You may have heard the term “maverick,” which in the days of the Old West meant an unbranded animal, especially a calf. The term was originally a man’s name: Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher who for some reason never branded his cattle. This meant that whenever one of them got loose, it could legally be claimed and kept by anyone who found it, as it had no mark of ownership. Some years later out West a young girl was baptized, and when she announced this at school the next day, her friends asked her why she chose this. She explained, “I was a little maverick out on the prairie. When I was baptized, the Jesus mark was put on me, and now everyone knows that I belong to Him” (David F. Burgess, Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, p. 23).
Baptism is our identifying mark—something well understood by the holy 12th century French king Louis IX, after whom our city of St. Louis, Missouri is named. He would sign his royal documents not “Louis IX, King,” but “Louis of Poitiers.” When someone asked him why, he explained, “Poitiers is the place where I was baptized. I think more of the place where I was baptized than of Rheims Cathedral where I was crowned [king]. It is a greater thing to be a child of God than to be the ruler of a kingdom; this [latter thing] I shall lose at death, but the other will be my passport to an everlasting glory” (Anthony P. Castle, Quotes & Anecdotes, p. 168). St. Louis’ point is a very good one: unlike earthly honor and possessions, this sacrament can have a lasting value. It is baptism that gives us our identity as Christians, and enables us to live forever in God’s presence.
Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by His cousin John. At this point in Our Lord’s life few people had yet heard of Him, but John was gaining quite a reputation as a prophet and a holy man; as St. Luke tells us, people were wondering whether John might be the long-awaited Messiah, or Savior. John corrected them, explaining that he was merely the servant of the One Who was to come. Almost immediately afterwards, Jesus arrived and requested baptism from His cousin. Our Lord, of course, was completely free of all sin; He Himself didn’t need baptism, but by humbly submitting Himself to this ritual, He transformed it into a sacrament capable of washing away original sin. Today there’s a beautiful site in Israel along the River Jordan where many pilgrims come to be baptized; there they are completely immersed in the water, as Jesus was. The Gospel tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, and God the Father announced that His favor rested upon Jesus, saying, “You are My Beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” The reason God was pleased was not only that Jesus was humbling Himself, and not only that He was accepting His mission and beginning His public ministry; the Father was also pleased that His Son had transformed a ritual merely signifying public repentance of sin into a sacrament cleansing those who receive it and giving them a new identity as children of God and members of His family.
Baptism gives us our identity as Christians; it’s our “passport” into Heaven. However, there are several important things we must remember. First of all, we must not take the sacrament for granted; it’s not magic, or an absolute guarantee of salvation. After all, it didn’t help two of the most wicked men in history, together responsible for immeasurable suffering and countless millions of deaths. Adolf Hitler was a baptized Catholic, and Josef Stalin was baptized in the Orthodox Church—but no one would claim either of them made it to Heaven. Grace refused is an eternal tragedy. We for our part must not become complacent and think, “I’ve been baptized, so my salvation is assured.” Many people have been baptized who might just as well not have been, for they live in such a way as to exclude God from their lives. Baptism gives us grace, but this grace can later be rejected or allowed to die.
This leads to the second point: the grace of the sacrament must be actively lived out. Baptism is only the first step of a lifelong journey of faith. If someone asked us, “Which sacraments are having an effect on your life right now?,” we’d probably say, “The Eucharist, of course—that’s what we’re celebrating at this moment.” I’d also answer “Holy Orders,” which made me a priest, and those of you who are married would say Matrimony. Some young people would say Reconciliation or Confirmation, which they’re preparing to receive within the next few months; there may be some who, due to old age or ill health, have received, or soon will receive, the sacrament of Anointing. The one sacrament which should continue to have meaning for all of us, however, is Baptism, for it is the first installment of God’s ongoing grace. Baptism makes possible all the other sacraments and the spiritual growth we’ve experienced. When we’re baptized, God “invests” His grace in us. It’s up to us to take this deposit of grace and use it, allow it to expand, and let it grow within us by continually living out our faith and putting it into practice.
Lastly, baptism must unite us; it must help us see and recognize through the eyes of faith the importance of all the people around us. If baptism makes us God’s children, it also makes all of us brothers and sisters, and all unbaptized people potential brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, we must be loving, forgiving, and helpful to others. The Church is not just a building in which we pray or an organization to which we belong; it’s a community of faith we enter through Baptism and in which we are meant to grow continually even as we grow in and share God’s grace.
We must not live as mavericks, pretending to be free agents while actually being subject to being claimed by this world or by the devil; rather, the mark of our baptism should be a sign testifying that we truly belong to Jesus and are subject to His authority.
We’ll never have our own earthly kingdom, as did St. Louis of France, but we’re each invited to live up to our royal dignity and thereby share in God’s Kingdom. It is baptism which gives us our identity as Christians. We must wear the grace of our baptism as a badge of honor; we must also fulfill it as a pledge to grow in God’s love and to share this love with the people around us.