Bottom line: From the early Christian writers we can learn seven essential teachings about Baptism.
Last Sunday I mentioned Niels Steensen, also known as "Steno." He is considered the "father of modern geology." In addition, he was a pioneer in the study of human anatomy. As a young man, Steno converted to Catholicism, became a priest and eventually served as a bishop in Northern Europe. Along with being brilliant scientist, he gained a reputation for piety and care for the poor. On October 23, 1988, Pope John Paul II beatified Steno. This Tuesday, January 11, is Blessed Steno's birthday. This is a good week to learn more about this remarkable man. To get started, I encourage you to read Alan Cutler's popular science book about Steno titled, "The Seashell and the Mountaintop."
Now, for the homily: Today is the first Sunday of Ordinary Time. We inaugurate Ordinary Time by celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus was baptized. He considered baptism so important that - even though he had no personal sins - he nevertheless submitted to the baptism of John.
Because of the importance of baptism, I would like to give a brief summary of our teaching regarding the sacrament. I do not want to give my personal theories or preferences. What I want to do is to give the basic Christian teaching - the teaching handed down to us from the earliest times. To do this I will rely on William Jurgens marvellous three-volume compilation titled, "The Faith of the Early Fathers." With abundant quotations, Father Jurgens lists these basic teachings:
1. Baptism is a true sacrament intiated by Christ. The Church Fathers cite Scripture verses such as Mt 28:19 and Jn 3:5 to show that Baptism as a Sacrament comes from Jesus himself. Strictly speaking, John's baptism is not a sacrament but a ritual that involves repentance and a symbolic cleansing bath. Jesus would take John's basic ritual and transform it into a true sacrament.
2. Baptism can be done by immersion or infusion, that is, pouring water over the head. Complete immersion has a richer symbolism, but infusion is equally valid.
3. In the form of Baptism it is essential that there be a distinct expression of God as One and Three. For validity, the person must be baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
4. Anyone using the required matter and form - and having the intention of baptizing - can validly confer the sacrament. He does so licitly, however, only in the case of necessity. The normal minister of baptism is the deacon, priest or bishop.
5. Baptism is necessary for all in respect to salvation, whether they be infants or adults. The early writers, like us, had theories about those who - through no fault of their own - did not receive baptism. Still, they were firm in maintaining the necessity of baptism - that it is the only means given by Jesus to enter everlasting life.
6. Even infants are capable of receiving Baptism. From earliest times Christian writers testify to practice of baptizing the children of believing parents.
7. The effect of Baptism is spiritual regeneration. The baptized person is reborn by receiving remission of every sin and the infusion of first grace.*
As you can see, from the early Christian writers we can learn seven essential teachings about Baptism. The Church Fathers have much more to say. I encourage you to get Jurgen's anthology or other books about the early Church, such as the ones by Mike Aquilina.**
I would like to conclude by letting one of the writers speak for himself. This is what Gregory of Nanzianzus said about the Sacrament:
"Baptism is God's most beautiful and magnificent gift. . . .We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God's Lordship."***
*One of the wonderful things about the Narnia books is how C.S. Lewis presents powerful images for baptism. For example in the Dawn Treader Aslan tosses Eustace into a pool after removing his dragon nature. The movie leaves this out, but it does show Eustace helpless to tear away his dragon flesh on his own power. He needs Aslan to do that.
**If you look these books up on Amazon, the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section has good suggestions for other books on the Fathers.
***Oratio 40, quoted in the Catechism, #1216
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