The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord ended the recent season of Christmas. He was baptized by St. John the Baptist, and so we (disciples of the Lord) are also baptized. Christians believe that we are baptized not only into Christ’s life – called to live and love as he did – but into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are reminded of this reality every time we celebrate the Order of Christian Funerals. In the prayers, in the readings from Scripture, in the homily, in the songs we sing, we are reminded (directly or indirectly) of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life (6:3-5).
The Catholic Church has understood this pattern of life-death-new life to underlie the significance of being baptized. For the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, only adults were baptized. It happened at the Easter Vigil. Immediately after Baptism, the other Sacraments of Initiation – Confirmation and Eucharist – were also celebrated. Around the fifth century, baptism of infants became the norm as the doctrine of Original Sin became more widely taught and understood.
The idea of “Limbo” – that place where infants who die before Baptism go – was sort of “created” to emphasize the importance of the baptism of infants; indeed, I would guess that most older Catholics (including me) were baptized the Sunday following our birth, sometimes without the presence of our mothers (who were still hospitalized). (A side note: I was born Monday, August 14 and baptized Sunday, August 20, 1961 – the same day that PJ from “The Family Circus” was baptized. The difference between us: I grew up, he didn’t!) Limbo, as a concept, has “disappeared;” instead, we trust in God’s mercy toward the unbaptized, whether they are babies or adults who in some way lived their lives well and for others.