreciation of the cleansing, life-giving effects of baptism. Particularly strong had been Father's application of the contagious effects of leprosy. Actual sin, too, was made evident in the figure of Giezi, who became "a leper white as snow." Here, too, we realized that the gift of baptism cannot be bought. So too is this seen in Eliseus' refusal of Naaman's "blessing."
In characters familiar from "movies" and reading, we saw the effect of the in-pouring of charity, and how it diffuses itself into the souls of others. We recalled Father Damien and the "The Vision of Sir Launfal," and I told them of the government leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where the Sisters of Charity, Christ's members, incorporated with Him by baptism, answered the call when no other nurses would go. All these actualize what true charity, the effect of Christening, really is. (It just occurs to me that Naaman's question about continuing his service to his master, though directed at forming his conscience, indicated his intention to continue his aid and not to withdraw it. Charity is love of God and of neighbor. One should note also his charity in regard to Giezi, running back to meet him, and doubling the gifts he asked of him.)
The renewal of baptism in ourselves we discussed. We noted that Naaman, whose flesh was renewed as that of a child, was cured only after he humbled himself ("Unless you become as a little child...") that the proud resist grace. (Here, too, it would good to point out that supernature is built on nature, that Naaman had developed his natural virtues. The fact that the Jewish maid wished for his cure shows she liked him, and his king also put himself out for the general of his army.) We compared Naaman's weak faith in Eliseus' directions to our own weak faith in our use of holy things, particularly to the use of holy water, the lustral value of which I accented. His humiliation we, likewise, applied to unbelievers who see no use in the "mumbo-jumbo" of water and words. We looked briefly again at penance, here as a renewal of baptism, and recalled that in the story of the ten lepers studied earlier, one only returned to give thanks. I suggested a practice of saying an Our Father after confession in union with the tenth leper, in thanksgiving for the gift of penance -- and I should add, baptism.
The liturgy of Holy Saturday we studied in relation to baptism, and I urged attendance at the early morning service. We did this as near to the actual time as we could, that the grace of the time might be ours. Even though "house-cleaning" of books, desks, and closets engaged us in the time preparatory to the Easter holidays, this did not divert us from our theme: for we saw all this sub specie aeternitatis, as a practical participation in the liturgy, making ready for the blessing of Holy Saturday. I hope that some at least took the suggestion to help their mothers in this spirit. The girls -- and the boys as well -- were quite interested in their purchase of their new Easter clothes, and were more than pleased to learn that this, too, could be looked at in the same light, as a reminder of the baptismal robe, and an external expression of joy at rebirth in Christ. I threatened to wear some flowered millinery myself. We saw that the natural joy of spring with its resurrection of plant life and the new vigor felt in the body are the participation of lower creation in the glorious resurrection of the Savior, with whom we are buried and with whom we rise to new life in baptism. So it was very fitting that Eliseus should have told Naaman to "go in peace" (the pax of Easter) "in the springtime of the earth."
The primitive practice of baptism on Holy Saturday, preparing for the reception of the Easter Communion, I told them about, stressing very particularly that baptism is the most necessary sacrament, but yet is but a preparation for the Eucharist, "the Sacrament of sacraments." Our chief accent during the year on the Eucharist was its effect of unity, and this corporateness with Christ in the Trinity we saw begun in baptism. (Here, had I seen it, I should have pointed out Naaman's preparation to offer true sacrifice in 4 Kings 5:15, 17. Returned to his country, yet he took with him two mules' burden of earth, symbolic that the land of Israel was now his native land.) As Crashaw wrote of baptism: "Souls are not Spaniards...," we were agreed that baptism incorporates, makes us one Body, be we white, or black, or yellow, or red, or American, Russian or Japanese. That Naaman was become one with Israel could, moreover, be pointed out in 4 Kings 5:15 (creed), 5:18 (code), and 5:17 (cult).
More mistakes, omissions and unsatisfactory correlations I made than those already indicated. The stupidest was my overlooking the possibilities for teaching the actual rite of baptism in the same framework as the rest. For this I had used the epic poem of Robert Holland, S.J., "Song of Tekakwitha," which gives attractively a detailed account of the ceremony. That was effective, to be sure, but is not 4 Kings 1-4 telling us about the rites previous to recounting the actual story of Naaman? (I hope to work this out for you some other time.)
Another unsatisfactory correlation was that of the sacramental used in baptism and deriving from the sacrament, which I did not integrate so effectively with the sacrament itself as I hope to do next time. True, we had become intimately acquainted with candles at Candlemas, when each brought one in and we lighted them, learned that they represent Christ, etc., and had a little ceremony such as that described in Orate Fratres some time ago. "Lumen Christi" thus held significance for them. The idea of having the baptized child keep the baptismal candle was recalled. Already in the period of All Saints, we had had a project on patron saints and discussed Christian names. Incidentally, the idea of life from the water was brought home to us by the long-term water shortage that struck the New York area at the time, and about which the newspapers gave graphic accounts.
Speaking more broadly, America offers in her local history great opportunities for illustrating man's thirst for regeneration, since our country has been a "promised land" for generations and even today is a new home where men can forget the horrors of concentration camp slavery and begin afresh. How the story of Noe's Ark as prefiguring baptism could be made to come to life in and around Newark, planned as "new ark" of hope by its pioneering Quakers! Or take, for instance, Connecticut, with its collection of biblically named towns. Or Pennsylvania, with its Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Paradise, New Hope, Nazareth, and other places whose very names indicate nostalgia for "Sion." Our Civil War stories, too, about slavery, about the underground railways that freed the Negroes, etc., could well be tied up with the story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land. There are precious possibilities in this story for making baptism alive here and now. Already the plaintive strains of "Go down Moses...go down Moses...go down Moses...go down Moses into Egypt-land...Set my people free" awakes scores of ideas in presentation.
Activity Source: Orate Fratres/Worship: A Review Devoted to the Liturgical Apostolate , The Liturgical Press