Why Baptism and Confession?


Baptism regenerates humans in the image and likeness of God, created in and for love.[1] In baptism, the Father adopts us, the sacrificial love of the Son conforms us to his Body, and the Spirit transfigures us into witnesses of the Good News. The progression of the rites, from the reception of the child to the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, propagates the continual revelation of the Trinity in both the child and the assembly of believers.[2]

In baptism, the Church praises God as the source of the love between parents and children.[3] In the reception of the child, parents surrender their natural authority, yielding to the divine authority of God.[4] Through this sacrificial dis-appropriation of earthly entitlement, the Spirit transfigures the assembly of witnesses into the kenotic Body of Christ.[5] As the Body offers the child's name up for adoption, God claims it as His own. [6] By immersing the child's name into God's triune name,[7] the Spirit immerses the child into the entire ecclesial community. The child does not dissolve into the whole, but rather, by the child's union with the Church, the Spirit perfects his or her particular identity as a distinct child of God. The sign of the cross claims the child for Christ's suffering and death. Through the baptismal enunciations, promises, and invocations, the Church conforms her will to God's, entering into the dialogue between the Father and the Son.[8]

In Christ's baptism, the Trinitarian mystery emerges through the opening of the heavens, as the Spirit descends and God reveals Christ as His Son.[9] Christ submerges himself into the incoherent abyss of our sin[10] to rescue us in baptism and incorporate us into his Trinity.[11] He perfects the covenant between God and humankind through his obedience to God by his participation in death as anticipated by his humble baptism.[12] Christ's immersion into the waters echoes the Paschal mystery of his descent into Hell and his ascension into heaven. In the water of every baptism, God recapitulates all of salvation history.[13] The Spirit of God descends upon the waters, drowning the old Adam, remediating our sin, and conferring everlasting salvation. Through water, Christ draws near to us as the source and sustenance of life.[14] Christ consecrates us as disciples with the blood of Eucharist and the water of baptism that flowed from his side in death, as a sign of the covenant between himself and the Church.[15]

Baptism recognizes and bestows the child's identity as the prophetic Body of Christ. In anointing with the chrism, the Holy Spirit circumscribes the child's body, conforming it to Christ's body as Priest, Prophet, and King.[16] The consecrates the human senses as the very contact points for the divine, the space where the Holy Spirit traverses the distance between Creator and creation. The Spirit renders the non-interpretable Word[17] communicative—even by the inchoate infant in its vulnerability—unraveling our broken speech.[18] Baptism restores right relationship with the Divine. God mercifully bends down to our limited forms of bodily communication, making us articulate in his Word.[19] Baptism liberates us from worldly captivity to sense grace anew, so that we might put on Christ[20] and manifest the mystery of the Trinity to the Church.[21] Baptism molds us into disciples of Christ's mission—into his very mouth, hands, and feet that profess the Good News, sanctifying the world.[22]

In baptism, God abides with all his children whom he gathers in his prayer to the one wellspring of salvation. Baptism not only incorporates a child into the Body of Christ but con-corporates and dignifies the whole Body.[23] For in creation, God poured out his Spirit upon the whole of humanity as one. Baptism calls, heals, sanctifies, and sends forth disciples, remembering us into the Mystical Body of Christ.


Confession reveals the sinner before God and the Church,[24] mirroring the full self-revelation among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[25] Christ's confessional stance binds our sin to his perfect grace on the cross,[26] so that in claiming our sin, we might be released.[27] The humiliation and elevation of confession rejoins the sinner to the communion of saints with a new ecclesial responsibility.[28] In confession, God dialogues with his repentant Church, molding us in quiet, attentive obedience, so that through the indwelling of the divine Word,[29] we might enunciate a renewed fiat to his love.[30]

In preparation, grace perpetually invites the sinner to claim his guilt and examine his sins with simplicity and straightforwardness, under the harsh light of truth.[31] The sinner acknowledges his sin with concrete objectivity[32] and offers his childlike attention to God, aching from alienation. Contrition awakens the sinner to the self-awareness that he hangs naked[33] before God, as exposed as the Son before the Father.[34] In meditation upon the Lord's perfection,[35] the sinner is humiliated and horrified at his offense[36] and terrified that God will rightfully abandon him.[37] Though still far off,[38] this desire to confess already begins the turn toward God in the Spirit.[39] As his gaze shifts from the weight of his sins towards the gratuitous mercy of the ever-greater Father, remorse is only sharpened.[40] This sorrow acquaints the sinner with a new hope[41] by which grace cultivates in him a will to improve, propelling him to take the initial step towards the sacrament. This act of resolution makes contrition concrete, and it integrates the penitent into the Lord's activity.[42] Yearning to be cleansed and thirsting for God's nearness,[43] the sinner picks up his cross of guilt and journeys towards the abyss of confession. Already, through the grace of the cross, he is being carried home[44] to the Father.[45]

