Baptism of infants (adult baptism will be discussed further below) is unusual among the vehicles of grace in that it does not involve action by the beneficiary, but rather an action performed for her by others. The baptized, usually a baby, is commonly washed with the water over her loud objections, with no conception of the significance of the sacrament. How does this work to convey grace?
To understand baptism, one must realize that since the baptized person is commonly not a conscious participant in the process, she must not herself be the means by which grace is transmitted. She is not like the participant in Holy Communion, who receives grace through the opening of his own mind and heart to the participation in the body of the faithful. Baptism operates, if at all, through the persons around her.
The function of baptism is to cleanse the taint of original sin. Adam’s sin of pride was that of learning to realize that he had a choice between doing the right thing or doing something else, and succumbing to the temptation to do something else. As I have already discussed, Adam’s fall was, paradoxically, also our salvation, for it was only through the development of the ability to choose to do wrong that we gained the virtuous ability to choose to do right instead. Nonetheless, the resulting responsibility to choose to do right was a new burden, the burden of sin, which falls upon us all as soon as we are old enough to realize that we can choose to do wrong. It is this burden that baptism is intended to ease.
Clearly, baptism does not wipe out this burden of choice – we still face temptation after baptism. What does it do? It shows to the parents, godparents, and other concerned assembled that the baptized has, as of that moment, a clean slate. Any taint or temptation will arise as she goes forward through her life in the world. The parents, godparents, and congregation make a commitment to help her to find the path of virtue, to give her love and guidance. They take on a heavy responsibility, but it is a sweet burden, for they by their efforts can help to bring this new soul to joy. Baptism brings the child in from the dark and lonely desert where she must see and resist sin on her own, and brings her into the warmth and protection of her family and congregation, who will do their best to throw light upon the shadows of temptation and deception so that she may clearly see the way to bliss. Baptism is a grace to parents, godparents and child together, if it is properly received. It is the gift of a bond of responsibility, an opportunity to guide and a chance to be guided. The child receives this gift simply by virtue of her birth. The parents and godparents will have to work hard for the child, but if they are open to the grace they will perform this function willingly. The gift to them, the chance to experience the pleasure of helping the young innocent to find bliss, is given to them not based upon their past merit, but in trust of their willingness to do right in the future.
Again, though, the grace can only be given to willing recipients. If the parents and godparents fail to realize the significance of the charge they are given in having this clean soul delivered into their hands, they are unlikely to provide the support the child needs to begin life aright. Like any trust, the one formed at baptism can be violated, and the grace forming the trust can be squandered.
Adult baptism adds an additional element similar to confirmation. An adult who chooses to receive baptism is taking an intentional action to wash away not just the sin of Adam but the sins of his youth. Children make mistakes and may stray along misguided pathways. A person who properly receives the grace of adult baptism is making a choice to turn away from those errors and begin anew, again with family and community undertaking to help them. In sects that practice confirmation, the person having reached the age of independent decision likewise makes a firm choice to follow the ways of virtue with the support of family, sponsors, and church. Christianity is not the only religion that has celebrated the concept of washing away sin with water. It is an ancient notion, but I believe that every religion that followed this practice rejected the idea that sin could simply be washed away like dirt by an unrepentant person. The practitioner must have the correct intention, viewing the washing as the physical sign of a spiritual process in which they reject sin and seek purity of heart. Those who undertake these processes thoughtfully and sincerely, not as empty rituals, receive grace through them. The person must recognize that he bears Adam’s burden, the free ability to choose his own destiny. He must use the knowledge he has acquired through the teachings of others and through his own experience and prayer to recognize that he will be subject to temptations to stray, and he must make a real choice to follow a path that will avoid falling into the pit of those temptations. If he makes that choice, he will receive the grace he needs to succeed. If he rejects that grace and merely goes through the motions, he will receive what inevitably follows. Decisions have consequences.
 Any parent will recognize that this ability comes early. Little children lie and scheme and need help to find the path to virtue. Sadly, a few even become remarkably evil at an early age.
 Again, the kind and generous Christian God would not leave his children without guidance. People have an inborn sense of the teachings and concepts of Christianity, and that sense can be seen in different forms amongst those who were raised in different pagan or modern faiths.
Conversation starters in the Media: Both The Godfather and Ed Wood have scenes involving baptisms that are obviously of the wrong sort. Tess is sort of at the other end of things, with a mother who desperately wants to give her baby the grace but who is denied the ritual.