Ancient Sacraments Eternally Effective: Baptism and the Holy Supper
The Christian Sacraments
A sacrament is a symbolic rite that has a built-in correspondential meaning recognized by the angels who are present with those who are performing it.
All the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the Hebrew or Jewish church were "sacraments" in this technical sense—it was this that kept the world and Heaven together during a very dark period of our history. With the advent of Jesus, the whole system came to an end. Jesus himself instituted baptism and the holy supper as the two Christian sacraments, to take the place of circumcision and all the temple rituals of the Old Testament.
In most societies there is some ceremony that anyone wishing to join the society must perform as a sign of admission to membership. Baptism is the recognized sacrament of admission into the Christian church, a ritual performed before witnesses to show that the person baptized is henceforth to be a Christian. The Israelitish church had circumcision for the same purpose: a permanent mark on the flesh to prove that the man was a Jew. Circumcision represented purification from the lusts of flesh, whereas baptism represents cleansing of the whole person. Baptism was instituted in place of circumcision so that the Christian church might be distinguished from the Jewish church, and that it might more readily be known as an internal church.
The Israelites had ceremonial washings as well as circumcision: washing of the body, and also of pots, cups and dishes. (Mark 7:8) Even in the Old Testament we find Naaman immersing himself seven times in the river Jordan, to be cleansed from the foul disease of leprosy. (2 Kings 5:1-19) Water corresponds to "truth which cleanses from sin," (e.g. John 3:5) and the Jordan, being the boundary of the Holy Land, symbolized "entrance into the church." (Doctrine of the Lord 64 ) John the Baptist followed the same symbolism, and baptized in the river Jordan all who were willing to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah or Christ and would undertake to follow him when he came.
Preparing the Way of the Lord
Swedenborg makes the interesting observation that Jesus could not have safely emerged from obscurity and begun his redemptive work if John had not begun baptizing people in the Jordan. The danger, however, would not have been to Jesus, but to the people! Note the two closing verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:5-6) where we are told that "Elijah" was to come ( i.e. John the Baptist) to prevent the world from being smitten with a curse.
"The Jewish church was a representative church," writes Swedenborg. "All conjunction between its members and Heaven was effected by representatives. Therefore, unless that nation had been prepared for the reception of the Lord by the representation of purification from evils and falsities, as by the baptisms in Jordan, they could not have survived the coming of the Lord in the flesh." (Apocalypse Revealed 776) Again, "A way was prepared by the baptism of John, because people were thereby introduced into the future church, and were inserted in Heaven among those who waited for, and desired, the Messiah. These were guarded by angels, that the devils might not break forth from Hell and destroy them." (True Christian Religion 689)
Jesus Baptized by John
Jesus himself consented to be baptized by John, because, as to his humanity derived from Mary, he was a man like any of us, and he had to be tempted by the hells, and to wash himself clean by total immersion in the divine truth. So, in order to "fulfill all righteousness," he went down into the Jordan, dipped himself under the water, and then came up again symbolic also of his death and resurrection. (Matthew 3: 15) We must also share his spiritual baptism, as stated in Matthew 20:23; but we ordinary humans can regenerate only as far as angelhood, whereas Jesus went right on until he had glorified his entire human nature, making it divine.
Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples did at his command (Matthew 28:19), especially when they went forth as apostles after his ascension. When possible they undoubtedly used total immersion, like John (the word "baptism" means immersion); but at other times, when this was impractical, they may have been content with a sprinkle of water over the head. The 3,000 baptized in Jerusalem at Pentecost, for instance could not have all been immersed. (Acts 16:33)
The teachings of the Second Coming endorse total immersion in baptism (see Arcana Coelestia 10,239). It reminds us that if we are to be purified from our evils, we must "take up our cross and follow Jesus" (Luke 9:23)—dying unto self and being born again from God. If we resist sins because they are forbidden in the Word, then our evils are washed away like dirt from a filthy garment. "Wash you, make you clean; cease to do evil, learn to do well." (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Entry into the Church
When parents bring their children to be baptized, they are making a solemn acknowledgment before the Lord and before witnesses, that they want the children to be brought up within the sphere of the Christian church and be spiritually cleansed by the truths taught in the church. At the same time, they are undertaking to do all in their power to encourage and help the children to grow up in the church. From the point of view of the minister, the baptized child is now a member of the church; and some ministers, after the ceremony, carry the baby around among the pews, saying to the congregation: "Welcome our new member!" No God-parents are required for the baptism, since the parents themselves are responsible for the child's upbringing. However, minister and church officials should follow it up, to make sure the baptized child is not lost sight of. He has been given to the church; the church should claim and receive the gift!
