The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord ends the Christmas Season. And it is appropriate that it belongs to the Christmas Season because this is another festival of birth just like Christmas Day itself.
Christ, though sinless, underwent baptism by John in the River Jordan so that He could take the lead and the Christian people could follow Him. The One through whom water was created sanctifies water and so enables it to become a sacramental means for the rebirth of the members of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church. (St Maximus of Turin)
Was for this ultimate and sacred purpose that God created water? Is Baptism the highest use of water; a use towards which all the other uses of water both give way and point?
The Sacrament of Baptism
Today is a good day to remind ourselves, or learn for the first time, about Baptism.
Baptism is the first Sacrament of our Christian life. It is the Sacrament on which our faith is based, and which grafts us to Christ and His Church, as living members. Together with the Eucharist and Confirmation it forms our initiation into the Catholic Church, which constitutes a single, great sacramental event even though it is distributed over time.
Some ask if Baptism is truly necessary for us to live as Christians and to follow Jesus? Is it not fundamentally a simple rite, a formal act of the Church, for naming a child?
The answer to this, is in the words of the apostle St Paul: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life’”.
Baptism is not a mere formality! A baptised child is not the same as a child who is not baptised; a baptised person is not the same as one who has not received baptism. Baptism is an act that touches the depth of our existence.
We are immersed in that inexhaustible fount of life that is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love of all history; and thanks to this love we are able to live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, sin and death, but rather in communion with God and with the Church.
No-one can baptise himself; we can ask for baptism, wish for it, but we always need someone to confer this Sacrament in the name of the Lord. This is because Baptism is a gift that is given in a context of the care and fraternal sharing of the Church.
In the celebration of Baptism we recognise the truest features of the Church, who is like a mother who continues to generate new children in Christ, in the Holy Spirit. (Pope Francis – Wednesday audience, Jan 5th 2014)
When we call a baptized person a child of God, we have to be clear what this means and entails. To do this we have to recall that we are children of God not by birth, not by our human nature, but by adoption.
Unfortunately, adoption has negative connotations in our society. It’s often been portrayed as less than ideal; sometimes evil. As well, the rise in abortion has seen a decline in adoption.
When the Church speaks of adoption, relying on what St Paul wrote in his epistles, she has in mind the practice of the Roman Empire “by which a child was transferred by solemn process of the law from the family of his birth to the family of his adoption. He was admitted to all the dignity and intimacy of a son born of the blood; he acquired a strict right to inherit; he identified himself with the traditions, the honour, and the interests of his new family.” (Sheehan, “Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine”)
It is in a similar way that the sanctifiying grace of Baptism transferred us from the family of mankind, who are creatures and servants of God, to the family of God. Thus we can be called children of God. We are sons in the family of God; sons in the Son, as St Thomas Aquinas most eloquently and succinctly put it. We have a claim on the affections and intimacy of God the Father in the same way as does God the Son.
This is the right and restored relationship given as a gift to us. It is the righteousness referred to by Christ in his words encouraging John the Baptist to proceed and baptize him.
This is what is necessary for salvation. This is what opens for us the life-long task of love and obedience towards Christ and His Church.
In his general audience last week Pope Francis began a series of catechesis on the sacraments and he began with Baptism, naturally.
The Holy Father commented that many of us do not know the date when we were baptised and, he asked, those present in St. Peter’s Square (and I include you here today) to find out the date of your baptism. Although you may not remember the ceremony, if you were baptized as an infant, to recall it each year as the date comes around is to remember what the Lord Jesus has done for you, and what great gift we have received.
Our baptism is not a mere event in the past. It is a reality now and has an effect in our life.