Issue 2: 12 Jan
A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ – Vol 2: Issue 2: 12:1:2021
The Baptism of the Lord and the watery grave
I like doing baptisms. It is a very special event in the life of a family, always a happy occasion, usually without the drama that often surrounds weddings. Sometimes, however, I am the second priest the parents come to see about doing the ceremony. The first priest has given the parents a grilling: are you going to return to the practice of the faith? Are you going to become registered and a paid-up member of the parish? Will you be sending the child to a Catholic school? Some parents are even told that unless you attend the parish’s baptismal course or preparation evening then you cannot have your baby baptized. Nonsense!
While formation is desirable, even the Church’s law states that Catholic parents have a right to have their children baptized if they reasonably ask for it, have the right intention, are not prohibited from receiving this Sacrament because they have been baptized before, for example, and that there is a “realistic hope” that the children will be brought up in the Catholic faith.
Sometimes some parents are not very articulate about why they want to have their baby baptized is insufficient grounds for them to be rejected. They may have a vague sense that it is a good idea, or be sincere in doing their best in raising the child Catholic, or doing it because Nana said they had to! Regardless of where you start the process does not matter; it is all about where God can finish it.
Sometimes I am also the second priest seen by a couple who wants to get married. The first priest has for example found out that they are living together and so gives them a hard time, saying, “Well, we cannot do your wedding until you stop living together, stop having sexual intercourse and make a good Confession.” Some of those couples walk out of that parish office right into the arms of a civil marriage celebrant. Sometimes they come and see me. I see these parents and couples because I live by a very easy principle: I baptize anything that moves; I marry anything that moves, and I bury anything that doesn’t!
Don’t tell some priests this, but they do not own the Sacraments. Christ does. This is rock-solid Catholic sacramental theology. Christ baptizes, marries, confirms, forgives, ordains, anoints, and hosts us all at the Eucharist. I may be administering the Sacrament in Christ’s name, but Christ is the actor. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the good order of Sacraments. I am not liturgically cavalier, but last time I checked the Gospels, Jesus was never stingy with his presence and went after those who lived at the fringe of his society drawing them into the life and mercy of God through an encounter with this presence. That’s one of the things Sacraments are a direct encounter with the presence of Christ, who went to those who did not fit the neat religious categories of his day. If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!
Because of the Baptism of the Lord, we are all baptized into the life of Christ, and there are three things I think we should celebrate in regard to this great feast.
Even though it is often our Catholic instinct to say that the Eucharist is our most important Sacrament, it is in fact Baptism. Done only once in a lifetime, baptism is the gate through which we are offered all other sacramental encounters with Christ and initiates us into the life of the Church, for it is one Christ, one Faith, and one Baptism.
Baptism is also our most ecumenical sacrament. If you ever wanted to belong to the Orthodox, Episcopalian or Anglican, Lutheran, United and Uniting, Continuing Presbyterian or Methodist churches, you will never be re-baptized, and even in the worst days of sectarianism, the Catholic Church never re-baptized anyone. We received other Christians into full communion with the Catholic Church. The only two mainstream Christian denominations who will re-baptize are the Baptists because they do not hold to infant baptism. They dedicate children and argue that baptism should be an adult decision. The other group is the Pentecostal Christians because they argue that only a full immersion baptism is valid.
It is true that the Greek word, bapto, or baptizo, means to “to wash” or “to immerse” and so full immersion better represents what it intends, namely representing Jesus’ tomb. We now encourage the full immersion of adults and children. In this context, we can see that the deeper the font and the fuller the immersion, the more easily everyone present understands the power of the symbols. That said, it is strange that groups who want to be so biblically literal about the amount of water used at baptism are not literal about the place of the water: the River Jordan. So volume matters, geography doesn’t.
The third stunning element of baptism is related to the second: the action of plunging our adults and children into the watery tomb of the font three times. And as we do we call on the Trinity to enable them to die to sin and rise to the freedom of Christ’s life. Understandably, many people think that, because we call on the Trinity while we do the action with the water, the triple movement is all about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, the triple movement symbolizes the three days Jesus spent in the tomb.
We are the only world religion to believe that God took our flesh and died. For just as Jesus went down into the water and rose out of it into a fresh outpouring of the Father’s love for him, and, later as he goes down into the tomb of human death and the Father raises him to new life, then so we go down into the watery grave so as to rise to a life of being both loved by God and being invited to live a life worthy of eternal life.
The first baptism at which I presided was for my niece Emily. I was fresh out of theological college and gung-ho for full immersion baptism. My uncle, who was a priest, and my family’s local pastor, had recently built a new parish church with a full immersion font. My mother did not think it was a great idea. “Why would you distress that child so much with this unnecessary fuss? You always go overboard!” she said. That night, while doing some baptismal preparation at my brother and sister-in-law’s home, I got the sense they did not think full immersion was necessary either, so I played dirty. “Peter,” I said, “you have to know that Mother thinks full immersion is a terrible idea.” “Good,” he replied, “we’ll do it then!”
On the day, at the big moment, I took Emily in my arms and said, “Emily Therese, I baptize you in the Name of the Father” and lowered her in and out of the warm water. She thought it was a bath. “And of the Son,” repeating the action. “And of the Holy Spirit,” but this time I cupped my hand and gently poured some water over her head as well and with that, a little of the water went into her eye and she let out a huge scream. My mother jumped up from the first pew, “I told you this was a stupid idea.” To which my brother sharply retorted, “Mum, will you please sit down and shut up.” I tell that story to console you just in case you think you have a dysfunctional family. We have family fights at baptisms.
There are no half measures about immersion, we are in their boots and all. Because of the Incarnation and the Lord’s baptism by John at the Jordan we don’t have a detached God, who only presides over us. We don’t have a coaching God, who sits on the sidelines barking orders at us on the field of life. And we don’t have a policeman God, who wants to catch us breaking the rules. We have a God who, in Jesus the Lord, immersed himself in our world, heart and mind, soul and divinity, boots and all.
For all those baptized in Christ, a curious thing happens. As Jesus fully immersed himself in our world, so we are fully immersed in Christ. But we are not spared from the world as if we are initiated into a reclusive religious sect. Just as Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his public ministry, so too, we are sent out to the world knowing that even though we sin, we are loved by a merciful God and are pleasing to him. We are sent out to immerse ourselves in the world and discover that Christ has gone ahead of us and dwells there too.
Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Hatch, Match & Dispatch: A Catholic Guide to Sacraments. Paulist Press. 2019.