Do you remember the day you were baptized? I certainly don’t remember mine. I was all of twenty-five days old when my Baptism took place, on January 4, 1953. It must have been a cold and quite possibly rainy day in Portland, Oregon, that Sunday when my parents, grandparents and godparents, who were my mother’s sister, Cecelia Greenwood, and my paternal grandmother’s brother-in-law, Phillip Laughlin, carried me into church and witnessed the Reverend John R. Laidlaw, pastor of our parish of Saint Charles, pour water over my head and baptize me, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It was as simple as that, along with being anointed with holy oils, and prayers being prayed, yet a profound change in me took place that day and is still taking place!
Why be baptized and what does it mean? According the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the Sacrament of Baptism, to which every human being is invited, is the basis of Christian life and the means by which life in the Holy Spirit comes about (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1213). And how is that to be understood? Basically thus: that by being baptized, people are freed from sin and become members of Christ, part of His Mystical Body, the Church. This a great mystery, and something much more than “paying dues” and becoming a member of a social organization or club.
In the Christian East, the Sacrament of Baptism is often called “Enlightenment,” meaning that those who are baptized are “enlightened,” albeit invisibly, as bearers of the light of Christ in their understanding of what is really important in life. Can an infant have that kind of enlightenment? No, but over time and by the action of God’s grace, those who have been baptized gradually come to know, love and serve God better and more completely all through life and right up to the moment of death.
Expressed another way, Baptism is both communion with Christ’s death and also a share in His Resurrection. In the Nicene Creed, which Catholics recite or sing at every Sunday and Solemnity Mass, we profess to believe in “resurrectionem mortuorum,” that is, the resurrection of the dead. This is the hope of all who have been baptized into Christ, a hope and promise of something that all who follow Christ should always long for and look forward to.
While most Christians are baptized not long after birth, many others, for one reason or another, receive the Sacrament of Baptism later in life, as a child, a young adult, an adult or even an elder or when near death. In other words, it is never too early and certainly never to late to become a baptized believer. I feel blessed to have been baptized as an infant, but that makes me no better than someone baptized at a later stage in their life.
At what ever point in one’s life Baptism is received, it is always accompanied by certain essential elements. These include proclamation of God’s Word from Holy Scripture, the Bible; acceptance of the Gospel call to conversion of life; profession of faith in God and the teachings of the Church; and finally, the act of Baptism, that is, the pouring on one’s head with water by the minister of Baptism or stepping into a pool of water, whereby the outpouring of the Holy Spirit occurs. These elements carried out by a legitimate minister of the Sacrament bring one into full communion with the Church.
How can a tiny child realize all that happens at Baptism? He or she can’t, of course, and that is why we have sponsors for the Sacrament, whereby they “stand in the place” of the infant, and speak on behalf of the child, until he or she can understand what has taken place and can put it into practice. But people who are baptized not as infants, but at some later moment in life, also have sponsors or godparents, who are willing to stand with and by the one who is baptized, to be an encouragement, support and help to the one they are sponsoring.
Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. No longer the child of the manger, Jesus has grown to manhood and embarks on the Divine commission entrusted to Him by His Father in Heaven. In preparation for this great work, Jesus joins others who have responded to the Baptist, who called for repentance, symbolized by the sprinkling of water in the river. In the case of Jesus, though, something wondrous occurs, the Gospel tells us, and “The Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and a voice from Heaven was heard: ‘You are my Son, this day I have begotten you’” (Luke 3:21-22).
By being baptized, Jesus was made ready in a singular manner to start off on His public ministry and along the way to the Cross. Jesus’ Baptism is the first act of His public ministry and an indication that He is the One who was promised to set all people free as the Holy Redeemer of humankind.
Saint Paul says of Jesus that, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus 3:5-7).
When all is said and done, the Baptism of Jesus and our personal Baptism, makes us members of one another, incorporating us into Christ, making us one people of the New Covenant, “which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races and sexes: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1267 and 1 Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians 12:13).
To all, I wish a joyous celebration of the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism this Sunday, January 13th, 2019. This year we might do well to recall the date of our own “Baptism anniversary,” and give thanks to God and all those who brought us to the “Fountain of Immortality,” the baptismal font, where we received “Enlightenment” as a baptized member of the Church.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB