Q. 1. Did the Sacrament of Baptism exist prior to the days of Jesus? In Matthew 3:1-17, we read that John the Baptism was baptising the people and telling them to repent. Can you explain this?
A. 1. Prior to the days of Jesus, the Jewish people had ritual washing. In the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 2, we find Elisha's instructions to Naaman, to wash himself in the Jordan as a cure for leprosy which was considered a symbol of sinfulness.
As part of the Jewish tradition since ancient times, there were ritual baths known as the mikvehs. Under Jewish law, the mikveh was commanded to cleanse a person of ritual impurity. Such may consist of a woman cleaning herself after her period of ritual impurity during and after menstruation. Also a person had to be ritually pure before entering the Temple. If someone converted to Judaism, that person was required to immerse in a mikveh as part of the conversion. One's immersion in the mikveh was symbolic of converting one's old identity to his new one as a Jew.
It is believed that when John the Baptist preached to repent and to be baptised, the people were associating this command of being cleansed of their sin in the Jordan with the Jewish ritual of mikveh.
The ritual washing in the mikveh cannot be compared to the Sacrament of Baptism. In the Jewish culture, it was an ongoing practice to cleanse oneself, for example after the birth of every child. With the Sacrament of Baptism, it can only be received once.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1213, "Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.""