Adult men and women may also be baptized, thereby witnessing in public that they wish to enter the church, learn its teachings, and be regenerated within it. The candidate need not know in detail the doctrines of the church before the baptism, but should have the desire and intention to learn them.
The Purpose of Baptism
Baptism has no magical effect. It does not purify a baby from inherited evils. In fact, it does not change a person's character in any way. It is simply a sign indicating that the person baptized has been given and accepted as a member of the church, where he will be able to learn the truths of faith, which like water, will wash his spirit clean.
John the Baptist said: "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that cometh after me is mightier than I; he shall baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire." (Matthew 3:11) The "holy spirit" here means the power of the divine truth, while "fire" means the divine love. Unless baptism with water is followed in due course by baptism with the holy spirit and with fire, it is useless. Jesus said that we must be born again "of water and the spirit," if we are to enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Baptism, therefore, should lead to instruction in the Christian faith, and to a knowledge and acknowledgment of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it should be completed by re-birth as his child.
Baptism, in Whose Name?
In whose name should we baptize? Jesus, after his resurrection, said to disciples: "All power is given unto me in Heaven and in Earth. Go you therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 28, end) It is evident from this passage that Jesus was by that time Divine—the one only God; otherwise, how could he have had "all power in Heaven and in Earth?" Father, Son, and holy Spirit had been finally united in his divine person. The "Father" was the soul within him; the "Son" was his humanity, and the "Holy Spirit" was his outpouring life.
The apostles understood this perfectly, so that they simply baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5, etc.) To them, this covered the whole trinity, which resided in the glorified Lord Jesus Christ. We, therefore, can take our choice. Either we can baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit" (remembering that these are not three separate persons but one Being only); or we can baptize "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." Personally I usually put the two together and say, "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
Baptism Witnessed by the Angels
Here is a new teaching, found only in the writings of Swedenborg: when we baptize someone on earth, the angels who are with us are aware of what is being done. They note carefully that the person baptized is now a member of the Christian church, and henceforth they do all in their power to provide that only Christian influences will be brought to bear upon them from within. Swedenborg writes: "Without the Christian sign of baptism, some idolatrous spirit might approach newly-born Christian infants and young children and infuse into them an inclination in favor of his own religion. This would distract their minds and alienate them from Christianity, and thus distort and destroy spiritual order." (True Christian Religion 678) Evidently baptism not only introduces a person into the Christian church on earth, but also places him among Christians in the world of spirits, and prepares him for entry into the Christian Heaven.
Naturally, as children grow up and come under their own control, they may cancel the effects of their baptism. They may turn away from the Christian church, reject their guardian angels, and attract to themselves spirits who are not from the Christian church—even spirits from Hell.
THE HOLY SUPPER
The Oldest Sacrament
The eating of bread and the drinking of wine symbolize the drawing in, or "appropriation," of God's life. It is a very ancient ritual, found among many primitive peoples, and much older than the Hebrew sacrifices. Remember how Melchizedek, king of Jerusalem and priest of the most high God, gave bread and wine to Abraham, and blessed him. (Genesis 14:18-19) Evidently, therefore, the holy supper was a sacrament of the ancient church. Meal-offerings and drink-offerings played an important part in the temple worship of the Israelites; and I cannot help thinking that these must have been the offerings most pleasing to the Lord, as they did not involve the killing of animals and the shedding of blood. So, when Jesus instituted the holy supper, he was really preserving the best and oldest elements of the Hebrew system, and giving them a new meaning in relation to himself.
