Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Baptism

It is Holy Week for Christians, and though we do not observe it exactly the same way, we all rejoice at Easter, the holiest and most celebratory time in the Christian calendar. For Easter is the great event that caused St. Paul to muse:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56

For Catholics the Easter Vigil when we mark salvation history through myriad readings from Scripture beginning with Genesis, is especially sacred. For after months of preparation on their part, we welcome new members into the body of Christ through baptism. (In fact that period of intense preparation on the part of the Catechumens is how the forty days of Lenten preparation for the whole community originated many centuries ago.)

Before I speak of baptism, I want to share a joke one of our parish priests told at the beginning of a homily. The gist of it was this: St. Peter was giving a tour of heaven to a man, showing him all the many beautiful banquet halls where the faithful were gathered together, joyously eating and conversing with one another. St. Peter and the man then approached a closed door, and St Peter warned the man to be silent and to tread lightly.

"Why is the door closed, and why do I need to be quiet?" asked the man.

"Because," replied St. Peter, "the Catholics are in there, and they think they're the only ones here."

The priest said he wasn't just picking on us Catholics by telling that joke; one could substitute many different Christian groups. I have myself heard the judgments pronounced on various communities of Christians by their fellows.

Now we come to baptism. In Acts of the apostles we see quite a diversity of baptisms. There is the baptism of the multitude who heard Peter's speech at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-41). There is the unusual case of the Samarians who were baptized in the name of Jesus but were later visited and prayed over by Peter and John, so that they could receive the Holy Spirit who had not yet fallen upon them (Acts 8:14-17). Then there is the opposite event when Peter preached to Cornelius' household, and the Holy Spirit fell on all who were listening, and Peter cried, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?" (Acts 10:44-48). Later we read the account of the jailer, guarding Paul and Silas in prison, who asks what he must do to be saved. They told him, "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved." He and all his family were baptized immediately (Acts 16: 25-33).

Many of the baptisms we find in Acts happen quite quickly with little preparation except the inspired words spoken by the Apostles. And Scripture tells us that households and families were baptized together. I think we should reject the belief that we know precisely the proper time, place, age and manner in which someone else can be baptized, that we must understand fully the implications of our baptism. If it were necessary to understand the transformation fully before it took place, it could not take place for any of us. But after baptism? Ah, then the grace comes, and new wine can be poured into new bottles.

For the sake of dispelling some misunderstanding, let me share with you some of what Catholics believe about baptism. To do so I must briefly explain what we mean by the word Sacrament.

"The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us" through the work of the Holy Spirit. (From the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults)

Efficacious means they do what they are supposed to do.

Water is the ordinary matter of baptism, but it signifies a spiritual reality, that of dying to sin, being cleansed, and rising to new life in Christ. Baptism is necessary for salvation (John 3:5).  However, we believe "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by the sacraments" (CCC no. 1257). Thus we believe in a baptism of desire, such as that of a catechumen who dies before the Easter Vigil or that of anyone who would have desired baptism had they known its necessity, and we believe in a baptism of blood, meaning that of a person who dies for Christ before they can be baptized.

But what does baptism do? In it we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we become the children of God, co-heirs with Christ. Our sins are forgiven, and the stain of original sin is removed, though not its effect (Romans 7:18-25).

In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one, the many will be made righteous. The law entered in so that transgression might increase but, where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:18-21

Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more! I love that. As we will sing in the "Exsultet" during Mass this Holy Saturday night, "O happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!" Instead of living under a spirit of slavery to sin, through our baptism we are able to partake of the divine life, to live as children of God in a spirit of adoption, being "born again" through the Holy Spirit and led by grace in an ongoing conversion to the likeness of Jesus Christ, God's only begotten Son.

Who performs a baptism? Though a priest is considered the ordinary minister, anyone can baptize. The Catholic Church accepted my baptism and accepts the baptisms of other Christians. We do not re-baptize those who convert to the faith unless they have reason to believe that they were not truly baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism is done only once, a permanent change in our spiritual lives.

People have compared baptism to a membership card that allows entry into and participation in a church, as if church were some elite club for do-gooders. No, no. Please, when you see the word Church, understand Christian family; understand Body of Christ; and see the church built on the rock of Peter against which the gates of hell will not prevail.

Yet we do acknowledge baptism, as well as Communion, as the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was a sign of the old. Jewish babies were circumcised and thus brought into and instructed in the Jewish faith. Now we bring our children into the faith through baptism. Remember that when the jailer believed Paul and Silas' words, his whole family was baptized. Grace is always given in baptism; it is efficacious. Faith is first and foremost a gift from God, His call to us. Our response makes the circle complete, and grace is the foundation of our response.

But the Lord's mercy is from age to age, toward those who fear him.
His salvation is for the children's children of those who keep his covenant, and remember to carry out his precepts. (Psalms 103:17-18)

Parents are the domestic church, the first teachers of the love of Christ, and I think family is the most fruitful place to engender faith. My own dad talked to his children constantly about God. (Thank you, Dad!) I also firmly believe children can and do have real faith. I had faith in Jesus as a child. I spoke long and often about my love for him and shared his words with my friends while at home or at school, a little evangelist. It often seems to me now that it was a more perfect faith, devoid of the pride, hesitation and fear I battle in adulthood. Perhaps this is why Christ said we must become like little children.

At the Easter Vigil a couple years ago, I was especially touched by the baptism of a young girl of about 10 years of age. Her father had formerly identified himself as an atheist; the mother had fallen away from her faith. But this little girl learned about Jesus from a teacher, and she desired baptism. Through her faith her whole family was stirred and blessed.

We should be very careful in pronouncing anyone's baptism invalid. People have told me that my baptism is invalid, because I could not have understood its significance when my dad dunked me in the cold creek by my childhood home at around eight years of age. One of my friends confided that fellow Christians declared her infant baptism invalid - despite the fact that she is living her faith. But I wonder if anyone would, in light of the incredible witness of her life, declare Mother Teresa's baptism invalid, performed the day after she was born - a day that she celebrated instead of her birthday.

Pope Francis called on Christians to remember and mark the day of their baptisms, just as Mother Teresa did hers. Though I remember little more of mine than a fear of being submerged in that creek water, each Easter I stand with fellow Christians to renew baptismal promises in solidarity with new Christians who are uttering them for the first time, renouncing sin and Satan, before they rise to new life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

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