This Sunday (that is, starting with tonight’s Vigil Mass) we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This feast is very important because it reminds us about the origin and the importance of our Baptism.
Below, please find an adapted version of the homily I preached three years ago for this feast. In this homily, I spoke about how important it is for children to be baptized as soon as possible after birth. If I were to preach again this year I would probably use even more direct terms in trying to get this point across. The Church’s law says that children are to be baptized as soon as possible after birth – “in the first few weeks” (canon 867 § 1). Ideally, that means that the parents have already started planning the baptism during the pregnancy, attending the pre-baptismal classes with the proposed godparents, notifying relatives, etc. If the baby comes early, then adjustments to the schedule can always be made.
One of the reasons why people wait months – and even years (!) – nowadays is because they want to have a grand party with the whole family (and all kinds of friends) present. I have been to some of these parties. It is a nice thing but it is totally unnecessary. Delve into your own family history (especially if your family is historically Catholic) and find out about the relatives who were baptized, even without their mother or father present! Back then they understood how crucial and important baptism was, and they didn’t wait. It was more important to have the peace of God than to have a grand party at which everyone could be present.
The godparents do not even have to be present at a baptism! (They can appoint proxies to stand in for them.) Really, don’t wait for baptism!!!
There is much more that I could say on this point, but without further ado, the homily.
On this Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, which is really another epiphany – a manifestation or revelation of who Christ is – as we hear the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The people who witnessed the event saw who they thought was a mere man going down into the water; and as he did so, they heard that he was not merely a man: he was also the Son of God.
St. John the Baptist had the right idea when he said to our Lord, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Because John knew who Christ was. He knew the one whom he had been preaching. He also knew himself: that he was in need of a savior, that there was no way that he could save himself. We can identify more with John the Baptist than with the crowd that was with him, because we have faith: like John, we already know who Christ is. So we can also make his question our own: Why did our Lord seek baptism?
The answer begins precisely with that clear understanding that Jesus did not need to be baptized. Rather, he chose to do so, at the hands of John, in order to sanctify the waters of baptism. In other words, Christ made baptism holy – whereas we are made holy by baptism. Our Lord was baptized, or immersed, into our human life so that we could be baptized, or immersed, into his divine life. When he entered the waters, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a visible manner, and the Father’s voice could be heard audibly, not only to teach us about who Christ was, but also to teach us what would happen to us – albeit in an invisible way – when we ourselves were baptized. Baptism fills us with the grace of God as the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our souls, and we become sons or daughters of God.
We can take our reflection a step further. Our Lord said that he should be baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness”, which is to say that he was teaching us what we should do, for if we would be righteous, we must do the same. But how many parents today delay the baptism of their children, or never have it done at all? It really is becoming a big problem in our society, as more and more families drift away from God and his Church. Many people are misled by ideas like, “We’ll let the child decide for himself when he gets older”; or, because they themselves do not want to go to church, they deprive their children of that benefit also. And there are many other reasons as well.
One of the problems is that we, as a society, no longer have a very good understanding of what baptism is and why it is so important! It’s important for a very basic reason: when we are born, we do not have the divine life in our souls. That is to say, in starker terms: we are spiritually separated from God. Ware born separated from God, because we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin.
In the process of creating Adam and Eve, God had given them certain gifts – that is to say, he gave them things that were not included in who they were as such, or by nature. Among those gifts were that they would enjoy friendship – or a living, spiritual connection – with God; that they would not suffer; and that they would possess harmony with themselves and with the world around them. Because of their sin, they lost all those gifts: they severed their friendship with God by disobeying him; consequently, they would have to begin suffering and even experience death; and they no longer had that interior and exterior harmony which they originally had. (All of this can be found in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis.) The end result was that Adam and Eve handed on to all their ancestors, including us, a fallen or wounded human nature, a human nature deprived of the special gifts that they themselves had once enjoyed.
Baptism washes away the stain of Adam and Eve’s Original Sin and it fills us with grace, which is a sharing in God’s life, a living link with him. But as for the other gifts – such as the inability to suffer, and that harmony about which I spoke – they are not entirely given to us until heaven, when we enter definitively into a state of friendship with God that can never be broken. Once we get to heaven, there’s no going back.
Who, then, would want to deprive his or her child of a living relationship with God? Who would want to deprive his child of God’s grace? I daresay no one, or very few people, would want to do this – if they knew what it was. The Church instructs us to have our children baptized as soon as possible after birth, because – among other reasons – the Church believes that God’s grace is a good thing that everyone should enjoy from the earliest moment possible. Who knows what seeds of future greatness God’s grace might be planting in an infant soul? Reflecting on our own experience, we can see how the Lord’s grace has worked in our own souls in hidden and subtle ways over the years. Why wouldn’t this be the case also for a little infant?
We often need encouragement to do what is right; so if there is anyone in our families or among our friends who is not yet baptized – infant, child, adolescent, or adult – let us encourage those responsible to do the right thing. Jesus did not need baptism, but we do; therefore, he did it so that we would follow. Baptism is the gateway to friendship with God, and how beautiful that friendship can be: beginning here in this life, and continuing on to eternity.