Adopted Sons and Daughters
Going Behind the Word
What does baptism mean? What do Catholics believe about baptism? These are important questions for us to consider as background to the homily given today. There are so many questions that arise from the readings today, but especially about what it means to say we are baptized.
When we look at salvation history, we see a progression in the spiritual traditions from the Book of Genesis to the Early Church. One very important aspect of life is that we were not made for a life of brokenness and suffering. Rather, we were made to live in beautiful harmony with God and each other.
The plan of God when we were created was that human beings were called “to intimate communion with himself” in what we call original holiness. We were made for this intimate relationship with God, we received fully before sin. We found ourselves in perfect union with the loving God who made us.
This intimate relationship with God is seen as God recognizes the tremendous goodness of the human. Unlike the other types of creation, which God saw were good, after God creates the human God says we are very good. Very good. We are called to this deep relationship with God because God has made us very good.
We also see this call to holiness in the original care and concern God has for humans. “The LORD God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suited to him.” Just as God is a Trinity of love so strong it is one, we too are made for a powerful intimacy with other human beings. This is the original holiness to which we are all called.
It is not just that we are called to an intimacy that is holiness in God, but we are also called to the type of relationship where we are one with each other and with creation. And we see this clearly. It is Adam who names the animals. In the creation of Eve, Adam found the suitable partner for himself. And in the beginning everything is in harmony.
Harmony. Man and woman are united with each other in harmony. Man and woman are united with God in harmony. And man and woman are united with creation in harmony too. All is united and in harmony. The world is just.
We see this referenced in other parts of the Old Testament. The great promise of the lion laying down with the lamb is reference to this type of harmony. So too is the kid playing in the cobra’s den. These are examples of many, especially in the book of the prophet Isaiah.
God’s plan shattered
So it is clear as we look at these areas, the original plan was that we would dwell in a world of original holiness and original justice. But this was not the case for long. This is because even though the instructions of God are clear, we choose to reject God when we sin. “The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.”
And immediately the life we enjoyed falls apart. The man and the woman now are ashamed in their relationship with God. Rather than admit their common sin, they resort to blaming and shaming each other. And the harmony that was once part of the relationship of man and woman with creation is broken too.
The first gospel (Protoevangelium)
In this moment it is clear that the sin which cost the original holiness and original justice God intended was also enough for the man and woman to be condemned for all eternity. But that is not the way God is. Rather, God’s justice is tempered by his mercy. And when we read Genesis 3:15, we read the first gospel, the protoevangelium. To the serpent, the source of temptation, God says this: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.”
And in the Book of Revelation there is this connection. “Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”
The River Jordan
This connection between Old and New Testament is seen also in the River Jordan. Crossing the River Jordan is the means of New Life in the Old Testament in the Book of Exodus. And when Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist the Jordan River becomes the ultimate source of New Life in the sacrament of baptism we all receive.
This, then, is the role of baptism for us. Even though original holiness and original justice were lost, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the waters have been made holy so that the doors to original holiness and original justice are reopened.
This image of the doors reopening can be seen when we refer to baptism as the gateway to the sacraments. Moreover, it is through the sacrament of baptism that the sacramental life, the pathway to salvation, is opened to us. Jesus is not baptized because of sin, as we need to be baptized, but rather to make baptism holy so that we can see the invitation to salvation that is offered to us.
What Catholics believe about baptism
It is today’s event, the baptism of Jesus by John that must be remembered. What makes for a valid baptism? First, there must be the use of water. Second, the right formula of words must be said. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Second, it is the case that a person may only be baptized one time. That is why some may have noticed that when a non-Catholic Christian becomes a Catholic, they make a profession of faith if they have already been baptized in another Christian tradition using water and the right words.
“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift….We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus