Sunday, January 11, 2009

“The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it ‘the present’”: How These Words Apply To Baptism.

(Baptism of the Lord (B): This homily was given on January 11, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 John 5: 1-9; Mark 1: 7-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2009]

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

Fr. Dean Perri quoted that line in his Christmas homily a few weeks ago, as many of you will recall. He had recently heard it in the movie, Kung Fu Panda.

I mention it today on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, because, believe it or not, this well-known expression is also very “baptismal,” as I hope to make clear in a few moments.

There are, of course, a number of differences between the baptism that Jesus experienced 2,000 years ago and the baptism we experience as contemporary Christians.

His was the baptism of John; ours is sacramental baptism. He didn’t need baptism of any kind; we need baptism in some form to be saved. He in a certain sense “sanctified the water” when he received his baptism; we are sanctified by the water when we receive ours.

Jesus was baptized in humble submission to the Father’s will, not because he needed forgiveness for his sins—since he had no sins to be forgiven for! He was not a sinner; although he was willing to look like one by receiving John’s baptism in the Jordan that day, prefiguring what would happen at the end of his ministry, when he would once again look like a sinner in his death on the cross.

Which brings us back to that line from Kung Fu Panda, and its application to the baptism we receive today as Catholic Christians: a baptism that draws its power from the cross—and resurrection—of Jesus: The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

Take the first phrase: The past is history. We all have “a past,” don’t we? Some of us, of course, have a more colorful and eventful past than others. Do we appreciate the power of baptism to take a person’s evil past and consign it to the dustbin of history? In other words, do we appreciate the complete and total forgiveness that baptism brings to us? Many of us might not, since we were infants when we received the sacrament, and so we didn’t have any “past” to be forgiven for. But we still did suffer from original sin—that is, the lack of sanctifying grace—and that needed to be wiped away before we could have any hope of eternal life.

And besides that, in the years since our baptisms we’ve all been forgiven for a lot of sins in the sacrament of confession (at least I hope we have!). Well, believe it or not, at the root of that forgiveness is baptism! Remember, the only reason we can receive the forgiving grace of the sacrament of confession is because we’ve already received the saving grace of the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is the door to all the other sacraments; baptism makes confession possible.

If a person is not baptized, then it’s baptism they need, not confession. And when they are finally baptized all the sins of their past life are forgiven instantaneously—without ever being confessed!
That’s the power of this great sacrament! Not only that, even the temporal punishment due to their sins is taken away (which means that if the person dies immediately after repenting of their sins and being baptized, there’s no need to pass through purgatory).

Perhaps it’s adult converts like Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who appreciate all this the most—because they really have a strong sense of what they’ve been delivered from. Born in 1926, Dr. Nathanson, was raised in a Jewish family but eventually declared himself an atheist. Back in the 1970s, as many of you know, he ran the largest abortion clinic in the world, located on the East Side of Manhattan, where he presided over approximately 75,000 abortions.

He even killed one of his own children.

He eventually became pro-life, not because he had faith—he was still an atheist at the time—but because he finally came to recognize the scientific truth that the fetus in the womb is a human being!

However his past continued to eat at him. In spite of all the pro-life work he began doing, he had no peace. As he later said, "I plunged into a very serious, profound depression. I found myself almost unable to go to work. I was deeply troubled by what I had done in my life. Another marriage was falling apart, my son was emotionally disturbed. I was getting older, and as I looked back all I could see was the baggage of 75,000 little lives interrupted and destroyed, and a great deal of adult lives that I had damaged. . . .I reached bottom spiritually in those years. . . . [and I seriously thought about suicide]. I felt there was really no reason to go on."

His conversion happened over a period of time, with the help of a priest you see on EWTN every once in awhile, Fr. John McCloskey.

Finally, on December 9, 1996, he was baptized—born again of water and the Spirit—at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Cardinal John O’Connor officiated at the ceremony.

Dr. Nathanson described the experience in this way: “It was a very difficult moment. I was in a real whirlpool of emotion. And then there was this healing cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place. . . . For so many years I was agitated, nervous, intense. My emotional metabolism was way up. Now I've achieved a sense of peace.

“I can't tell you how grateful I am, what an unrequitable debt I have, to those who prayed for me all those years when I was publicly announcing my atheism and lack of faith. They stubbornly, lovingly, prayed for me. I am convinced beyond any doubt that those prayers were heard. It brought tears to my eyes.”

The past is “history” the moment a person is baptized. Dr. Bernard Nathanson definitely understands that; hopefully we do as well.

As for the future, that’s a mystery—for him and for all of us—as that line from Kung Fu Panda makes clear. On that note, I received an email a few weeks ago from a young EMT in his twenties, who was having difficulty dealing with the sudden death of a police officer in his town.
This police officer was also in his twenties, and died of an apparent heart attack during the previous night.

The young EMT was upset in part, I think, because this tragedy brought him face to face with his own mortality, and with the uncertainty of this earthly life. It is, indeed, a mystery. But through the sacrament of baptism which he received more than two decades ago, this EMT was brought into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; and through Christ I told him he can face the mystery—and the uncertainty of life—with faith and courage. So can we. As St. Paul put it in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me.” St. John conveyed a similar idea in today’s second reading when he said, “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Which brings us to the gift that is today. Today is where we live, is it not? We may think about the future, and we may reflect on the past, but what we do now is what’s most important, because the now is all that we’re guaranteed. The Bible tells us to make the most of every opportunity—and that means making the most of every opportunity NOW!

Sometimes, of course, we don’t do that. We delay doing things we know we should do right away: we delay repentance; we delay acts of charity; we delay making the positive changes we know we should make in our lives. In other words, we do not make the most of the opportunities God gives us in the gift that is “today”.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Once again, if we’re living in a relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that’s rooted in baptism—he will remind us of what we should be doing NOW (whether we want to be reminded of it or not), and he will give us the grace, through prayer and the sacraments, to follow through on our good intentions.

And he will help us to be more grateful for everything—even the crosses and challenges we experience.

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

O Lord, help us to remember how these words apply to the sacrament of baptism, and help us to live our lives accordingly—beginning right now! Amen.