Necessity of Baptism

(Feast of Baptism of Lord)

When we baptize a child, we begin with the "rite of reception" or welcoming. After making sure the parents and godparents recognize their responsibilities, the priest (or deacon) traces the sign of the cross on the child's forehead and says "Michael, Heather...the Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I now claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of the cross." In other words "you belong to us--and we belong to you." That is the rite of welcoming. The same happened for our adult catechumens a few weeks back in a more elaborate ceremony. They received the sign of the cross not only on their foreheads, but their eyes, ears, lips, shoulders, heart--and even their feet. They were accepted or welcomed as catechumens.

As we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry, I would like to first focus on that key element of welcoming--not just for children and adult catechumens, but for everyone who comes to us. Welcoming is also called hospitality. I believe we're pretty good at it here at Holy Family. One of the things that makes me proud as pastor is when I hear newcomers say they felt at ease and accepted.

Still there are areas where we can improve, in fact hospitality is tricky. Part of the problem is that hospitality often means different things to men and women. It's one of those areas that easily leads to confusion. I think for men hospitality is more about giving people "space," not intruding. While for women it more involves attending to other person, taking care of them. I've noticed that in my years visiting homes. Sometimes when I come in, I'll be standing talking to the man, kind of waiting for him to offer me a chair. Meanwhile his wife has gone into the kitchen to prepare me something to eat. The husband might be thinking, "well, if father wants a seat, he knows what chairs are for." And his wife is anxious to serve some food, but I may have already eaten.

Now this same kind of confusion can happen in a parish. There might be people standing who need someone to offer them a place--or show them where the school hall is or the bathroom for their child. Those of us who want to avoid "intruding" have to overcome our reluctance and approach that person.

At the same time, we don't want to smother. I know a guy who doesn't like to go to Mass because people reach for his hand during the "Our Father." It's somebody I know pretty well, so I told him, "oh you're crazy!" He said, "maybe I am crazy, but even crazy people should feel comfortable in church." He had a point. There are certain things we should all do together, like our times for standing, kneeling, sitting. But there are times where we need to respect the other persons liberty. If a family or some friends want to join hands during the "Our Father," that's great. But others might want to lift up their hands like the priest does--or just stand with hands at their sides. Part of our hospitality here at Holy Family is respecting each person's uniqueness, especially in that delicate area our of intimate relation with God. Greg McNabb has great reflection on that in this Sunday's bulletin.

Baptism is the sacrament of welcoming. It says, "you belong to us--and we belong to you." At the same time we do not absorb you; we respect your dignity. In fact by baptism we realize our true individuality. I picture it like a group of children who have been playing on a muddy field. They become completely covered with mud and dirt, so that you can hardly tell one from another, even the boys from the girls. It isn't until their mom says, "It's time to wash up," that you can really tell who is who. Baptism washes us of the original and personal sin which covers us, makes us one lumpy mass. It joins us to Jesus and in him our true individuality, our true dignity shines out.

By baptism you are a son of God, you are his own beautiful daughter. I remember once hearing about this man who used to call a certain girl "princess." Someone said to him, "don't do that. You will make her conceited." But he said, "Do you know what a princess is?' They said, "Sure, the daughter of a king." In fact, that is the dignity God gives us by our baptism. It washes away the condemnation that hangs over us because of sin.

People often ask, "Why was Jesus baptized?" After all, he had no sins, not even original sin. Why would he put himself in a line of sinners to be baptized. The Fathers of the Church always answered that Jesus was baptized not for his sake, but for ours. He wanted to show us the importance of baptism, in a sense to be baptized for us. So the voice that Jesus heard from heaven in some way also applies to us, "You are my Son, my beloved. My favor, my affection rests on you."

Last year one of my nieces had her first child. The dad is just wonderful young man. I remember coming by a room where Bob was alone, holding his little daughter, completely absorbed in looking at her. What Bob was doing for Rachael, God at every instant is doing for you and me. You might say God is spending all eternity contemplating you. And his attention is never divided. Even tho he has lots of children, he focuses totally on you--with undivided affection. Not because we are so great in ourselves, but because of Jesus. "You are my Son, my beloved. On you my favor rests."

That voice was heard when Jesus was plunged into the waters of the Jordan. Here we meet a part of Christianity which is difficult for many people today. Many people are attracted to the an individualistic--"Jesus and me"--approach; they think God concerned only about their spirit or their soul--and not what they do with their body. The fact is Jesus also asks us to perform certain external, bodily actions to be incorporated into him. For example, he says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you will not have life within you." (Jn 6:53) He also states, point blank, "If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must be born again by water and the Holy Spirit." (Jn 3:5)

All this ca seem like real scandal to us--that God would tie himself, his grace, his gift of the Spirit to certain material substances--like bread in the Mass or water in baptism. Yet that is part of what the Holy Father is asking us to meditate on in this year of the Holy Spirit. We receive God's grace, the Holy Spirit himself thru the sacraments. He alone enables to overcome division--to achieve unity with God, with others and even within our own divided hearts. We just can't do it on our own power. We've all tried--and fallen on our faces. We need the Holy Spirit--the very Spirit we received in our baptism. That's why the sacrament is necessary for salvation. Jesus taught that. Biblical scholars note that every single book of the New Testament in some way speaks about baptism. And the Catholic Church has always taught the necessity of baptism. You can find it in the Catechism, paragraph 1257--along with a discussion of baptism of blood and baptism of desire--as well as something on the question of children who die without baptism.

Most of that is speculation, but the really clear point is what Jesus taught by word and by example, that baptism is necessary for our salvation. This should give us a sense of urgency. Recently I was talking to a couple who had a month old child. I asked them what their plans were for her baptism. They said they wanted to wait until her first birthday, so she would wear a beautiful little dress. I said, "Great, but why don't we baptize her sooner and then on her first birthday buy her that dress and bring her to the church for a special blessing." They did agree. It's nice to have social events for a child, but the most important should be that child's baptism.

All this presupposes faith on the part of the parents. Right before the child is baptized the parents renew their own baptism--by renouncing sin and then saying "yes" to the apostles' creed. When they do that I like to tell the parents an incredible secret. There was a study done which showed that if parents went to Mass together each Sunday, they had a 50 times greater chance of their marriage lasting. Fifty times. If they go to Mass together each Sunday and pray together every day, even if it's just grace before meals or kneeling down in front of a crucifix at night, that marriage is practically indestructible. When we baptize a child we are really relying on their parents' faith.

It is true that sometimes faith is tested in hard ways, maybe by sickness or financial difficulties or even by marriage problems or abandonment. But once we've been claimed by Jesus in baptism, he always remains faithful. We belong to him and in him we belong to each other. Because of him we also hear the Father's voice, "You are my beloved son. On you my favor rests."


From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 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

(Plus pictures of Blessed Luis Magana's Granddaughters)

See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm

The Fiery Furnace

Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven


Some Good News on Teen Pregnancy and Abortion

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History

He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

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

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

Deflating Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Stephen Jay Gould: Gorbachev of Darwinism?

Test Tube Offspring Want to Know Father

Erickson vs. Bartell Drugs

Call No Man Father

What is Original Sin of Sex?

Bicentennial Man (Hidden Assumptions)

Bogus Knights of Columbus Oath

Ossuary of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus