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On Baptism:  A Catechetical Instruction
St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor
Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.
(St. Ambrose, On the Sacraments Book I, CSEL 73.)
I. 1. In which, treating of the sacraments, of which it was not fitting to speak to them before this (being catechumens), the Saint comes to the mystery of, The Opening, which, he teaches, was established by Christ in the healing of the man who was deaf and dumb.

I shall now begin to instruct you on the sacrament you have received; of whose nature it was not fitting to speak to you before this: for in the Christian what comes first is faith.  And at Rome for this reason those who have been baptized are called the faithful (fideles).  And it was through faith that Abraham our father was justified, and not by works (Rom. iv. 2).  Therefore, it was because you believed that you received baptism.  It would be wrong for me to think otherwise: you would not have been called to grace unless Christ had deemed you worthy of it.

2. What then did we perform on Saturday last?  The mystery of The Opening(Editors note:  In Western liturgies, before conferring the actual baptism, usually on Saturdays, the priest, following the example of the Lord (Mk. vii. 34.), moistens with saliva the ears and nostrils of the catechumen, saying, Ephpheta, which is, be thou opened.  In the very first ages a simple sign (blessing) was made on these senses.) And the mystery of The Opening was commemorated when the priest touched your ears and nostrils.  And this Our Lord Jesus Christ laid down for us in the Gospel, when they brought Him one who was deaf and dumb, and He touched his ears and his mouth: his ears because he was deaf; his mouth because he was dumb.  And He said: Ephpheta.  This is a Hebrew word, and means: Be thou opened.  The priest therefore touched your ears, that they might be opened to the words and to the exhortation of the priest.

3. But you will say to me: Why does he touch the nostrils?  Christ touched the mouth, for it was there the man was dumb: so that he who could not speak of the heavenly mysteries might receive a voice from Christ.  He touched him there because he was a man.  Here however, since women also are to be baptized, and since the purity of the servant is not the same as that of the Master —what comparison can there be between them; for the one yields to sin, the Other forgives it, — so, out of reverence for the sacred rite, and because of the sanctity of his office, the bishop does not touch the mouth, but the nostrils: that you may receive the good odour of eternal charity, and that you may say: We are the good odour of Christ unto God, as the holy Apostle said (II Cor. ii. 15); and that you may be filled with the fragrance of faith and devotion.

II. 4.  He explains the anointing of the Christian athlete, and, that he may animate them to keep their pledge of renunciation, he makes known to them the dignity of those in whose presence it was made, making this clear by examples.

We came to the Baptistery.  You entered it.  You remember whom you saw there; and recall to mind what it was you said.  Repeat it carefully!  You met there a Levite (deacon); you met a priest.  You were anointed, as a champion of Christ, about as it were to take part in the contest of this world.  You freely offered yourself to fight in the battles of this contest.  He who fights already possesses what he hopes for: for where the contest is, there also is the crown.  You strive in this world and you are crowned by Christ; and it is for the battles of this world you are crowned.  For though your reward is in heaven, that by which the reward is gained takes place here on earth.

5. When the priest asked you: Do you renounce the devil and all his works, what did you answer?  I do renounce him.  When he asked: Do you renounce the world and all its delights, what did you answer?  I do renounce them.  Be mindful then of the words you spoke, and let you never forget the seriousness of the pledge you have given.  If you give a man a pledge you become indebted to him, so that you may receive his money.  You hold yourself bound, and, if you do not pay, the lender presses you.  If you refuse to pay you must go before a judge, and because of the pledge you gave, you will then be convicted.

6. Recall where you pledged yourself, and to Whom you pledged yourself.  You saw there a Levite.  He is a minister of Christ.  You have seen him minister before the altar.  Therefore through your pledge you are held bound, not on earth, but in heaven.  Call to mind where you partook of the heavenly mysteries (the Eucharist).  If we have here the Body of Christ, then here also His angels stand round about Him.  You have read in the Gospel: Wheresoever the body shall be, there also shall be the eagles (Mt. xxiv. 28).  Where Christ’s Body is, there also are the eagles; who fly that they may leave earthly things and seek those of heaven.  And why do I say this to you?  Because those men, whosoever they are, who announce the Gospel are also angels; and they are seen by you to be received into the place of the angels.

