Baptism—and all sacraments, for that matter—are much more than the moment of celebration. They neither begin nor end with the liturgical ritual. They are celebrations of lived experiences. They exist before, during and after the celebration.
The ritual of Baptism does not bring God's love into being as if that love did not exist before the ceremony. Baptism is the Church's way of celebrating and enacting the embrace of God who first loved us from the moment of our conception. Baptism is a ritualization and manifestation of something real—of the outpouring of God's Spirit and of our acceptance of that transforming love. It remains for us to grow into what we already are: daughters and sons of God. Baptism celebrates a family's and a community's experience of that love in the baptized.
There are other life experiences—birth, death, washing, growing and so forth—that are celebrated in Baptism. The sacrament is multifaceted, as is revealed in the Scripture references and the symbols of Baptism. Let's look at these symbols and the Scripture passages from which they originate.
Water is the obvious symbol that we associate with Baptism, representing life, death, cleansing and growth.
Water and Spirit are strong and important symbols of Baptism. To be baptized is to be plunged into the waters and to open oneself to the Spirit of Jesus. To be baptized is to have the Spirit help us make order out of the chaos of the sinful world into which we are born. To be baptized is to be welcomed into the Church (the new promised land) and to be nourished there as we journey with each other and with Jesus in his ministry.
To be baptized is to be given new birth and new life (John 3:5). It is interesting to note that some of the early baptismal fonts had the shape of "a womb," to emphasize the new birth/new life aspect of the sacrament.