Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Reflection on the Sacrament of Baptism

I was in San Francisco for a family baptism event.  The following was my homily:

The Strange Things Catholics Do
A Reflection on the Sacrament of Baptism 

The Catholic Church has been a popular target in the media. Certainly there are people in the Church who have done awful things, and it is horrible when those people are the ones who are supposed to best represent who the Church really is. This is a reminder that we must differentiate between “Catholic people” and true Catholic Faith.  People have –– and are –– problems.  That is one reason we are here today.

The Catholic Church is also a popular target in the media right now because it seems the Church is against some basic human rights and freedoms.  We live in a society that generally believes people should be free to do whatever they want to do, but most people do not think that through.   Total individual freedom would be anarchy, and so there must be boundaries somewhere. Yet boundaries are limits to freedom.  The question is, who decides where those boundaries are drawn and on what basis are those decisions made?  Is it mere majority?  (The majority went along with some awful boundaries in Nazi Germany –– a terrible reminder that the majority can be horribly wrong). If not popular opinion, then what?  The Catholic Church believes God has told us and shown us what is right and good and true in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church also claims that it is the extension of the truth and reality of Jesus Christ into the world throughout time.  (I’d love to give some good reasons why the Church can claim this, but I’m already stretching this occasion!)

What I hope I can do in these few minutes is give a context to help understand this occasion which brings us together. In traditional homiletical form there are three points which can give a framework for what we call the Sacrament of Baptism.

The first is an observation that can hardly be contested: our world is broken and we need help to make things better. Of course there is widespread and huge disagreement as to the nature of the problem and what needs to be done.  The Church teaches that God made our world and all that is in it, with human beings as the pinnacle of his creation. God created us with rational abilities beyond that of other animal life –– a key component of that is moral, so that humans alone have the capacity for “right and wrong” while other animal life simply performs according to its particular nature. God gave us us this capacity because he created us to have a loving relationship with him, and love has be to freely given to be “love.”  This carries with it the inherent choice not to love, but to turn away.... and this is what God’s human creation –– we –– have chosen to do.  We try to find our own way.  We do what we think will make us fulfilled and happy, and we too often get it wrong. The result of turning away from loving God, of not responding to him as he designed us, causes brokenness, pain, and death.  We need to get back in touch with the “Manufacturer’s instructions.” This is part of a basic worldview that forms Catholic Faith. 

Volumes of books have been written just on these few observations. Our brokenness extends even to our ability to perceive and understand.  The corollary to making decisions to find our own way is to shut God out, and when God is shut out a thick canopy descends on our world and what we see and understand.  Yes, we have incredible abilities to see and understand what we think is the “natural” world –– we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image.  It is the things we do not see–– and with our darkened spirits, cannot see–– that leaves us continuously trying to find a way to right all the wrong that keep us floundering. We try to fix our world as we think it is, but so many ignore –– even reject –– the invisible spiritualities.

It was into this situation that God chose to do something amazing. This takes me to a second point: God chose to come into our world as one of us so that he could show us (and not merely “tell” us) what is right and good and true.  This is the crux of Christian Faith. God works within the world he has made to come close to us and give us a hope beyond pain and death –– Jesus Christ, the God-Man, not only living a perfect human life, but also being willing to be hated for it to the point of being killed so he could absorb all the evil and pain and then come back from the dead never to die again in order to prove that it’s all true.... We are invited to believe he has opened this door so the same thing can happen to us.  Christianity is Jesus Christ –– God becoming Man, showing what is true, dying for it, and then rising from the dead.

Christians believe there are good reasons to believe this is really true. And if this is true, then it changes the way we look at our world and ourselves.  It is a paradigm shift, like the world experienced when the Ptolemaic system was shattered by Copernicus.  The Catholic Church offers a worldview shift that makes sense of our realities and gives us a hope beyond the limits of our broken world.  This is the third major point: What Jesus started with his personal teaching, death, and resurrection, he chose to continue through the Church. Jesus gave the Church the power to extend his salvation into our world. It is a spiritual reality that is a mystery, but those who are open to see it find a spiritual revolution that brings transformation to the whole world.

Some people wonder why, if all this is true, there isn’t more tangible evidence. Why aren’t Christians immediately and totally transformed? Why aren’t “proofs” for God more forthcoming? Do you remember why I said God gave humans the ability to disobey from the beginning? God wants our love, and love cannot be coerced –– even with overpowering proofs. The greatest “proof” of Christian Faith is the changed lives of people who allow Jesus to work his life into theirs. History is full of them.  The Church has at least as many saints as scoundrels. This is what brings us to Baptism.

In the language of the Church, disregarding God and his ways is called “sin.” Jesus gave the Church the power to forgive sins. Jesus is always working (he really is alive), and especially working through the Church, to give us life and hope. Jesus works in and through the Church to change lives. The calling of every person on earth is to be like Jesus, the perfect human being. That is what a saint is, and we are all invited to become saints. Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint! This is the highest calling in the world.

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977).

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added).  Unfortunately, not all baptized people live up to their baptism –– “the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). The priest scandal shows that.  But here is the issue: Am I living out of my Baptism?  If you are baptized, are you following Jesus? Riley and Emmalou will need further teaching, good models, and encouragement to continue what is starting today.  That is why the parents and godparents make promises. Baptism initiates a journey.... a spiritual journey of wholeness that takes us into all God first intended when he created human beings.

On a practical note, why “baptism” –– this particular expression with water? God loves the material world he has made. God works to save us by entering the tangible expressions of this world. When God acted to save us, he came into our world in a physical body.  This is called the Incarnation, and the Church teaches and models incarnational salvation through what are called sacraments. God comes to us in Baptism through water (and Jesus continuously gives himself to us through the bread and wine of the Eucharist). That things so common can be so powerful is a mystery. We can never comprehend God, but we can be open to his life and the power it brings.

Baptism extends a very particular image: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice what St Paul said in his letter to the Romans: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (6:3-4). That is why we use the sign of the cross –– this symbol of the death of Christ is placed on us in our Baptism and we are called to renew it continuously.

Something incredible happens when people do this: they are transformed. Christians are people who are being turned into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is salvation. When it happens, the Church is beautiful, and people see love and are given hope. When it doesn’t happen, there is no sign of the hope we can have over pain and death. Riley and Emmalou are being given this great gift today. We can enhance this gift to them if we allow the Faith that Jesus gave to the Catholic Church to grip our own lives so that the girls have models that say to them “it’s really true”.... and not just some strange thing that Catholics do.

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