This past year a great deal of attention was given to the question of same-sex marriages, as we all know only too well. More attention will be given to these marriages this coming year as well. The fundamental question deals with the nature of marriage and how we are to understand it. Just what is marriage?
What is evident is the importance of the ceremony itself. The exchange of vows and their recognition by the laws of the state and their recognition by all is of great importance. The ceremony isn’t something that is simply “nice.” It is an event in which the status of the two individuals is changed. There is a legal and a civic change in who the individuals are both in law and how they are to be treated by the members of our society.
Likewise his past year a great deal of attention was given to question of immigration. More attention will be given to the problem this year as well. The fundamental question deals with the nature of immigration and how we are to understand it and the legal rights it confers. What is evident is the importance of the ceremony itself. The swearing of allegiance to the United States and its laws is of great importance. The swearing-in ceremony isn’t something that is simply “nice,” it is an event in which the status of immigrants is changed. There is a legal and a civic change in who the individual immigrants are both in law and how they are to be treated.
There are other significant ceremonies that have real and yet unseen consequences. Take for instance the swearing in of the President of the United States, or the oaths of office that are ceremoniously taken by judges, governors, mayors, and other civic officials such as officers in our military branches of service.
The question put to us today is the meaning of baptism. Is it simply a “nice” ceremony? What is the deeper significance contained within the Sacrament of Baptism?
Take water, for instance. Why is water the key element of baptism? We could spend the rest of the day considering the importance of water as presented in the bible, the Genesis waters of chaos over which God’s Spirit “brooded” to bring order out of chaos. Then there is the Flood and Noah’s Ark, the waters of the Red Sea that liberated the ancient Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, the waters of the Jordan through which the Jews entered the Promised Land, the water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ as He died on the Cross, and other instances of the importance of water. We cannot fail to note, too, that for the first nine months of our existence we lived in the waters of our mothers’ wombs. We were birthed in water.
What is of particular importance is the role of God’s Holy Spirit that was highlighted in today’s Gospel account (Mt 3:13-17) of John the Baptist’s immersion of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan River. St. Matthew reports: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Once again, as at the beginning of creation and throughout the history of our salvation, as reported in the bible, the Spirit of God is at work. That is the key to our understanding of what is happening when we are baptized. God is at work in His New Creation. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are reborn in the waters of the baptismal font, the womb of Holy Mother Church. Who we are is radically changed. We are changed in our very being; we are newly created in God’s love by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the recreating waters of Baptism.
Allow me to point out that immediately after the waters of baptism have been poured out over the person baptized, or after the persons rises from being immersed in a baptismal pool, the bishop, priest, or deacon declares: God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life. Then in silence the celebrant anoints the individual with Sacred Chrism, the Sacrament of the Holy Spirit. The word “chrism” is taken from the word “Christ,” which means “The Anointed One,” the one anointed by the Holy Spirit of God, chosen and elected, sent by God to bring His presence into our world.
I have presented all of these thoughts to you because you are not “nobodies.” Baptism makes you a son of God or a daughter of God. The world around you might regard you as insignificant, a mere “nobody,” but you are really special, really important, and of great significance in the eyes of God. Many of us from time to time may think we don’t amount to very much and that we are unimportant. But the truth of who you really are is found in the words of your Father in heaven. “This is my beloved son.” “This is my beloved daughter.” In baptism you became one of God’s sons or daughters in whom He is well pleased, chosen by your Father in heaven. And not only that, but like the disciples at Pentecost, you are sent, something that is confirmed when you received the Sacrament of Confirmation and were anointed by the Holy Spirit of God.
One again we need to realize that we don’t come to church simply to get something. We receive the Sacraments and we come to Mass to receive in order to be sent, sent into our world not to judge and condemn it but in the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem it. Our new pope, Pope Francis, stresses that repeatedly. His words are not addressed only to bishops, priests, and deacons but also to all who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer who makes Himself present in our world through you and me.
One last thought: How are we who have been baptized into Christ making Him present in our world? Baptism ought to make a difference; if it doesn’t then it may as well be simply a pretty ceremony, something that doesn’t change a thing in how we act and in how we treat others. Allow me to suggest that you might give it some thought. In our own uniqueness we each can have our own way in bringing Christ to the world around us. Just how are we doing that? How will you do that?