7. How is this?  Listen!  Recall to mind the Baptist.  John the Baptist was born of a man and of a woman.  Yet hear how he also was an angel.  Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee (Mt. xi. 10).  And listen also to the words of Malachy the prophet: For the lips of the priest shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth; because he is the angel of the Lord of hosts (Mal. ii. 7).  We tell you these things to make clear to you, publicly, the honour God has bestowed on the priesthood; and that it is not something conferred because of personal merits.

8. So you have renounced the world; you have renounced earthly things.  Be careful therefore.  A man who owes money has his liability always in mind.  And you, you who owe Christ faith, be careful of your faith; which is more precious than money.  For your faith is your eternal patrimony, money a temporal one.  Therefore, let you be always mindful of the pledge you gave, and then you will be very careful.  If you keep before you what you promised, you will then fulfil your pledge.

III. 9.  Although the neophytes see only the Font and the Ministers, greater are the things that are not seen.

Then you came nearer.  You saw the Font; and beside the Font stood the priest.  And I cannot but think that there came to your mind also that which Naaman the Syrian thought; for though he was made clean, yet, before that, he doubted.  Why was this?  Let me tell you.  Attend carefully.

10. You entered the Baptistery; you saw the water; you saw the priest, and you saw the minister.  And lest perhaps one of you may have thought: Is this all?  This is indeed all.  It truly is all where there is all innocence, all kindness, all grace, all sanctification.  You saw what was possible to the eyes of the body, to human sight.  But you have not seen what was wrought; for these things are not seen.  And the things that were not seen are greater far than those seen: For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (II Cor. iv. 18).

IV. 11.  Our sacraments are prior in time, and more perfect, than those of the Jews; and herein is the significance of the word Pasch.

So let me first say: pay attention to my words and weigh them well.  We truly venerate the mysteries of the Jews, given to those who were our fathers; first, because of the antiquity of the mysteries, and then, because of the sanctity of those who offered them.  I shall show you that older and more perfect are the sacraments of the Christians than those of the Jews.

12. And as we are now speaking of baptism, what was earlier than the crossing over of the Jewish people through the midst of the sea?  Yet the Jews who crossed over all died in the desert.  But he who crosses over through this stream, that is, crosses over from earthly to heavenly things — and this is what Pasch means, a crossing over, a crossing over from sin to true life, from guilt to grace, from defilement to sanctification — he who crosses over through this stream does not die, but will rise again.

V. 13.  In Naaman the leper it was prefigured that that water alone heals which possesses the grace of Christ.  That Christ willed to be baptized for our sakes.  For this reason the Holy Spirit, appearing in the form of a dove, did not descend upon Him before He entered the water of the Jordan; for it was only then the whole Trinity would be present.

Now Naaman was a leper.  And a certain serving maid said to his wife: ‘If my master wishes to be made clean, let him go to the land of Israel, and he will find there one who can take away his leprosy.’  She said this to his wife, and the wife repeated it to her husband, and Naaman told it to the King of Syria, and he, having a great esteem for Naaman, sent him to the King of Israel.  And the King of Israel, when he heard that a man had been sent to him, to cleanse him of leprosy, rent his garments, the Scripture tells us (IV Kings v. 7).  And on this Eliseus the prophet sent word to the King, saying: ‘Why hast thou rent thy garments, as though God had not power to cleanse a leper? Send him to me.’  The King sent Naaman to him, and when he came the prophet said to him: ‘Go down to the Jordan and plunge in, and you will be healed.’

14. And Naaman began to think to himself and to say: ‘Is this all?  I come from Syria to the land of Judea and I am told: “Go down to the Jordan, and plunge in, and you will be healed.” As if there were not finer rivers in my own land?’ But his servant said to him: ‘Master, why not do what the prophet says?  Better to do it and see what comes of it.’  And at this Naaman went down to the Jordan, and bathed in it, and came up healed.

