Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of
Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at
Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the
Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow
we begin good old Ordinary Time.
When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying
baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again
in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is
beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark
10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536).
John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without
being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism.
Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of
preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of
Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the
work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16).
This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What
about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called
limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never
been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and
said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on
us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is
not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have
not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see
getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they
drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the
practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people
being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people
that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of
the most heart-breaking things about being a priest.
How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out.
“What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not!
How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through
baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).”
Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is
meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their
meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us,
holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our
faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus
Shock gets deep into this.
A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?”