The act of confession humbly acknowledges the need for divine healing, beyond human contrition. Confession declares sin and denies human entitlement to forgiveness, asserting our complete dependence upon God's mercy. In confession, God listens to the remorseful cries[46] of both his Church and his child.[47] By deserting himself to the confessional, the sinner takes up his death to sin in solitude.[48] The penitent definitively claims his guilt in this place of isolation. God's listening ear in the Spirit, extended through the priest, unites this confession to the confession of the whole Church.[49] The dialogue of the confession is on God's terms, and the initially planned confession is subjected to questions, challenges, and confusion, transforming the experience of sin through immersion into the Paschal mystery with hope of resurrection. Through the exhortation, God's Word bends down to the sinner, calling him to conversion and molding him in the Spirit to take up the Word of God and the mission of the Church.[50]

In absolution, God releases us from sin, floods us with his sublime, abundant grace, and resurrects us into the Trinity.[51] Absolution enacts a restoration of our participation in this Trinitarian relationship,[52] which penance celebrates. Absolution restores the original order and reconfigures us into beings made in and for love. Penance engenders renewed prayer and humble, disproportionate participation in Christ's cross. Though Christ suffered under the sin, He rejoices in the purification of his Bride, and from this suffering comes a deep joy.[53] With the institution of confession came "an infinitely gentle and ardent love that presses and admonishes, encourages, pardons, and helps,"[54] a love that reconciles us to the bliss of the Trinity.[55]



Editorial Statement: This post is an introduction to a series by the author on the sacraments. During the month of April, Church Life Journal will consider the nature of the liturgical imagination in art, music, sacramental prayer, and ritual action.

Featured Image: Rogier van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece [detail], 15th c.; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, "Sin and Salvation," in In the Beginning...: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdemans Publishing Co. 1995), 72. Ratzinger defines human nature as relational and only existing by participation in God's love.

[2] Catholic Church, The Rites of the Catholic Church as revised by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Vol 1, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1990).

[3] See: Genesis 21. Abraham's entrance into a covenant with God was a participation in a relationship with the Father. From the love of this relationship, God brought forth Abraham's son Isaac.

[4] Kimberly Belcher, "Threefold: The Trinitarian Dynamic of Infant Baptism," Efficacious Engagement: Sacramental Participation in the Trinitarian Mystery (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press), 129-130. Just as Abraham's surrendered his status as the father of Isaac in the aqedah (Genesis 22), baptism requires a death to self on behalf of the parents—a death to all false identities that stand outside the existence of God. This is the beginning of the mystery of the cross.

[5] Ibid., 131. "When the assembly gives over its own authority to the person of the Logos, it forms itself in the image of Christ, who is eternally handing over his authority to the Father."

[6] Matthew 22:31-32. "Have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?'"

[7] Catholic Church, op. cit., 403. "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

[8] Ibid., 401. The threefold rejection of sin recalls Christ's renunciation of the three temptations in the dessert [Matthew 4:1-11], and our redemption from the three sins of flesh, eyes, and pride.

[9] Mark 1:7-11. "On coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open, and the Spirit, like a dove descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'"

[10] Matthew 27:46. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Because of Christ's Paschal sacrifice, there is no depth of suffering or abandonment where Christ has not journeyed before us and with us. Christ entered into our forsakeness.

[11] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1950), 38. "He incorporated himself into our humanity and incorporated it in Himself."

[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Baptism of the Lord," Light of the Word: Brief Reflections on the Sunday Readings, 36. "Jesus will become the perfecting covenant between God and mankind."

[13] Catholic Church, op. cit., 399. God has made the gift of water a rich symbol of grace since the dawn of creation: the waters of the flood, of the Red Sea, of the Jordan, and of Christ's side.

[14] John 4:13-14. "Everyone who drinks that water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

[15] Henri de Lubac, op. cit., 84. "The water and blood which flowed from the side of Jesus on the Cross, the water of baptism, the blood of the Eucharist, first fruits of the mystical union between Christ and his Church, are, at the same time, the streams at which that Church is nourished."

[16] Catholic Church, op. cit., 404. "He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation, so that united with his people, you may remain for ever a member of Christ who is Priest, Prophet, and King."

[17] Isaiah 55:8-11. "As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts."

[18] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Chadwick. 1991), 10.27.38. "You called, you shouted, you shattered my deafness. You shone with dazzling light and dispelled my blindness."

[19] Deuteronomy 6:4-11. "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today. Keep repeating them to your children. Recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates."

[20] Catholic Church, The Rites of the Catholic Church as revised by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 405. "You have put on Christ, in him you have been baptized."

[21] Ibid., 404. "You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity."

[22] See: The following prayer traditionally attributed to Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

[23] Henri de Lubac, Henri, op. cit., 85. "Baptismal regeneration is not confined in effect to one soul alone. 'For in one Spirit', says the Apostle, 'we were all baptized into one body.'"