15. What did this prefigure?  With your eyes you have seen water.  But all water does not heal:
that water alone heals which has the blessing of Christ.  The element itself is one thing; its consecration another.  The action is one thing; its effect another.  The action is wrought with water; its effect proceeds from the Holy Spirit.  The water does not heal unless the Holy Spirit descends and blesses the water; as you read that when the Lord Jesus Christ was about to give us the form of baptism, He came to John, and John said to Him: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?  And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now.  For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice (Mt. iii. 14, 15).  See how all justice rests on baptism.

16. Why then did Christ descend if not that this our flesh might be healed, the flesh He assumed from us?  For Christ needed no washing away of His sins; He Who had committed no sin; but we needed it, we who are subject to sin.  If then baptism is for us, its form was established for us: the form of our faith is made known to us.

17. Christ descended into the water, and John who baptized Him stood by him, and lo!  the Holy Spirit descended, as a dove.  He did not descend a dove, but descended as a dove.  Recall to mind what I have told you: Christ took a body; He did not seem to take a body.  Christ took upon Himself the reality of this flesh of ours, and a true body.  The Holy Spirit however did not descend as a true dove, but in the form of a dove.  Therefore John saw, and believed.

18. Christ descended, and the Holy Spirit descended.  But why did Christ descend first, and afterwards the Holy Spirit: seeing that the form of baptism, and the manner of conferring it, require that first the Font shall be consecrated, and then that he descends into it who is to be baptized?  For when the priest enters the baptistery, he first performs, by invocation, an exorcism of the element of water, and then prays that the Font may be sanctified, and that the power of the Eternal Trinity may become present.  But Christ descended first, and afterwards the Holy Spirit.  Why was this? So that we might see that the Lord Jesus did not stand in need of the mystery of sanctification, but that He was Himself to sanctify, and that the Spirit also would sanctify.

19. And so Christ descended into the water; and the Holy Spirit descended as a dove.  Likewise the Father spoke from heaven.  And so you have the presence of the Trinity.

V.20.  A figure of baptism is first seen in the Red Sea.  The same, in fewer words, was shown from the Flood.

The Apostle says that the Red Sea was a figure of this baptism, saying: For our fathers were all baptized, in the cloud and in the sea (I Cor. x. 2).  And Paul adds: Now these things were done in a figure of us (v.6): to them in figure, to us in the reality.  The Jewish people were hemmed in by the sea, and Moses stretched forth his rod over the sea.  The Egyptian with his army was on one side, and on the other were the Hebrews, cut off by the sea.  They could neither cross the sea, nor turn back towards the enemy.  And they began to murmur.

21. Consider then; does it not encourage you that their prayers were heard?  Although the Lord heard them, yet they were not without fault; because of their murmuring.  It is your duty when you are in trouble to believe you will be delivered; not to murmur, but to call upon His name; to pray, not to utter complaints.

22. Moses stretched forth his rod, and he guided the people of the Hebrews; by night in a pillar of fire, by day in a pillar of cloud (Exod. xiv).  And what is this light but the Truth; which pours forth a full clear light?  And the pillar of light, what is it if not Christ the Lord, Who has scattered the darkness of unbelief, and poured forth the light of His truth and spiritual grace on human hearts?  The Holy Spirit is the pillar of cloud.  The people were in the sea, and before them went the pillar of light.  Then followed the pillar of cloud, as the shadow of the Holy Spirit.  You see then how through water and the Holy Spirit a figure of baptism was revealed to us.

23. The Flood also was a figure of baptism; and the mysteries of the Jews most certainly did not then exist.  If the form of baptism preceded them, you then see how the mysteries of the Christians are older than those of the Jews.

24. But for the present, because of the weakness of our voice, and for reasons of time, it will be enough for today to touch even lightly upon the mysteries of the Sacred Fount.  Tomorrow, if the Lord gives me the strength and the opportunity to speak to you, I shall treat of it more fully.  But your Charity needs to have your ears ready, and your hearts disposed, that we may share with you whatever we may find throughout the Scriptures, and that you may hold fast to it, and come to possess the grace of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the Trinity, to Whom belongs the everlasting kingdom, from all ages, and now and forever, world without end.  Amen.