Sunday, January 09, 2011

Our Baptismal Identity

(Baptism of the Lord (A): This homily was given on January 9, 2011 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 2011]

A woman who was diagnosed with a serious illness several years ago sent me an email the other day. She said that after she received the bad news, a friend sent her a card with this written on it: “Hope, obey, surrender and trust. Pray like a child in his Father’s arms, and expect miracles.”

“A child in his Father’s arms”—that’s a very good image, a very good metaphor, for baptism! Most people, I think, see baptism exclusively as a formal ritual which removes original sin and makes us members of the Church—which, of course, is true. Baptism does both of those things: it takes away original sin and makes us Catholics.

But it does more than that! It does a lot more than that! For example, baptism also makes us God’s adopted children in Jesus Christ! And so, just as an earthly father holds his child during the baptismal ceremony, so does the Heavenly Father “hold us” in his arms, spiritually speaking, throughout our lives, because we are baptized. We are his; we belong to him because of the sanctifying grace and the sacramental character that come into our soul when water is poured over our forehead and the bishop, priest or deacon says the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Hope, obey, surrender and trust. Pray . . . and expect miracles.”

Those words of advice, which that woman who was ill received from her friend several years ago, also express the attitudes we should have toward our Heavenly Father as his adopted children. They’re the attitudes, in other words, which flow from our baptism.

First, hope: Hope has to do with heaven—“As a baptized person I live in the hope, that, as Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’—including one for me!”

That hope helps me to persevere when things get difficult, because I know that, in the end, it will all be worth it.

Obey: “As a baptized person I obey my Father (or at least I try to obey my Father) because I believe that he created me and that he knows what’s best for me.”

Surrender: “As a baptized person I surrender to my Father, because my Father has a good plan for my life, and I know that if I follow that plan I will be happy here on earth (to the extent that I can be happy in this life), and eternally happy with him someday in heaven.”

Trust: “As a baptized person I put my trust in my Father because he’s perfectly honest and truthful and thus worthy of trust.”

Pray: “As a baptized person I pray to my Father because he’s my Dad and he loves me. So I can go to him in the confidence that he will always give me what I need, and sometimes special favors.”

Expect miracles: “As a baptized person I expect great things from my Father, because my Father is all-knowing and all-powerful and can do the miraculous!”

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. When our Lord was baptized, his identity as the only begotten Son of God the Father was revealed to the world. He knew who he was, but the rest of the world (with the exception of Mary and Joseph and a few others) did not. To most of the people who encountered him on a daily basis, our Lord was just the young and talented son of a Jewish carpenter. But that all changed the moment John the Baptist dunked him in the Jordan River. As we heard a few moments ago, when Jesus came out of the water the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit manifested himself in the form of a dove, and God the Father said in a loud voice, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”

Our baptism is different. Jesus’ baptism revealed his identity to the world, whereas our baptism reveals our identity to us!

This is something that we can easily lose sight of. Because of the difficulties and distractions of this life, we can easily forget who we are. That’s one reason why the Church encourages us to bless ourselves with holy water whenever we enter a church building. That pious act is supposed to remind us that we are baptized children of Almighty God! It’s supposed to remind us, in other words, of our identity. And knowing our identity is important, because identity influences activity: how we think of ourselves influences how we act toward ourselves—and others.

The more we are in touch with our baptismal identity, the more we will act like saints, and do all those things I mentioned earlier: hope, obey, surrender, trust, pray and expect miracles.

On that note, I read something very interesting the other day about King Louis IX of France, who lived way back in the 13th century. Louis was baptized in a chapel in his hometown of Poissy; many years later he was crowned king in the great Cathedral at Rhiems.

But the interesting thing is that he always felt a greater affection and reverence for the chapel where he was baptized than he did for the big cathedral where he was made king. One day he was asked why that was the case. He answered with these words: “In the castle chapel I received the sacrament of baptism, thereby becoming a child of God. In the Cathedral of Rheims, I received the royal crown, whereby I became King of France. I deem divine sonship a greater dignity than earthly kingship. The dignity of kingship I will lose at the time of my death, whereas, as a child of God, I will obtain eternal happiness.”

And so it should come as no surprise that Louis IX of France is now known to the world as Saint Louis—the only French king ever to be canonized by the Church.

He knew his baptismal identity, and he lived his life accordingly.

May God help us to do the same.