[24] Adrienne von Speyr, Confession (Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Johannes Verlag. 1960), 19. "The act of confession expressly involves the whole person, his whole life, his whole world-view, his whole relationship to God." The sacrament of confession demands complete honesty of self before an all-knowing God.

[25] Ibid., 21."When the Son institutes confession at Easter, He does so to mediate to them part of the Trinitarian life."

[26] Ibid., 25."If the Son accepts this guilt, He lends it the radiance of His own grace from the very beginning." Christ, though sinless, binds Himself to our sin, and thus even in sin we are never abandoned by grace.

[27] Ibid., 24. "Precisely this complete acceptance of his guilt in recognition and repentance leads to complete release."

[28] Ibid., 89. "Everyone experiencing humiliation and elevation in confession knows that he belongs to the communion of saints and is accepted into it anew in order to accept an ecclesial responsibility." Confession is not a private matter. As members of the Body of Christ, our individual sins hurt the Body. The Church as a community also mediates our healing, reconciling us to the whole.

[29] John 1:14. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." This is the confession of Christ, the incarnate truth, upon which our existence stands. In confession, we speak truth. By speaking truth we are made true.

[30] Through the act of contrition, we begin to speak anew.

[31] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., 152. "We must see our sins as sharply as possible and place them under the harsh light of truth." Truth is often obscured by our sin. The gift of the Spirit illuminates our sin in the light of God's love.

[32] Ibid., 156. "We must look at sin with particularly sharp intensity at its factual character," and see it precisely for what it objectively is.

[33] Genesis 3: 7-8. "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden at a breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden." Adam and Eve realize their nakedness when they understand that they have sinned. In shame, they hide themselves from the Lord. Confession remediates this shame by claiming one's guilt before God.

[34] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., 164. Even in hiding from God, we are always fully exposed. Yet in confession we willingly take up our nakedness and humiliation.

[35] Ibid., 163. "We get to know our own lack of love not by staring at our failure, but rather by viewing the positive aspects of the Son." In contemplating the Son, we are awakened to the depth of Christ's love and experience our distance from Him.

[36] Ibid., 45. "Confession which always anticipates absolution is not an imitation of Christ." In contrition, the sinner grieves the harm done to the Father and the opportunity to love that was rejected. He realizes himself as undeserving of mercy and though desiring absolution, does not demand it, but rather laments his offense.

[37] Matthew 27:46. "Abba, abba, why have you forsaken me?" This experience of abandonment begins the participation in Christ's death which resulted from our sin.

[38] Luke 15:11-32. "While he was still a long way off, his Father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion." The story of the prodigal son shows us that the Father rejoices even in our initial turning—even at the very beginning of a conversion.

[39] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., 164. "My will to contrition is already an effect of grace." It is the very grace that does not abandon us in sin that stirs us to repentance.

[40] Ibid., 159. "He will regret that he failed, but not so intensely affronted God." The focus here is not on our failures as on the One we failed.

[41] Ibid., 168. "Contrition in confession is like an anticipatory sign of this new and eternal life in death. In contrition within confession something of eternity shines into our own temporality." The Spirit infuses the remorse of our contrition with the gift of hope.

[42] Ibid., 171. "Within the resolution there must reside a moment in which everything is to become concrete, as concrete as the Son's resolution to die on the Cross."

[43] John 19:28, "Aware that everything was now finished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, 'I thirst.'"

[44] Luke 15:5-6. "And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.'"

[45] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., 162. "He carries the sinners to the Father in a love so purifying that the Father sees only the love and reconciliatory spirit of the Son."

[46] Exodus 2:23-24. "The Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God. God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Throughout history, God listens to his people in their suffering and, through confession, frees the Church from her bondage to sin.

[47] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., Confession, 175. "This darkened place is a locus of grace, a place of the solitary person and of the community."

[48] Ibid., 52. "The Father too is a participant in everything the Son shows him, but on the Cross the Son is no longer aware of this participation."  We share in the forsakenness of Christ.

[49] Ibid., 92. "He does not stand alone. Precisely in and through the sacrament he is a member of the Church."

[50] Ibid., 186. "And in every confession we rejoice that we belong to the Son and are formed by the hand of the Father in the Holy Spirit."

[51] Ibid., 187. "Christ really does live in us, and his ever-greater grace demands ever more room." We cannot hold the magnificence of God, therefore we move our sin aside so that our hearts might be filled with infinite grace.

[52] Genesis 18:2-3. "Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them." Abraham receives the Trinity into his home with great hospitality. In His covenant with Abraham, God promises this Trinitarian relationship for the Church.

[53] Adrienne von Speyr, op. cit., 56. "He suffered under the sin but rejoiced in the purification. Suffering and joy generated one another."

[54] Ibid., 91.

[55] Ibid., 21. "There is in God, however, the bliss of revealing himself and the bliss of seeing what has been shown, the joy of a mutual communication encompassing both revelation and the beholding of something revealed."


Kathryn Thompson

Kathryn Thompson graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2017 and is a first year medical student at the University of Chicago.

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