The Baptism of the Lord
Preached January 12, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
In our contemporary society we have become very accustomed to think in terms of ‘rights’. Justice ceases to be something that I owe to others but becomes the ‘rights’ that others owe to me. We have even reached the point where people think they have a ‘right’ to be happy. Well, if I have a right to be happy, then someone else must have the obligation to make me happy. That means if I am not happy, it is someone else’s fault. Then I begin to wallow in a pool of self-pity that, if the truth be told, drains into the fires of hell.
Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we are called to reflect also on the meaning of our own baptism. There is great power in baptism, but in general the life of the baptized does not seem to give much evidence of that power. There seems to be a great blockage somewhere and one thing is for sure, God is not to blame.
Baptism is a gift, not a right; so long as we remain immersed in the mentality of ‘rights’ we will not be able to grasp the beauty of the gift. If, however, we accept the gift, the waters of baptism will lift us up to the glory of heaven.
Catholic Tradition teaches us that Jesus through his baptism sanctified the waters of baptism for us; he set us an example, so that we might also be willing to undergo baptism; he also reveals in his baptism, not only who he is, but also what takes place in our baptism.
All of this works for the fulfillment of all righteousness or better ‘justice’; it is necessary for the establishment of the right order of things in the human person, in human society, and in the whole cosmic order. Basically, when human affairs are not ordered to God, there can be no true justice; without baptism, our life cannot be rightly ordered to God.
Today, I want to focus on the necessity of baptism, which will also reveal the chasm that separates the mentality of ‘rights’ from the reception of a gift. No one has a right to happiness, especially not to eternal happiness.
After his resurrection Jesus commanded his Apostles to go to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; he commanded them also to proclaim the Gospel and to teach them all that he commanded. (cf. Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15) He declared: He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. (Mk 16:16)
To put the matter simply, faith alone is not enough, baptism is also required for eternal salvation. This strikes us as perhaps strange or unfair.
Some brief clarifications will be helpful.
We should know that the Tradition of the Church, besides baptism of water recognizes also “baptism of desire”, which involves the real desire (at least implicit) for baptism and “baptism of blood”, giving one’s life for faith in Jesus Christ.
When it comes to unbaptized infants, God really has not given us any clear knowledge. We know that no one is condemned to the pain of hell except through his own fault. Otherwise, while hoping that God might provide some means for the salvation of unbaptized infants, we must take seriously the urgency of baptism as the only surely known means of salvation.
In order for anyone to attain eternal salvation he must be united to Jesus Christ and in some way become a member of his ‘body’, his ‘Church’. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, the only way we know for sure that this happens is by means of baptism. Further baptism is only the beginning of salvation, the gateway. The seed that is planted must be cultivated, grow, and bear fruit. We must follow up on the gift of baptism by fidelity to the baptismal grace, obedience to the law of Christ, and persevering to the end in the faith of Jesus Christ. (cf. Mt 24:13)
But why is baptism so essential?
Because salvation belongs to what is called the supernatural order, the order of the Kingdom of God, and so depends entirely on God’s disposition and that is how God has arranged things.
What on earth is the supernatural order? It is a great gift that we must learn to esteem and receive on God’s terms.
Let me explain.
Man, like any other creature was made by God with a determinate nature, which is revealed in specific sorts of action, having specific purposes, through which the creature reaches its fulfillment, or achieves its purpose. The nature of something is revealed most of all in what a thing does. One thing that is very characteristic of human beings is that we speak, and speech is properly an expression of thought, and thought is ordered towards the knowledge of truth, but our natural capacity for knowledge is evidently very limited. Nevertheless, we are also capable of being taught and we are capable of believing a teacher, even God.
To the point: No created nature, angelic or human, by its own power, is capable of knowing God as he is in himself, but is only capable of knowing God through the things he has made; no created nature is capable by its own power of knowing that God is the Most Holy Trinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; no created nature is capable on its own of sharing God’s own life of knowledge and love; finally, no created nature is capable of uniting itself eternally to God. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed him. (Jn 1:18)
This is not something that is owed to us.
