I apologize for the length of this post. It’s me working my book ideas out here on the blog. Excuse the clutter.
As we approach Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I’ve been reflecting each day on my own baptism. I was baptized the day I was born, as my older sister died three days after she was born, and my parents did not want to risk waiting. It’s so wonderful every year to celebrate my birth and rebirth on the same day, and if one day I die on that same day, it will be my triple birthday!
Recently, I recorded a series of reflections on baptism for some people who attended a talk I gave in December on the lay vocation. As I was recording my thoughts, I became vividly aware of just how important it is for Christians to reflect on what the Catechism (1262) calls the effects of baptism. We so often think of them as very personal and individual, but those effects are meant to give definitive shape to an entire way of life and so to the real world we inhabit. In baptism is the divine blueprint, and remedy, for an earthly civilization confronted by an invading Kingdom of Heaven. And the laity are deftly poised to facilitate that confrontation.
There’s no mistake Christianity’s earliest name was hē Hodos (e.g. Acts 9:2), which can be translated as “the Way” or “the Path.” Jesus calls himself hē Hodos in John 14:6, as he is the world done God’s way. And as Jesus makes clear throughout the Gospels (e.g. Mt. 7:21; Lk. 10:28), Truth is given principally to become a Way of Life, and not just some unattainable ideal to aim at, or a private experience to relish, or an abstract theory to debate. Note that in Jn. 18:38, Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s contentious request that he define Truth. Rather, Jesus enacts it in the Passion and its sequel, as if to say to Pilate: see Truth in action, follow me.
An aside. Let me note that when I refer to baptism, I also intend to refer to confirmation as they really are, taken together, meant to be a sacramental diptych. A point eloquently made by the late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh:
For when we talk about confirmation our conversation is really about baptism; when we are dealing with baptism we are discoursing about Christian initiation; when we are into initiation we are face to face with conversion in Jesus Christ dead and rising; and when we are into conversion in Jesus Christ dead and rising we are at the storm center of the universe.
I will share here some of my lecture notes, turning bullet points into paragraphs. Each paragraph is a new talking point. In them I try to connect baptism’s mystical effects and their practical implications for the Way. I will write future posts using these notes. I encourage you, if you choose to read, to give thanks that you bear each of these sparks of fire in yourself. Beg God we might bear them well for the life of the world.
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We might call all of this a “baptismal spirituality.” Let me give spirituality a simple definition: Living life as a sustained permission for Christ to do his thing in, with and through us (Gal. 2:20). There’s nothing nebulous for a Christian about the word spirituality. Jesus gives God radical, raucous specificity. God’s Semitic face.
Baptism sets in motion our entire life’s mission. Our mission is simply an extension of the mission Jesus received from the Father at his baptism, in the filthy Jordan, out of which the Spirit then “drove him out into the wilderness” (Mk. 1:12) to enter into direct combat with evil, and conquer. This is Christian life, unseen warfare.
Baptism is the gateway and font of all blessings. From it upwells within us all of God’s wonderful works carried out in Christ to make all things new. Beginning with you. You are the co-builder, yes, but more you are the rebuilding project. What you co-make of your life is really the end game of your personal vocation. As my grandfather once said to me, “what remains in the end is not so much what you do, but who you become in the doing.” A truth spoken after the model of the Master: “For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in the truth” (Jn. 17:19).
Pentecost unleashes the paschal mystery into the whole of creation through the Church (Eph. 3:10). As a sacrament of that mystery, baptism is the epicenter of the new creation’s Big Bang in me. In the Font, Christ is detonated as a J-Bomb in my small plot of time and space, in the Jerusalem of my embodied soul, tenting on my local holy land. The pious Russian saying applies here, “the Church exists to make relics.” Saints leave behind proleptic traces of the new creation here in the old as a sort of sacred contagion. Aim to leave behind not simply rot, but relics when you die.
Baptism soaks us in wholly unmerited grace, super-natural gifts given to us freely and gratuitously by God for our eternal well-being and the well-being of all. Just as with the gift of my conception — thanks God with mom and dad. Once given, baptismal grace never ceases to give: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). Baptism’s grace flows spontaneously into eucharistic thanksgiving, and bears within it all the motive force for a generous way of life: “Freely you received, freely give” (Mt. 10:8). “So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you” (Lk. 11:41). There are vast numbers of people dying of existential thirst, and you have within you an eternal spring of hope, life, love and light to share. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk. 12:48).
Baptism confers forgiveness of all sins and the punishment due sin, as the ancient curse is washed away. But as we retain our proclivity to sin (concupiscence), baptism also ignites in us a life of repentance. Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia, meaning “change of mind,” i.e. in accord with the Gospel. St. Isaac of Syria says, “this life is for repentance.” Really receiving mercy makes us really merciful (Lk. 7:47). So why does God leave behind in us the inclination to sin? “For the sake of the battle,” so we might, Israel-like, wrestle with God, sharing fully in our own salvation. And the salvation of all who fight with or against us. God created us without us, but he will not save us without us. As God has skin in the game (Jn. 1:14), so must we (Col. 1:24). Really, what in life has any real value except for those things we have invested blood, sweat and tears in? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 3:12), as “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Remember too, being forgiven means we must forgive. The Our Father is devastatingly clear on this. And we must promote a culture of forgiveness, be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9). Including fraternal correction, in which love both exposes sin and provokes repentance unto forgiveness, healing and wholeness. Tough love, but love nonetheless.
We are justified by grace through faith in baptism. This grace manifests God’s manner of confronting injustices, not with retribution or vengeance, but with a restorative justice. By justifying us God, out of a merciful love, realigns us with divine justice, making what was crooked in sin, straight. By pardoning our injustices, and gracing us with a new inner-power capable of obedience, God empowers us to move with the grain of universe and the grain of God — natural and eternal law. We are justified so we might be free to be just, to do justice. The gift impels us (2 Cor. 5:14-15) do deeds of justice for our neighbor and enemy, to seek peace based on justice, and to pray for peace. But be ready, God uproots injustices first from us to achieve peace for the world. In part by inviting us to become his response to injustices, enacting justification. When the poor cry out under the weight of oppression, the church is awakened by God. Always remember the definition of Kingdom justice, which is mercy. Not loveless justice, but “love encountering injustice and overcoming it.” And not simply overlooking, destroying, or containing it. How to? The Cross is the gold standard.