The Christian sacraments are distinct from the Hebrew rituals in this respect: they are intended to be understood by the worshippers as well as by the angels. The Israelites had very little idea of the spiritual significance of what they or the priests were doing, or why they were doing it. They were simply obeying the law of Moses. Only the angels understood. But we Christians are supposed to go a little deeper. "The veil of the temple has been rent in twain from top to bottom." (Matthew 27:51) Our two sacraments are internal as well as external; and so, besides linking Heaven and earth together (as the Hebrew system did), they bring the worshipper into conscious fellowship with the angels, and communion with the Lord.
Baptism and the holy supper are like two doors through which every Christian should pass. Baptism indicates a willingness and intention that the person baptized should enter the Christian church. The holy supper indicates a willingness and intention to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Baptism, as it only indicates a first setting-out along the road of reformation and regeneration, may be performed on the faith of somebody else (as the parents of a baby). On the other hand, the holy supper, which brings about a direct personal communion with the Lord, may with profit be taken again and again, at regular intervals throughout life; but the person taking it must be mature enough to know what he is doing, and why he is doing it.
The Institution of the Holy Supper
As is well known, Jesus instituted the holy supper at the end of the Seder meal of the Passover, on the evening before his crucifixion. He gave his disciples bread, and said "Take eat, this is my body;" and wine, saying, "Drink ye all of it, this is my blood." (Matthew 26:26-28) They must have realized that this was something wonderful and important, but what could they have thought it meant? Were they to be cannibals, eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Obviously Jesus was speaking spiritually, as he always did. To obtain the full benefit of the sacrament, we must understand the correspondences.
The Lord's Flesh and Blood
By the Lord's flesh is meant his Divine love, that constitutes his very nature. It is the substance with which he created and sustains the universe. Just as bread is the type of all food that nourishes our physical bodies, so the Lord's divine love nourishes our spirits. Jesus said: "I am the living bread which came down from Heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:51) As we take the morsel of bread into our mouths and swallow it, we feel his love entering into our very bodies. The angels who are with us receive it also. Our joy spills over into them, and their joy fills us, and we are in happy fellowship together, in our Father's presence. "He that comes unto me," said Jesus, "shall never hunger." (John 6:35)
By the Lord's blood is meant his divine wisdom, which circulates throughout the whole of his love, impinging upon it and upon all creation at every point, bringing refreshment and vitality. This also is the meaning of the wine, the blood of the grape. Jesus is the true vine; we are the branches. As we sip the wine and it trickles down our throats, he fills us with his own wisdom; and the angels receive and rejoice in that also. "He that believes on me shall never thirst." (John 6: 35)
The Lord's love and wisdom together are power and life. "Whoso eats my flesh and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him." (John 6:53-56) There is nothing magical about it, but if we use our imagination aright, the swallowing of the bread and wine will stimulate a tremendous inflow of power from him. It will recharge our flat batteries and give us resources to carry us over the dry periods, the famine days ahead. With the Lord's flesh and blood in us (even though only symbolically received), we are secure against temptation. How can evil spirits approach near us, since we are so near our beloved Lord?
A Healing Act
The holy supper tones up body as well as the spirit. Since it is dealing with what Swedenborg calls "ultimates"—coming right down into the physical body—so it is a tremendous act of healing. Many people have experienced physical healing while partaking of the holy communion, and this is not at all surprising. It brings our whole anatomy and physiology under the control of the Creator, who made us perfect and wants to keep us so.
Divinity in Common Things
Drawing God into ourselves! It sounds strange, esoteric, mystical—something too "high" for most of us! Yet what could be more ordinary than swallowing a crumb of bread and a sip of wine? Do you not see how the holy communion brings a sparkle of divinity into the simple, most basic acts of life—eating and drinking? Someone in the kitchen or bakery somewhere: that person was handling the material that was to become God's flesh! A full realization of this brings glory into the kitchen, and maybe into the other humdrum chores of our daily life. You tidy your bed. What for? To lie down and sleep. And when you sleep, are you not yielding yourself up into the loving arms of your Heavenly Father? Is it not so that he can place his kiss on your forehead? Think of each one of the familiar actions of your daily routine, and, on the analogy of the holy communion, you will find divinity trailing through them all.