Nevertheless, God has created us for this very purpose: to share his life of knowledge and love, to come to know him, the Most Holy Trinity, as he is in himself, and so be united to him forever in eternal happiness. This is the supernatural life, altogether above and beyond nature. This truth can only be received through faith in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. (Jn 14:6)
Our very existence, in the first place, is a pure gift of God; the supernatural order is a second most extraordinary gift, over and above the natural order. God invites us to share in his own life and knowledge, to enter into the supernatural order. He gave the power to become children of God to those who believe in his name. (Jn 1:12)
Once we grasp that, then we can also grasp that the supernatural order to which we are called does not emerge from the natural order that we are familiar with, as though it were a further stage of ‘evolution’, that could perhaps be predicted beforehand once a person grasps the process. We can only know about the supernatural order because God makes it known to us. Hence faith is required at outset; otherwise, we are literally in the dark as to the supernatural order; we can only receive supernatural life as a gift; and we can only receive the gift on the terms it is given.
These terms are basically that we must be united to the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, our Savior and Redeemer. This takes place through faith and baptism. When we were baptized the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon us, and the Father declared, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.
We came to share in the supernatural life by sharing in the life of Jesus Christ, by being incorporated into his Body, the Church. This supernatural life is the very same as what is called the life of grace; supernatural life and sanctifying grace are one and the same. While Jesus won this new life for us through his death on the Cross, baptism is the means God chose to connect us to the Cross so as to receive this new life.
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Rm 6:4)
Nor should we think that this means we have a ‘two-tiered life’, the natural life on the lower story and the supernatural life on the upper story. Rather, the supernatural life must enter into, heal, transform, and elevate the whole of the natural life of man; the life of grace must become as perfectly integrated with our natural human life, as was the life of God and man in Jesus Christ. Or, if we think of the miracle at the wedding of Cana, our natural life is like the water that needs to be transformed into the supernatural wine of divine life.
One way we can get a glimpse of what this means is by considering the words of our Lord, Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. That ‘doing it for Jesus’ needs to become intentional. We must learn to do things both for the person in front of us, and for Jesus, in that person; we need to learn to recognize the presence of Jesus in the other.
Finally, this baptismal life is not a treasure to be hoarded, but a gift to be shared, that grows in the sharing. While today missionary work seems to have been reduced to little more than social work in underdeveloped regions of the world, the missionary impulse used to be motivated by Christ’s command, Go to all nations, baptizing them. (Mt 28:19)
The vast regions of the Northwest witnessed the missionary zeal of the Jesuit priest, Fr. Pierre de Smet, zeal for the salvation of souls though baptism. In 1840 Fr. Pierre de Smet first visited the Flathead Indians and a year later established St. Mary’s Mission among them near what is now Missoula, Montana. Through 1846 he travelled the vast wilderness regions of what are now Montana, northern Idaho, Easter Washington, British Columbia, and Alberta, going among the Flatheads, the Pend d’Oreille, the Nez Perce, the Kalispell, the Kootenays, and others, preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and establishing missions. He was welcomed and much loved among these peoples, who at the time wanted to hear about God and wanted to be baptized, so as to live with God in heaven. It is safe to say that Fr. de Smet would never have undertaken those rugged dangerous journeys except that he believed that the salvation of souls was at stake and that baptism was necessary for salvation. Once, two years before this parish was established, he passed through The Dalles, bewailing that he had no time to stay and preach the Gospel to the tribes then resident at the end of the Oregon Trail.
For ourselves, we need to recognize the gift we have received in baptism, ask the Lord to remove whatever in us blocks the supernatural life, and do whatever is in our power to cooperate with the grace of God. Then as the baptismal life begins to transform us, we too will be filled with the holy zeal of the love of Jesus Christ.