The readings for the Baptism of the Lord (Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 John 5:1-9; Mark 1:7-11) raise the question: “Why Baptism?” “What does it do for us?”
Throughout the centuries many answers have been put forward. For instance when I was a young boy the chief reason given was that we were baptized so that Original Sin would be removed from us and we were thereby raised to the state of living in sanctifying grace. Other answers have been given over the years. Today the big emphasis is that we receive Baptism as one of the Sacraments of Initiation into God’s life, the other Sacraments of Initiation being Confirmation and Holy Eucharist. Baptism is the primal Sacrament. In it we are initiated into the life of God.
Related to Baptism is the question of why God sent His Son to us. Some Christians emphasize that God sent His Son to us to save us from our sins. They pretty much stop there. But as important as it is to us that Christ saves us from our sins, there is more.
Some Christians stress that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to us in order to tell us that He loves us. Well, true… but there is more.
Others tell us that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to tell us He loves us and tell us how we should live out of our lives. The bible, for them, is seen as a manual instructing us on our operational lives, a kind of operator’s manual of morals telling us how we should run things. Well, true… but there is more.
For us as Catholics living in this post-Vatican II era the important thing being emphasized is that God has come to us in Jesus Christ to share His very own life with us. As Catholics, we encounter God and receive His life into our lives in the Seven Sacraments. We are a sacramental Church; we are a communal Church in which we receive the life of God in the Body and Blood of Christ. We are integrated into and become an integral part of the Mystical Body of the risen Christ. This is so that God’s intention to live in union with us can be met. God loves us and wants to share His life with us and become totally a part of how we live, in all that we think, say and do.
Baptism, then, is a rite of inauguration or initiation, in which and through which we enter into a way of living. This is something quite beyond simply adopting a life-style. This is entrance into a way of living and sharing life with others and with God. We’re not talking about simply being nice. We’re talking about sharing the very life of God, His life within us, with others.
We could embark upon a whole course of study about baptism. Today, however, I want to simply present a few major aspects for your meditation and consideration.
Baptism gives you a new identity. You have a name in the family of God, the name given to you when you are baptized. God calls you by name and uniquely identifies you in who you are. You become a child in His family because you are His child in His only begotten son, Jesus Christ. This means you have a self-concept, a self-identity to develop… to develop in this world and then take into the next. How you see your self, the way you see your self and the context in which you see your self is, therefore, of the greatest importance.
You have a heavenly Father, a Father who is our Father, not just your father. Some Christians so privatize their religious lives that they cannot really share their heavenly Father with others. Baptism is incorporation into the family of Jesus. This means that religion is a we and Jesus enterprise, not just a me and Jesus endeavor.
Regardless of any difficulties we may have had in relating to our natural, earthly fathers, we need – each and every day – to get into deeper touch with our Father in heaven. No matter what emotional distance may exist between our earthly fathers and us, God our Father in heaven wants us to be intimate with him. He wants us to know him, to love him, and to be close to him. He wants us to work with Him to bring His creation into completion, to overcome all that is dislocated and chaotic in life and bring His peace, His order and His harmony into the world around us, no matter how dislocated our world may be.
Baptism, then, isn’t just a pretty ceremony that is perhaps a part of our family’s tradition. We don’t bring our newborn to church and have them baptized simply to please our parents and our grandparents. Nor is it something that is of a momentary character, as if everything happens when we’re baptized. No. Baptism is an initiation into a way of living, an inauguration into a lifetime adventure in which we try to love God and others in specific ways.
Turning the other cheek when we have suffered injury or hurt from another is not the way of this world. Being compassionate, considerate and caring is not a part of the dog-eat-dog world in which we live. Being gentle, mild, and self-restrained is definitely not the way of this world and the culture that surrounds us. Being self-sacrificing is something that this world regards as heroic and rare, not normal and every day. Getting to know God and being intimate with God in prayer and moments of quiet is something that is not high on the list of this world’s daily priorities. In fact, being openly and overtly Christian is not politically correct these days.
Jesus Christ began His public life when He accepted John the Baptist’s baptism in the river Jordan. Rising up out of those waters He was anointed by God’s Holy Spirit and shortly thereafter Jesus went back to His own hometown and to its synagogue. There on a Sabbath He stood up to read, “…and they handed Him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll He found the place where it is written:
The spirit of the Lord has been given to me; for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor.
Then He began to speak to them saying, “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” This was His initiation into His life among us; it inaugurated a life that led to suffering, crucifixion and death. But it was followed by resurrection into God’s life in heaven.
There’s nothing magical about baptism. It’s our own initiation into Christ’s life; our own inaugurating a way of living that is rejected by this world. Our own experience of rejection is but a participation in Christ’s. For if we would walk in His way and life in His truth, we must live His life…which has nothing whatever to do with magic, but has everything to do with living the life God has empowered us and called us to live. After all, fear is experienced in the absence of faith. No faith, no God. Baptism, however, puts us forever in the love of God and because of that we have nothing to fear because ultimately, no matter what happens to us in life, we will live forever in the caring love of God to whom we belong.
Baptism is much more than a pretty ceremony as I have said. It is a birthing into a way of living that is challenging, a life that will take us into the next life, a life this world know not of and cannot give us.
May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
REVEREND CHARLES IRVIN, or “Father Charlie,” as he is known, was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 6, 1933. He was raised and educated there, graduating from the University of Michigan’s Law School. After a brief career as an attorney he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1967. Shortly thereafter he began an eleven-year ministry at St. Mary’s Student Chapel in Ann Arbor. A rich variety of ministries followed including appointments to many advisory positions in the Church and three other pastorates. In the early 1970s he began writing columns for several Catholic newspapers in Michigan. In 1999 he was appointed founding editor of Faith magazine, published by the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan. Today, the magazine serves seven dioceses.