The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Every January as we end the Christmas season  and venture out into Ordinary Time, the Church celebrates the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. If you have ever wrestled with the significance of this mystery of faith, wondering why the Son of God would be baptized at all, you shouldn’t feel bad. Even Saint John the Baptist was taken aback, as we’ll hear on the 12th: John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” And yet it’s safe to say our Lord was right to insist: Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.

The giver of all good gifts

We have been taught that the Sacrament of Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and spiritual rebirth. For example, Question 621—“What is Baptism?”—from the old Baltimore Catechism would have received this speedy reply from generations of Catholic kids from sea to shining sea: “Baptism is a Sacrament which cleanses us from original sin, makes us Christians, children of God, and heirs of heaven” (at which Sister would have smiled approvingly).

But Christ was baptized, Saint Ambrose said, “not so that the waters would cleanse him, but so that he could cleanse them, purifying them by his sinless flesh to assume the power of baptism.” As Pope Benedict XVI once explained: “Basically, the whole mystery of Christ in the world can be summed up in this term: baptism, which in Greek means ‘immersion.’ The Son of God, who from eternity shares the fullness of life with the Father and the Holy Spirit, was ‘immersed’ in our reality as sinners to make us share in his own life…. Jesus’ first public act was to go down into the Jordan, mingling among repentant sinners…. The Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, while the Father’s voice from Heaven proclaimed him my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. From that very moment Jesus was revealed as the One who came to baptize humanity in the Holy Spirit: he came to give men and women life in abundance, eternal life.” Thus, we return to this sacred event each year as a divine assurance of what baptism accomplishes in us: “the tiny human being receives a new life, the life of grace, which enables him or her to enter into a personal relationship with the Creator forever, for the whole of eternity.”

In a word, Jesus’ baptism is what made our baptism do what the Baltimore Catechism said it would.

Ordinarily sublime

Admittedly, Ordinary Time does not present the great and evident themes of an Advent or a Christmas, a Lent or an Easter. The adjective “ordinary” may even suggest that this season is prosaic or drab. But there’s more here than meets the eye. Ordinary also means standard, habitual, day-to-day, normal, or even the authority someone has by office rather than special permission—which is why we refer to the “ordinary minister” of a sacrament, and call bishops and religious superiors the ordinary, using the term as a noun. They have power and authority to govern because of their state in life.

If the feast of the Lord’s baptism is the hinge on the door that swings open for Ordinary Time, then let us take it as a reminder of what it means to be a Christian: union with Christ is now our defining trait, “beloved child of God” is our state in life.

It has become common to speak of the universal call to holiness. Simply put, baptism is the reason. It’s why there is not a special vocation for special people (the saints) to intimate union with God, while the rest of us just schlep through life hoping to escape the clutches of hell. All of us are called to attain everlasting, beatific, ecstatic union with God in heaven. And baptism empowers us—it “authorizes” us—to do so. Indeed, the glory of heaven is nothing other than the grace of baptism in full bloom.

In words I’ll borrow from an old book called The Eternal Purpose, by Father M.M. Philipon, o.p.: “The commonest man and woman assumes a new status. Take the mother of a family, with her daily care of children and household duties. What truly divine grandeur she possesses! Her soul is the daughter of God! Or take a workman at his bench day after day. If in the depths of his soul he bears the mark of a Christian, he is a son of God, deserving to be saluted on bended knee.” No matter what one’s future prospects in the world might be, baptism means a “child’s worth is infinite. Not even the entire angelic world can compare with it. His worth is the worth of the Son of God himself. His price was the blood of a God. Such is the grandeur of man, seen in the light of faith.”

(True story: At the end of a Byzantine baptism I once ­attended, the priest stood at the front of the church and, with the baby securely in both hands, gave a blessing by making the sign of the cross over everyone with the baby! It was adorable and beautifully theological; I’ll never forget it.)

A good beginning, a good end

We are off and running at the beginning of another new year. We cannot predict the future—all the joys and sorrows, excitements and disappointments, that the next twelve months may contain. No, we can only take things one day at a time. But let us praise the Lord that, come what may, one thing remains perfectly clear: our eternal future.

Yes, Jesus was right. His baptism was fitting indeed.