The Grace of Baptism

(Homily for Baptism of the Lord)

When the apostles chose a replacement for Judas, Peter laid out the essential qualification: “one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us.” (Acts. 1: 21-22) As the statement indicates, baptism was the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry. For that reason, after completing the Christmas season, the first thing we celebrate is the Baptism of the Lord.

Since John preached a baptism of repentance, Christians have always struggled with why Jesus allowed himself to be immersed in those waters. The Church Fathers, insisting Jesus had no sins to wash away, speculated that he allowed John to baptize him for two reasons. First he wanted to give us an example to underscore the necessity of the sacrament. The great Greek Father, St. Gregory Nazianzen stated it this way: “Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him and rise with him.” (PG 36, 350)

In the same homily St. Gregory presents the second reason: “He comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake.”

Baptism is thus a pure gift of grace, not a reward for our puny efforts to straighten out our lives. Rather it come to us through the merits of Jesus. For that reason, while we Catholics have always baptized adults, still we have not denied the grace of baptism to the children of Christian parents.

It is true the New Testament does not mention the baptism of infants, but neither does it mention children being raised in believing households, reaching the age of reason and then being baptized. Paul baptized a jailer and “all his family.” (Acts 16:33) Did that include children? We do not know. However we do know from the testimony of Church Fathers that in the earliest centuries, Christians had their children baptized.

The recent issue of This Rock (Jan 2002) lines up fifteen quotes from the Fathers regarding infant baptism. They include St. Ireneaus (A.D. 190) Hippolytus (A.D. 215) as well as Ambrose, Gregory and Augustine. None of them speak of infant baptism as a novelty, but rather as a practice from time immemorial. A typical testimony comes from St. Cyprian (A.D. 253):

"As to what pertains to the case of infants: You (Fidus) said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified with the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born." (Letters 64:2)

What a marvelous grace! In a true sense the greatest a human can receive because it brings adoption as a child of God and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity. To me the best movie about baptism is Tender Mercies. In it Robert Duvall plays a broken down, alcoholic singer, who is rescued by divine grace – in the form of a humble Christian woman. Together with her son he receives baptism. At a poignant moment in the movie, he sings to himself a hymn about the sacrament. I wish I had the voice of my friend Fr. Jim Coyne. He sings it beautifully. Allow me to at least read you some of the words:

Noah, he drifted on the sea many days.
  he searched for the land in various ways.
Troubles he had some, but he wasn't forgotten.
  He sent down His love on the wings of a dove.

When troubles beset us, when evils come,
  The body grows weak and the spirit grows numb.
When these things beset us, He doesn't forget us.
  He sends down His love on the wings of a dove.

When Jesus went down to the river to pray,
  he was baptized by John in the Jordan that day.
When those things were done, God blessed His son;
  He sent down His love on the wings of a dove.

(ON THE WINGS OF A DOVE by Joe Ferguson)

************

Versión Castellana

From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 2013: Generous Love
2011: Seven Teachings about Baptism
2010: Saved Through the Bath of Rebirth
2009: The Power of Baptism
2008: Road to Sanity
2005: Most Shocking
2004: With Whom I Am Well Pleased
2003: The Membership
2002: The Grace of Baptism
2000: Limits of Solidarity

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Wedding in Arandas

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Bulletin (New Kitchen, Listening Session, Visit from Armando, Parish Rumor)

Announcements

Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

Seattle Pilgrimage to Rome, June 7-13, 2010 Year of the Priest

Parish Picture Album

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