The waters of Baptism

We live in a Sacred place here on the South Coast of Massachusetts. Water defines us, employs and blesses us with its abundance. Ethnic cultures make a sacramental out of the oceans as they “take the cure” on the feast of the Assumption, incarnating the innate Sacredness of the element. The 19th-century philosopher Ludwig von Feuerbach once marveled at the Sacredness of water: “Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance.” The Sacrament doesn’t make the water Sacred, but acknowledges the innate power of its mundane sanctity.

It was no accident that the water used by John the Baptist became the vehicle of grace that Jesus handed onto His Church. The arid lands of ancient Israel demanded respect for the element. Misuse of water has a disastrous impact on society. We need only look a few miles to our west to see the effect of the mismanagement of water. The water shortage in the west has been called a slow-burning catastrophe that has been simmering for two decades. Even a deluge of rain cannot bring resolution to the drought that has dried up the Colorado River, caused wild fires, threatened geese, ducks, trees, and flora. The drought in the west is the perfect metaphor for what the Church is going through today as the number of children brought to the baptismal font continues to dry up. Children slide through the waters of Baptism as if at a sacred water park, through the font and out the door. They leave all filled with grace as the Church stands by helpless and confused.

The blessing that Baptism splashes on the heads of our young is no less extraordinary today than it was when Jesus emerged from the Jordan River. But our Baptisms are somehow incomplete, or maybe mismanaged. Parishes watch helplessly as families walk out the door; blaming them for leaving, skeptical when they return for more Sacramental grace. Maybe the consequences of our inability to gather families into our Church are not dire enough to motivate change. One very frustrated pastor from a gang-infested community lamented that he baptizes children and doesn’t see them again until their teen-aged funerals. He’s desperate enough to try anything, but no one is quite sure who bears the responsibility for those years in between.

Baptism is not an initiation into a club, but a birth into a family. Parishes are not just a collection of families, but one family with many Spiritual needs, not all of which are met with Faith Formation programs. The youth that go home to empty homes in dangerous neighborhoods need something from the parish to fill the void before gangs get to them. Working mothers that can barely afford adequate day care need a place for their children. The hungry need food, the elderly need companionship, the immigrant needs accompaniment, and on and on it goes. The Spiritual and the physical are not in competition but feed into one another as tributaries of grace. 

The Church can stanch the flow of souls that have been in a steady exodus for the past several decades. We have been coaxing families into being better at raising their children in the faith, better at managing their time, better at being parents, but they will be better served if we focus on the real world in which they experience grace and pain. We can learn from the inadequacy of the leadership out west in their approach to the drought. They cajole the people into taking shorter showers, shame them for washing their cars or running the water while they brush their teeth, but turn a blind eye to the agriculture and manufacturing industries that systematically drain 70 percent of the water from the aquifers. Rather than focus all of our energy and resources on telling families how to live, we must hold each parish accountable for a pastoral plan that accompanies their families from Baptism to adult life.

The water with which we baptize does not dry up after each Sacramental act. It is the element that Christ gave to us to nourish and cleanse the soul throughout life. The fictional pastor in the novel “Gilead” was struck by the profound effect of Baptism. “There is a reality in blessing, which I take Baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance Sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” Once we recognize the reality of Baptism, harnessing its power will come naturally, and our Church will need to prepare for the flood of grateful souls that will follow.

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

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