January 10, 2016
A year after his baptism, a new convert to Catholicism decided to go to confession to deal with his transgressions. In the confessional, he told the priest that he had sinned. "What was your sin, my son?" asked the priest. "I stole some lumber Father," replied the penitent. "How much lumber did you steal?" asked the priest.
"Father, I built my German Shepherd dog a nice new doghouse." The priest replied, "Well, that's not so bad." The penitent interrupted him, "Father, I also built myself a 4-car garage." The priest then responded, "Now that's a little more serious!" The penitent again interrupted the priest, "Father, I've got to get it off my chest. I built a doghouse, a 4-car garage, and a 5-bedroom, 4-bath home!"
With a look of shock, the priest then responded, "Well, that is most serious. I'm afraid that you'll have to make a novena." The penitent looked perplexed and then said, "Father, I don't know what a novena is, but if you've got the blueprints, I've got the lumber."
This story reflects the need to continuously strengthen our knowledge of faith. The Solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism is a chance for us to take a brief look at the sacrament of baptism.
The Church emphasizes three truths about the sacrament of baptism: 1) Baptism is an initiation into the people of God; 2) Baptism is a call to discipleship; and 3) Baptism is a commissioning.
Initiation rites are most often public ceremonies. During the rite a significant number of the group meets to witness and welcome the renewal of the group through the initiation of new members. It would be odd for someone to be initiated into a group with few members of the group present. Yet, that is what happened for centuries regarding baptism. Now we move the baptismal font from a side room to the front of the Church or to the main entrance of the Church. Many parishes celebrate baptisms during a Sunday Mass as we do here in our parish.
Regardless of how a parish organizes its celebration of baptism, it is clear that there is no such thing as a private baptism.
The second point is that baptism is a call to discipleship. In the early days of the Church this call was so serious that people who were not born into Christian families spent years preparing to enter the Church. The catechumenate, the period of preparation, usually lasted three years. In some places it lasted seven years. All during this time, the candidates for baptism had to prove their sincerity to live as Jesus lived, by prayer and good works. They even had to produce witnesses who would publicly testify to this. To accept the Lord’s call to discipleship meant to live different from the rest of the world. It meant a commitment to holiness.
Somehow or other, much of this was lost as the centuries progressed. As the centuries rolled on the notion that the baptized were called to a radical life has submerged. The sacrament was reduced to a fixation on original sin. Baptism became more of a spiritual inoculation to get rid of something rather than a call to be something. That is the reason why members of our parish hold baptismal classes for new parents to alert them that their child’s baptism is not just an erasing of original sin but a call to be disciples. The life of the disciple must be lived by the child’s parents. By having their children baptized, parents are taught that they are taking upon themselves the responsibility to raise disciples for Christ. That is the reason why the greatest action any person can do with his or her life is to raise a Christian, or two, or three or four....
Finally baptism is not just a christening, it is a commissioning. The baptized are called to ministry, to do the work of God. All of us, not just priests, all of us are commissioned through our baptism to be representatives of Jesus. All of us were chosen by God for his mission. Remember, Jesus told us, “It is not you who chose me, it is I who chose you.”
Baptism means for us exactly what it meant for Jesus that day he stepped into the River Jordan and was washed by John. He was beginning his public life, his mission. His baptism was his initiation, his entrance into that mission. He emerged from the water commissioned by the Father to do his work. In the waters of baptism we have been initiated, called and commissioned. We have been initiated into a worldwide people, called to discipleship and commissioned to ministry.
When you leave the church today and dip your hands into the holy water of the baptismal font, think of your dignity, your call and God’s statement of your commission: “You are my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Go and be my disciples.”