Renew your membership

Last week we were invited to Jesus’ Baptism, how nice. The Baptism of the Lord shows up in all of the Gospels, but the evangelists must have asked themselves, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” Matthew’s Gospel brings this to everyone’s attention with the little dialogue where John the Baptist asks Jesus, “Shouldn’t You be baptizing me?” Even though it occurs Liturgically after the celebration of Jesus’ infancy, it wasn’t an infant Baptism, nor was it held after a process of preparation and rituals that brought Jesus into an ecclesial community. The Baptism of Jesus closed the chapter on His private life and thrust Him into His public ministry, but not before He went into the wilderness to grapple with the evil one for 40 days. Even though the ritual of Baptism is as ancient as our Church, Jesus had something much bigger in mind for us when He brought Himself to John. 

Baptism is the Sacrament that launches us into the Christian faith, or stated more clearly, to send us on the path of a Christian life. We know that Baptism is one of the Sacraments of Initiation, but what kind of initiation are we talking about? Initiation, on the one hand, is an action that makes something start, especially an important process or event. On the other hand, it can also be a ceremony by which someone is admitted into a group, organization or religion. While some would argue that Baptism is both, given the number of people who fade away from the Church after the Sacraments, maybe it is time that we place more emphasis on the starting of Christian life, rather than the membership in the community. 

Describing the Sacraments of Initiation as the means by which we gain membership in the Church drains them of their powerful effect. Baptism, and its soul-mate, Confirmation, are absolutely essential to our Christian identity. These Sacraments explain who we are and what we hope to become. We do not become something different on the day of our Baptism, we begin something special, unique, and demanding. If we want an understanding of what Baptism means to us, look at what it meant to Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes of us what it made of Jesus. 

After a person has been baptized with water, the celebrant says, “The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin and brought you to a new life through water and the Holy Spirit. He now anoints you with the chrism of Salvation, so that, united with His people, you may remain forever a member of Christ, Who is Priest, Prophet and King.” This is not easy to teach using theological concepts, but best witnessed by people who have embraced their Baptism. 

The little old grandmother who blesses her children’s children and prays for their souls, exercises her baptismal priesthood. The man who works long hours in a factory, uncomplaining as he offers the labor up to God, is priest for his family as he brings home the food for their table. The Hospice worker, whose ministry of presence heals the waning moments of life for the dying, is priest. The catechist who offers her time to share her faith in a room full of children dropped off for the hour, shares in Christ’s prophetic role. The prison minister, who brings the Word of God into the darkness of their broken lives, is prophet to those living in despair. The activist, who confronts injustice and inequality, embraces the Kingship of Christ. The CEO who demands that the company act by the highest ethical standards, is sharing in the Kingship of Christ. 

Christians are made, not born. Even though our tradition of baptizing little babies belies this point, infant Baptism may be the perfect symbol of what the Sacrament effects. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us that Baptism is a precious gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own. 

It is not a self-help Sacrament, but the result of God’s intense interest in us. We were taught by St. Thomas Aquinas that “Sacraments exist for the sake of human beings,” but what this really means is that Sacraments are “intended to better humans as humans” (Bernard Cooke).

Jesus started a revolution when He was baptized by John in the River Jordan, and our Baptism is an initiation into that revolution. We are initiated into loving God with all that we are, to loving our neighbor, to witnessing the Good News, to uniting with other faithful Christians, and to growing in holiness and wisdom by following people of faith. If this is the club you wish to join, then it’s time to renew your membership.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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