I hate to destroy your illusions today, brothers and sisters, but I must.
You look at Deacon Louis over there and you see someone who appears very gentle, spiritual and faithful in his religious duties. But I am here to tell you, brothers and sisters, do not be fooled by his innocent-looking exterior, because, in reality, this man is a mass-murderer!
I know as a fact that each month he sends people to their death, and the younger, the better. He is a serial-killer. And I have to confess that I encourage him in it, and furthermore, I do a fair bit of killing as well. I am not as prolific a murderer as Deacon Louis, but I do my share. The Monday after Christmas, for instance, in this very church, I sent a four-month old baby to its death, and, what’s more, I did it with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. And I was surrounded by members of that child’s family, and not only did they not express outrage as they watched me, or even try to stop me, they smiled and clapped as I was doing it.
I should hasten to say that it was not all bad. Because immediately after killing the baby, I raised her from the dead and gave her back to her family. And Deacon Louis does the same thing, so he informs me. Every person he sends to their death, he immediately restores them to life, and to a way of life far greater, far far better than what they had before.
Now before you rush the podium, and drag me off to the police, or perhaps the psychiatric hospital, I should explain myself.
I am talking about baptism, of course, as this is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus, which is the model for all Christian baptisms. And I wanted to capture your attention by this dramatic beginning to my homily, because you probably think you know all about baptism and don’t need to listen any further. But did you know, in fact, that each baptism is a kind of death and resurrection? St Paul says, in his letter to the Romans,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”Romans 6 : 3-4
In the early days of the Church, baptisms were full-on immersions. There were pools of water specially made for baptisms, one for the men and one for the women, and each person would come to the pool wearing a robe which symbolized their old, sinful way of life, and strip off their robe, symbolizing their willingness to give up that old way of life, and go down the seven steps into the pool, symbolizing the seven deadly sins, where the priest or deacon was waiting for them, and they would be fully immersed under water three times, as the minister intoned the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Anyone who has ever plunged their head into water will agree the sensation is akin to drowning. And that is what is being symbolized – we are being “plunged” or “immersed” into an experience of Jesus’ death on the cross. At that moment, our original sin and all sins committed upto that moment are washed, cleansed away. If you plunge your head into water, and come up again, it is an extraordinary sensation, from feeling as if you were drowning, you feel exhilarated, everything seems new and enhanced around you, sun, sky, air. And as the person baptized is brought back up, that is what they would experience, a sense of coming into a new life, in which everything is different, brighter, lighter, more joyous- an experience of resurrection. They would then climb up the other side of the pool , going up seven more steps, representing the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and fortitude. Then they would be clothed in a new robe, indicating that they were putting on a new life, they were being “clothed” in Christ.
St Paul describes it in his letter to the Colossians where he says
“You have stripped off the old self, with its practices, and have clothed yourselves with the new self.”Colossians 3 : 9-10
Then the newly baptized would go on to be confirmed by the bishop ,and then be able to join with the Christian community to share in its sacred meal, the Eucharist. Because baptism is the gateway sacrament, the one which leads to and enables one to participate in all the other sacraments. If not baptized, you cannot receive communion, nor be confirmed , nor be ordained, or receive the “sacrament” of matrimony.
If you can imagine this whole scene, then you might well agree with me that it is a pity we don’t do full immersion baptismal ceremonies any more (though I was able to do so for my niece). A few drops of water spilled over the head of a baby at the font hardly does justice to the immensity of what is being carried out during a baptism – new life, change into a whole new being, into becoming a son or daughter of God, the washing away of all previous sins, entrance into the community of salvation, the Church. Which is why perhaps people can come to dismiss their baptism as simply a rite of passage, a means to get their child into a Catholic school where they can have a good education, an excuse for a party, but nothing more. They are oblivious of what their baptism really signifies (going over their head) Which is why, I suppose, those Catholics who end up joining Pentecostal or evangelical churches, consent to being re-baptized, because they believe the lie that their previous baptism as a baby doesn’t count, doesn’t work.
Did you know that the word “baptize” means “immerse” and the original sense was of a piece of cloth being “immersed” in a bowl full of colored dye, and thereby being changed into that particular color. So in the same way, our baptism immerses us into the life of Christ, so that this life penetrates us completely and changes us into another “Christ”, in other words a Christian, and that this change is permanent. It cannot be repeated, nor can it be erased.
You cannot, theologically and factually, get de-baptized, or baptized “again.” However, the evangelicals and Pentecostals are right in this, that so often people who are baptized as infants, never grow fully into the life of a mature or full Christian. They do not seek to pursue or grow into the Christ – life, either because their parents don’t practice, don’t model what a full Christian life is, or they themselves fail to develop a life of prayer, faith and love and allow themselves to be led back up the steps of the seven deadly sins. But although their baptismal character can be hidden or tarnished, it can never be erased completey. The theologians tell us that the graces of baptism can be “bound up” because of this failure, and it is only when we come to know and accept Jesus as Lord, as Savior, and enter into a personal relationship with Him, does our baptismal anointing “come alive” and these graces are released. Suddenly our faith becomes alive and strong, our prayer becomes exciting instead of a drudgery,because now we know we are speaking to Someone, who also speaks back to us, instead of spouting words into the empty air. The Bible becomes a source of inspiration and wisdom for us, instead of empty words, Mass becomes a living experience of encounter with Jesus, rather than a dry, boring, ritual. And on, and on, and on…
There is so much more to all this than many of us realize.
Did you know that the early church used to give a little milk and wine to the one being baptized, to symbolize the richness and sweetness of the new life of baptism, following on from the words of our first reading today, which expresses the abundance of joy and blessing which God wants to pour out on us, and which he does indeed pour out on us at baptism, would we but know it? The prophet Isaiah says in our first reading,
“Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”
In other words, why do you spend so much time and money seeking false delights, counterfeit pleasures, which leave you empty and depressed and pass so quickly, when you can have, for nothing, an abundance of joy and peace which comes from a fully surrendered life with Jesus, who came, as he says in
“To bring us life, and life to the full.”John 10 : 10
Did you know that up until fairly recently, a person being baptized used to have a piece of salt placed on their tongue, signifying that they were meant to be, in Jesus’ own words,
“the salt of the earth”Matthew 5 : 13
In other words, we are meant to make a difference to the world we are born into, a difference for good. You know, I can’t help feeling that, if we were to recover some of these lost symbolic actions and put them back into the baptismal ceremony, there might be better chance for people to understand and appreciate the incredible nature of what our baptism does for us , does in us, or should do, if we were to take hold of our new life in Christ, and live it to the full, in other words, in the words of our first reading again,
“if we were to forsake our sinful ways, and abandon our unrighteous thoughts, and return to the Lord, and ask him to have mercy on us, for he will abundantly pardon.”
Then all the wonderful graces of our baptism would be released and we can enter into the abundance of life that God has always wanted us to experience.
If this is something you would want to experience for yourself, I invite you brothers and sisters, to join with me in this prayer for our baptism to come alive…