A priest was once introduced to an Army officer who was a much-decorated war hero. The priest happened to know that the officer was a fallen-away Catholic, so he said to him, “Captain, as a fellow American, I’m proud of you. The medals you’re wearing show you’ve kept your vow to serve and defend the United States faithfully and bravely, and I thank you for that. Now, if you don’t mind, I want to ask you about whether you’ve kept your other vow—your baptismal vow—with a similar degree of faithfulness.” The officer suddenly looked embarrassed, and didn’t know what to say, so the priest continued, “Captain, you’ve often faced death and have remained firm in fulfilling your duty amid the chaos and danger of battle. How can you now be afraid of fulfilling your duty as a Catholic?” The officer was convinced by these words, and accepted the challenge; he went to confession, amended his life, and began attending Mass on a regular basis (Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 4, #247). Each of us, by being baptized, have also promised to put our faith into practice. If we’ve fallen short, Lent is an opportunity to set things right, and if we’ve been doing a good job, Lent is a chance to come still closer to the Lord. Jesus invites everyone to believe in the Gospel and to live as part of the Kingdom of God; nothing is more important than this invitation and commitment, and if we keep our baptismal promises, nothing will give us greater joy.
Promises are a very important part of God’s relationship with His people. In the days of Noah, God cleansed the world of sin by means of the Great Flood, but afterwards He made a covenant, or sacred agreement, with Noah and his family that never again would all bodily creatures be destroyed in such a calamity; the Lord put a rainbow in the sky as a reminder of this vow. St. Peter explains that “God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This,” St. Peter continues, “prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” In the sacrament of Baptism God cleanses us from original sin, welcomes us into His family, and offers us the gift of salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. We for our part express our belief in God, and promise to reject sin and Satan and live as faithful members of Christ’s Church. We human beings, however, because of our weakness and limitations, are often incapable of making such important promises and then following through on them perfectly and completely; we have to repent of our sinful failures and shortcomings, renew our commitments, and—using God’s grace—try again and again to live as we should. That’s why Jesus came preaching a message of repentance and fulfillment, and by His example of forty days of prayer and fasting, He shows one very practical way of working to overcome the effects of sin in our lives. Our weakness requires that we discipline our wills and strengthen our commitment, for only in this way will we be able to follow through on our baptismal promises.
Someone once counted all the promises in the Bible, and said there are a total of 8,810. Of these, 7,487—about 85% of the total—are God’s promises to us, and these are utterly reliable (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 645). There was a very devout, lifelong Christian whose deteriorating health confined him to home, but who nevertheless placed all his trust in God’s Word. When his pastor came to visit him, he noticed that in the margins of the man’s Bible the word “proven” was written over and over again; the man explained that he kept track of God’s promises in the Bible, and he wrote in that word every time one of them came true in his life (Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 320). We can afford to trust in God’s promises to us throughout our lives; one day we will be judged on whether we’ve kept our baptismal promises to Him.
Lent is a good opportunity for us to examine our consciences in this regard, to repent of our failures, and to use God’s grace in working to overcome our faults and weaknesses. For instance, do we struggle to resist the temptation to gossip? During these next six weeks Jesus can help us make great strides in conquering this fault—if it’s truly our desire to do so. Are we judgmental in our words and our thoughts, or guilty of usually assuming the worst about others? If so, the Lord wants this to be an important focus of our Lenten observances. Are we somewhat lax or lazy in fulfilling our spiritual and religious duties? This Lent can serve as something of a “spiritual boot camp” or refresher course on what it means to be a true Christian. Are we often too afraid to defend our faith or stick up for another person out of fear of how others might react? Jesus wants to help us find inner resources of courage and strength, but we must actively look for them between now and Easter. Do we struggle with lust, pride, greed, anger, or any of the other seven deadly sins? The Lord offers us these coming six weeks as a time of promise—a promise that He will help us conquer these temptations, if we’re willing to do our part.
All of us know the date of our birth—but do we also know the date of our Baptism? That, after all, is supposed to be one of the most important days of our existence, a day that changed the course of our lives. Our parents and godparents promised to raise us in the faith, and every year at Easter we personally renew these baptismal promises. How are we doing? Are we living in a way that shows our Baptism wasn’t just a formality, but a genuine commitment? Lent is a chance to review our efforts, make any necessary adjustments, and deepen and renew our promises to Christ—and if we make good use of this opportunity, our Easter celebration six weeks from now will truly be a foretaste of the new life awaiting us in Heaven, where every one of God’s promises is perfectly and completely fulfilled.