Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. A feast like today’s brings a number of questions to mind. First… what is Baptism?
Well, it’s one of the seven Sacraments, which are Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Baptism is counted among those Sacraments that can only be validly celebrated one time; once a person is baptized, that person is baptized forever.
Baptism leaves an indelible spiritual mark upon the individual; Baptism is the first sacrament, and is the gateway to the other sacraments. An individual is baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit — that is the baptismal formula that Christ Himself gave us. If you ever hear someone attempting to baptize in the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sanctifier or using any other formula than the one Christ gave us, that is not a valid baptism. The person is not baptized.
Baptism forgives sin, including original sin, although it does not remove the effects of it.
Baptism imparts sacramental grace. Baptism forgives sin, including original sin, although it does not remove the effects of it. Baptism prepares the soul for life in Christ. Baptism is a beautiful gift that Our Lord gives us to wash us clean and make us fitting for Him.
So, with that admittedly brief but hopefully functional understanding of Baptism, we’re ready to ask the next question: Is that why Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan?
Nope. Of course not. Don’t be silly.
If the purpose of Baptism is to wash us clean and make us fitting for God, then it makes no sense that Jesus — who is God — would require that sort of Baptism. John baptized with water alone; in Christ we are baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. The sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit is infused into our soul and has the power to justify us, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through Baptism. (CCC 1987)
That justification is what we need; Christ, however, did not need it because He didn’t lack it. He already had it in its fullness, and even if He didn’t it would have been impossible for John to give it to Him. The creature cannot justify the Creator.
So why, then, was Jesus baptized? If Baptism washes away sin and Jesus was without sin, what could He possibly have had that needed washing away?
The answer, of course, is nothing. So why did He do it? Simply because Jesus loves us and wants us to have the very best.
It is through baptism with water and the Holy Spirit that Our Lord forms us into the people of His Church — and that is what we are. Baptism initiates us into the Church, and the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. It is by being a part of the Church that we are a part of Christ.
But before He formed His Holy People into His Church, Christ first presented himself for John’s baptism of repentance and in so doing announced that He was identifying Himself with His people Israel and accepted upon Himself the burden of the people’s sins. It is through this acceptance on Christ’s part that He who knew no sin was able to become sin for the salvation of our souls.
Let that sink in for a second. In baptism, we are made clean. We enter the water dirty and come out clean. Christ was so spotless that He entered the water of John’s baptism and took on our dirt.
Then Christ comes up out of the water, and something amazing happens. Before the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God comes from Heaven, Mark tells us that “On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open.”
The heavens being torn open. Not the clouds part. Not a beam of sunlight descends. Not even a choir of angels sing melodically. The heavens are torn open. Torn open. It sounds violent. It sounds sudden. It sounds like the veil between heaven and earth is being ripped asunder… and it is.
Where else in the Bible does this happen? Where else is the curtain torn? At Christ’s crucifixion. When Christ dies on the Cross, Mark tells us that “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. The veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Torn in two from top to bottom, because it was torn by God… just as the heavens here are torn open. The veil between heaven and earth are torn open at Christ’s baptism; at His death, the veil between man and God is torn open. Christ isn’t content to be separate from His Church; He desires to be united with His Church, and so the veils that separate are torn away so that those who seek may find. In Baptism, Christ takes on the burden of His people. In His death, He faces the entire world, ready to accept all those who come to Him and who join with Him, for His yoke is easy and His burden light. In His resurrection, He conquers even sin and death and takes His rightful place as King.
Christ is the Head and His Church is His Mystical Body. We are incorporated into the Church through our own baptism. We are a part of it. We belong. Spiritually, we are in a very special place because of our baptism; we take on a uniquely Christ-like dignity at our baptism and in baptism we have a rightful claim to membership in the Body of Christ.
We shouldn’t, though, let ourselves believe that it is a free ride… or that this membership is a one-way street. It isn’t. It’s a two-way street, and in the Body of Christ you have rights and privileges because you have responsibilities. You have a right to a share in the salvific work of Christ; you have the privilege of eternal salvation and the beatific vision. These are not automatic. No one gets a free lunch. You and I have rights and privileges because we also have responsibilities to the Body and to the Church and to Christ, the Head of us all.
We have the responsibility to attend Mass on the prescribed days. We have the responsibility to fast and abstain from meat on the prescribed days. We have the responsibility to confess sins and seek to amend our lives. We have the responsibility to receive Holy Communion at least once a year. We have the responsibility to support the Church with time, talent, and treasure.
Those are the bare minimum. Those are the starting line. Do we have other responsibilities? Certainly. We are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to pray. We need to hope. We need to love. Ultimately, we need to trust in God, for in baptism we are incorporated into the Church so that we may be saved… just as in His own baptism, Christ took on the burden of His people so that we could be saved. In His baptism, Christ journeyed toward the completion of the responsibility He took on as our savior, and the power and glory of this event was attested by God Himself, who looked on and said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
It is not at all unreasonable to wonder if perhaps God says the same of us when we work and cooperate with His grace to fulfill our responsibilities as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.