The Baptism of Jesus is God’s supreme and wholly marvelous work. Although we are told about John the Baptist at the beginning of our gospel passage today, he is nowhere around when St Luke actually describes Jesus’ baptism. John is described as pointing towards Jesus and the baptism he will bring, but he is completely removed from the picture thereafter. This is deliberate on the part of St Luke. He wants to tell us that the baptism Jesus receives is not the one John the Baptism gives, which is just a superficial cleansing by water. It shows a desire on the part of the one baptized to be cleansed from their sins, but it cannot make that happen. The baptism Jesus receives is a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire, that actually does cleanse from sin, and it is this kind of baptism that you and I receive also. The baptism Jesus receives is not a human thing, it is wholly God’s work. And so it is with us, with our baptism. It is wholly God’s work.
This cannot be emphasized enough, brothers and sisters. The baptism you and I receive, and the baptism our children receive, may be done through the hands of the priest or deacon ,but it is not a human thing. It is wholly God’s thing. It is about God coming down on us and transforming us into sons and daughters of God. It is Christ who baptizes, not the priest or the deacon. They are just the human instruments. I say this, because there are still so many Catholics who regard baptism as merely a human activity, a kind of rite of passage, something they are supposed to have done for their children, so their children can go to Catholic school, or receive the other sacraments, but, other than that, it is just like the kind of baptism John the Baptist performed, a matter of pouring water over someone, with no more effect than that.
No, no, no!!
I remember, when I was at seminary, one of the seminarians saying to me, “The trouble with baptism is that it doesn’t work!” I nearly fell down with shock at his words .Baptism doesn’t work?? Then none of the sacraments work. Confession does not bring forgiveness of sins, the Eucharist is just bread and wine,not the Body and Blood of Christ, the sacrament of marriage does not make you man and wife, one body and one spirit, Shocked as I was at the time, I have come to realize since then, that many, many Catholics share that lack of faith in the sacraments, Since the sacraments are also wholly God’s work, that means they don’t believe that God does anything to us when we receive the sacraments. It is just us going through a kind of empty ritual with the priest or deacon, in order to get a tick in the Catholic box. And because they believe that, then they see no point in attending Church, in living out their Catholic faith, in passing that faith onto their children.
Perhaps we should have a sign put up outside the church that says: ”God at work!”
Jesus says in the gospel of John: ”My Father is working still and so am I!” (John 5:17). God did not stop working when he created the world, Jesus did not stop working when he ascended back into heaven, the Holy Spirit does not stop working when he comes upon us in baptism. None of the Blessed Trinity ever said to the human race: Right, you are on your own now. Good luck!” And yet, and yet, so many of us Catholics practically live out our lives as if it is down to us alone to make it through life and somehow reach heaven, if we work hard enough at it.
Baptism works. It works by giving us the Holy Spirit, by making us sons and daughters of God, by opening the doors of heaven to us, by forgiving us our sins, by clothing us in the very nature and identity of Jesus, by making us sharers in the divine nature of God. All these benefits of baptism are graces that God gives us, directly, poured out upon us through Jesus. If we see the sacraments as just human initiatives and activities, we miss out on the God-thing, we fail to receive the graces that God pours out upon us. As St Paul tells us in our second reading, in Jesus Christ “the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all”. Through Jesus , the heavens opened that once were shut against us because of our sin, and God now again speaks to us, and calls us his beloved sons and daughters, and points to Jesus to be our salvation.
Which parent would refuse the offer of grace in Jesus to their children through baptism?
In Mark’s gospel, chapter 10, we read of parents bringing their children to Jesus for his blessing. I always use this reading at baptisms because I want the parents to understand that they are choosing good for their children, when they bring them for baptism, just as when they choose to feed and clothe and protect their children , because they love them. In the same way they recognize that Jesus is a “good” thing for their children, and so they bring them to him for blessing at baptism. They don’t decide to wait until their children are old enough to make up their own minds before deciding to feed and clothe them. No, of course not. In the same way, they should not wait until their children are old enough to make up their own minds, before deciding to clothe them with the nature and identity of Jesus, and feed them with his grace and blessing.
