Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism: for Jesus, it was LESS than it appeared to be; for us, it was MORE than it appeared to be.

(Baptism of the Lord (A): This homily was given on January 12, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2014]


For Jesus, it was less than it appeared to be; for us, it was more than it appeared to be.

I’m talking here about baptism: Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, and our baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

When Jesus arrived at the Jordan and presented himself to his cousin, John, he appeared to be a sinner.  St. Luke tells us that John the Baptist “went throughout [the] whole region of Judea, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The whole purpose for receiving John’s baptism was to acknowledge that you were a sinner, and to seek God’s mercy and pardon.

But Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, never sinned!  He had no need of the heavenly Father’s forgiveness, like the rest of us do.

Although he appeared to need it.

Perhaps it also appeared to some of the bystanders who witnessed this event that John was greater than Jesus, since John was the person who baptized our Lord.  But, of course, he wasn’t (as he himself acknowledged in the gospel reading we just heard). 

John knew the truth, and so he said, “I should be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”

At the Jordan Jesus appeared to be a sinner, but he wasn’t; he appeared to be someone less important than John the Baptist, but he wasn’t.

In reality, he was much more important!

After all, he had created John—and everyone else who was there that day.

So why did he get baptized?

John, in effect, asks Jesus that question here, and our Lord responds by saying, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There’s a footnote in the New American Bible which explains that response very well.  It reads, “To fulfill all righteousness is to submit to the plan of God for the salvation of the human race.  This involves Jesus’ identification with sinners; hence the propriety of accepting John’s baptism.”

To save us, in other words, Jesus had to take our sins upon himself.  But in order to take our sins upon himself he needed to look like a sinner, even though he wasn’t.

And he did!  He certainly looked like a sinner on Good Friday as he hung on the cross.  But that identification with sinners was also present in his 3-year ministry (remember, his enemies called him “a glutton” and “a drunkard” and a lot of other not-so-nice things!).

And that identification with sinners was present at his baptism.

Jesus’ baptism was an act of humility and love.  It did not bring him any forgiveness—which is why I say it was less than it appeared to be.

Now that’s the exact opposite of the way it was for you and for me!  Our baptism—whether it occurred in infancy or in adulthood—was more than it appeared to be!

If you’ve been to a baptism recently, you know that it’s a very simple and I would say “visually-unspectacular” event!  One person—usually a member of the clergy—pours water 3 times over another person’s forehead (or dunks the person 3 times in a pool of water), and says a very short sentence: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

What’s so special about that?

Aside from being a good excuse to have a family party on a Sunday afternoon, the ceremony of Catholic baptism appears to be little more than a nice, ordinary, very brief religious ritual.

But in reality it’s a ritual that’s packed with power!  Literally!

If you’ve been unaware of this up until now don’t be too upset: apparently even many of the earliest Christians failed to appreciate the power of this sacrament.  St. Paul wrote to some them in Romans 6 when he said:

Are you unaware [apparently some were] that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  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.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.

The effects of baptism are many:

  • Through baptism we are born again of water and the Spirit—which Jesus says in John 3 we MUST BE in order to enter the kingdom of God at the end of our earthly lives.
  • Through baptism original sin is taken away.  Original sin, remember, is not like the personal sins we commit every day.  When we say we are born with original sin we are saying that we’re born into this world lacking sanctifying grace in our soul.  Sanctifying grace is the grace Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to give us; it’s the grace that we need in our soul in order to get into the kingdom of heaven.
  • Through baptism all our personal sins are also forgiven (this obviously applies to those who are baptized later in life)—and all the temporal punishment due to those sins is taken away.
  • As it says in paragraph 1265 of the Catechism, “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Baptism also makes us a member of the Church; it imprints an indelible spiritual mark on our soul; it gives us a share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ; and it opens us to the possibility of receiving the other sacraments.

Not bad for a nice, ordinary, very brief religious ritual!

This, by the way, is why a priest will sometimes delay the baptism of an infant.  It’s because baptism is so powerful and so important!  It’s not to be taken lightly! 

But sometimes, unfortunately, it is.  In this regard, paragraph 1270 of the Catechism says the following: “Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.”

In other words, the baptized person needs to live the Catholic Faith that they profess (when they’re old enough to do so).  But if the priest has a good reason to believe that a particular child will not be educated and brought up in the Catholic Faith, he can—and he should—delay the sacrament. 

The official policy of the Church on the matter is found in a 1980 document entitled, “Instruction on Infant Baptism.”  It was prepared by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was approved by Pope John Paul II.

In section 28 of that document it says this:

Assurances must be given that the gift [the gift of sanctifying grace]  thus granted can grow by an authentic education in the faith and Christian life, in order to fulfill the true meaning of the sacrament.   As a rule, these assurances are to be given by the parents or close relatives, although various substitutions are possible within the Christian community.  But if these assurances are not really serious there can be grounds for delaying the sacrament; and if they are certainly non-existent the sacrament should even be refused.

Of course, when those responsible for the child’s upbringing change and do give those assurances by their words—and, even more importantly, by their actions!—then the baptism can (and should!) take place.

I’ll end my homily now the way I began it, by reminding you once again of those two important truths: the baptism of Jesus was less than it appeared to be, while our baptism was more than it appeared to be.

Because Jesus’ baptism was less than it appeared to be, he can save us; and because our baptism was more than appeared to be, we can be saved.

Obviously, therefore, we should thank God for BOTH those truths—today and every day.