I wanted last week to bring an early focus onto the Sacrament of Reconciliation — and indeed both last Sunday’s Gospel, today’s, and next Sunday’s all speak of the joy of being forgiven one’s sins by the Lord Jesus. In Lent, one of our prime concerns is to get to Confession: to experience the joy of having the Lord say to us, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”
But of course the Sacrament of Penance is not the initial place where sins are forgiven: that’s Baptism. Now, of course, many of us don’t think of it that way, as we were often baptized as such young babies that we’d committed no personal sins; and the only sin to be washed away at our Baptism was ‘original sin’ — the effects of our first parents’ sin at ‘The Fall’ at the dawn of human history. But, for an adult, Baptism is the Sacrament that truly washes away all sins committed prior to that time — hence the sign of water, that has as its principal significance the idea of washing, being washed clean, being made ready for life in Jesus.
Baptism was something new in Christianity; Judaism had various ablution rites, but nothing really akin to Baptism. There were events such as the Israelites’ Crossing of the Red Sea to escape slavery to Pharaoh, and the Crossing of the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land — these pre-figured Baptism, by indicating that salvation comes by God’s power over the water. St John the Baptist started to baptize, calling out the people to the River Jordan, where they expressed their desire to be forgiven by God. But it is only when Jesus Himself appears — when He immerses Himself in the waters of the Jordan before John — that the Sacrament comes into existence. When Jesus enters those waters, then the Holy Spirit comes upon those waters. No longer is it just a “baptism of water,” as John says, but it is now a “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” This is what we experience at the outset of our Christian lives. Whether we are 8hrs old, or 80yrs old, when we are baptized we enter a new life, a life in the Spirit. All mankind is called to baptism; every human being should yearn to have their immortal human soul crowned with the outpouring of God’s Spirit in Baptism. When we are baptized, a new relationship is born between God and us; not just a relationship of being alive (because already being alive we are in some sense children of God, made in His image and likeness); but once we are baptized we have affirmed, committed to, a deeper relationship with God: in which we are washed clean of any wrongdoing; we choose to love Him and serve Him in Christ Jesus; we wholeheartedly belong to, and contribute to, His family the Church. These are the blessings of Baptism, the gateway to a new and better life, a life lived not in the dark, but a life lives in the light of Christ.
Without Baptism, none of the other Sacraments could follow. Baptism is completed by the celebration also of Confirmation, and of the Holy Eucharist — together these form the sacraments of initiation. That’s why an adult being baptized receives also those other sacraments without delay: he or she is confirmed a few minutes after Baptism, and at the same Mass they will receive their first Holy Communion. It is only with youngsters that we choose to spread out those sacraments over a period of some years; but even so, Baptism should not be thought to stand alone — Baptism is completed and lived out by the further reception of Confirmation and ongoing celebration of the Eucharist.
It is an important thing that every Catholic should know, that in emergency anyone may baptize. Of course it is the normal thing for a priest or deacon to administer Baptism, but in case of necessity — such as a very sick baby — anyone may do so, and indeed should do so. At least one friend of mine, owing to circumstances, baptized her own daughter herself. One simply takes fresh water, and pours it over the head or forehead, saying NAME, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Of course, at a subsequent point, this must be explained to the priest, so that he can record the Baptism in the parish register.
So much follows from the joy of Baptism: the opportunity to share fully in the life of the Lord; indeed, as the old rite of Baptism says, in the answer to question at the beginning: “what do you ask of God’s Church?” “Faith” — “and what does faith give you?” “Eternal Life.” Baptism is the gateway to eternal life, the guarantee that, if we are baptized into Jesus and do not turn away from Him definitively in serious, unconfessed, sin, then we are destined without doubt to eternal happiness in heaven. Therefore we should make sure that all our children and grandchildren are, to the best of our ability, baptized — it is a tragedy if they are prevented from receiving the life-giving grace of God in their hearts. Let us truly thank God for those who brought us to Baptism, and showed us the true way to life in Christ, for the gifts and blessings are immeasurable, in this life, and in eternity.