In the same way, it just does not make sense for people to decide to reject their own baptism, even going so far as to seek online a certificate of “de-baptism”, as many people do these days. Who, when given the opportunity to have forgiveness of sins, eternal life, salvation, and the freedom of all heaven, would say “No thanks!”? But many, many people are doing that, because they simply do not understand or believe that baptism is God’s own supreme and wholly marvelous work.
What, I think, my fellow seminarian was saying when he told me that baptism doesn’t “work” was that it doesn’t look as if the sacrament of baptism carries out any change in the person baptized. They don’t feel any different, they don’t act any different. They might say the same of the sacrament of reconciliation. How many people come to the sacrament, confess their sins, receive their absolution, but come out feeling no different than before? How many people come up to receive communion but it makes no difference to their lives? Because we don’t “feel” any different does not mean that God is not at work in us through the sacraments. Our faith in the reality of God at work in us through the sacraments determines whether we will activate the graces available to us through them .
It makes no sense to me that many Catholics can decide to simply watch Mass by live-stream and be content with that , even though they have not received the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in communion. Because they have very little faith that any change happens in the bread and wine during the consecration at Mass, they don’t feel they are missing out if they simply watch on TV. In the same way, because many Catholics don’t believe that their sins are really forgiven through the sacrament of reconciliation, they don’t bother coming to this sacrament. They carry on their lives, with burdens of shame and guilt and soldier on not knowing or understanding that,if they were to come to confession, they would be freed from all that, they would feel immeasurably lighter and more joyful in spirit. Many baptized Catholics don’t feel they need to be married through the sacrament of matrimony, they can simply live together, even though their faith tells them they are living in sin and outside the grace of God’s blessing on their relationship. They don’t feel, they don’t believe, so they simply reject the offer of grace held out to them through the sacraments.
It is wholly God’s work, the graces we receive through the sacraments of the Church. At the same time, God does require a response from us to his offer of grace- a response of faith, of gratitude, or acceptance. St Paul tells us, in our second reading, that, in Jesus, the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. But I can bring a gift to someone’s doorstep and leave it there, and the person I am bringing it to, can simply decide not to accept it, but it send it back and never open it. So many Catholics have received the offer of grace in the sacraments, but have never responded to that offer with faith, gratitude and acceptance. As St Paul goes on to say in that second reading, “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared…to save us…through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”. This water and Spirit refers to our baptism ,which brings the grace of salvation, of forgiveness of sins, of eternal life, and so many other blessings to us, making us heirs of heaven and sharers in the divine nature of God. We bring our children for baptism as babies, and there we make solemn promises to God to do all we can that our children grow up in the Catholic faith, and the godparents we choose similarly make solemn, sacred promises to God to help them with that task. But how many parents fail to bring their children to Mass and the other sacraments regularly? Children make their first confession around about the same time as they make their first communion. But for many of them, that will be the last time they receive these sacraments until their confirmation. What happened to the sacred promises the parents and godparents made to God at the child’s baptism?
Do they think that God forgets?
We have a crisis of faith going on in the Catholic Church right now, brothers and sisters. It is simply the crisis of faith that God is no longer at work in his church, in the sacraments, in our ordinary lives as family, as community, as individuals. That faith needs to be re-awakened in many of our lives, so that our faith in God’s protection and deliverance is stronger than our fear of what the coronavirus might do to us, so that our faith that God is with us to guide us and direct us through all the difficult choices and decisions in our lives is stronger than our fear that we might make terrible mistakes and be punished as a result. A living God gracing us with a living faith and hope is what baptism is meant to bring us to, so that even serious illness and death is not the end of all things, but merely another door to go through to bring us into the eternity of joy and peace and love of heaven.
Let us stand and pray…