Let’s start with a quiz: how many sacraments does the Catholic Church have? The answer, of course, is seven. Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. As a refresher, referring to the old Baltimore Catechism which I had as a kid, the definition of a sacrament is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Our Church teaches that in each sacrament, Christ makes himself spiritually present. Further, we believe that Christ actually instituted the sacrament, that is, each sacrament is of divine and not of human origin, and that all seven sacraments employ something tangible to the five senses so that we can more easily understand the underlying spiritual reality that each sacrament signifies. Therefore, the purpose of the sacraments is to lead us closer to Christ through the use of things that point beyond themselves to a deeper spiritual reality.
With this being said, we turn to the first sacrament we all receive, that which the Church refers to as the “gateway sacrament,” the Sacrament of Baptism. Simply put, before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism, one is not a Christian, but upon receiving the Sacrament of Baptism, we then are Christian, marked with an indelible character that makes us members of the Body of Christ. Further, once baptized, we are baptized forever, even into eternity. It is impossible to become unbaptized: even if one were turn his back on his faith, the character of his baptism always remains in this life and in the next.
But what does baptism mean? I’ve probably baptized 500 children in my time, and before each baptism, we give the parents and godparents a little class explaining what the sacrament means and why it is so important. Baptism is necessary because all of us are born with Original Sin, that tendency to commit sin which has weakened our souls right from the very beginning. Call it imperfect human nature if you will. It has rendered us weak in the face of the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil, and even Saint Paul is quoted in scripture as saying that, to paraphrase, while he knows the good he should do, his weak human nature often tempts him to do otherwise. Saint Paul was referring to his own Original Sin. If the great Saint Paul can say this, then it most surely applies to each one of us.
Now, it seems true that a good portion of our world today has lost its ability to understand what sin is. In essence, all sin stems from pride, a desire to do what one wants to do regardless of God’s laws and commandments. Placing one’s own desires above God’s desires for us. God said to Adam and Eve in Genesis. ‘do not eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge.’ And as we know from the story, Satan in the form of a serpent, wallowing in his own sinful pride, wanted to take the human race down with him so that he could pridefully mock God, so he appealed to our first parent’s pride and corrupted it simply out of spite. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with chewing on an apple; it had everything to do with telling God that they didn’t need Him and could get along just fine without Him. The Devil knew it wasn’t so and that it was a lie, but he let them believe it long enough to make sure they bought the lie and thus were lost. This act of pride so corrupted human nature that God determined that mankind was no longer eligible for heaven, symbolized by them getting kicked out of the Garden of Paradise. It was done; Adam and Eve blew it. There was absolutely no chance for heaven for them or any of their descendants; that was how enormous their sin of pride was. We were estranged from God’s love through our own sin of pride, and without God’s direct intervention, we could not ever enter into the Kingdom of heaven. Serious stuff.
But almost immediately, out of unconditional love that even transcended the depth of human sinfulness, God took pity on the human race, and in time, sent His Son, fully God and fully human, to redeem us from our estrangement and to be once again in God’s good graces. The redemption was accomplished on the Cross; our sins were paid for, and the Resurrection guaranteed that now that sin was remitted, we could once again dwell in the Kingdom of God.
The symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life, as Christ did through the Cross and resurrection, is symbolized by baptism. We go into the water, like being buried in a grave, and we rise out, renewed, claimed for Christ. I think sometimes were forget what a great gift the sacraments, especially baptism, are. They are gifts given to us by a loving God to save us from our worst sinful tendencies. They are gifts given to us to help ensure eternal life. You may remember the words of Jesus, which show how powerful and necessary baptism is: “unless you are baptized in water and the Holy Spirit, you may not enter into the Kingdom of God.”
So with this foundation, we must ask, if we need baptism to wash away Original Sin’s effects, then why did Jesus undergo baptism, if he was without sin? The answer is twofold: Jesus was setting an example for all of us to follow. Sort of like the politicians we saw last week getting the Covid vaccine on TV to set an example, we see an example of the necessity of baptism being demonstrated by Jesus to all of us. And two, we know that the Holy Spirit descends upon the newly baptized; that is what actually makes the person a Christian. And we saw in our Gospel today the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, essentially proving the efficacy of the sacrament to all who witnessed his baptism, proving its power, also that was the moment in which the hidden life of Jesus, the first 30 years, came to an end and he began his public mission. The Spirit gave Jesus His commission. The Spirit changed Jesus from private to public. The Holy Spirit, when we become baptized, gives us our own individual commission to seek the Kingdom of God ourselves, a public witness of what we believe.
So, as you can see, baptism is not some cute ceremonial we perform for our children so we can get together and have a party. Baptism is a celebration, all right, but a very serious celebration of Christ’s invitation to eternal life. Without it, there is no salvation. On this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, let us never forget that we have been called, by the Holy Spirit, to live always in Christ, so that Christ can always live in us; that what Adam and Eve so carelessly lost through pride may be ours once again through the humility and love of Jesus Christ for all of us, who for our sakes today showed us the way.