SACRAMENTS – BAPTISM

INTRO We have entered the Church’s first and greatest Novena – to the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Feast of Pentecost. We are opening ourselves and the whole Church (and every parish and Christian community) to the renewing, reforming and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a doctrine to be believed so much as a transforming encounter to be experienced. Too many of us expect too little – and are content with a sub-normal Christian experience! Indeed, the sub-normal seems to have become the normal! But the true ‘normal’ is the New Testament experience. May the Holy Spirit become a mighty wind of change in our lives, a powerful flame of love in our hearts and the fountain of Living Water welling up from deep within bringing us fully alive in Christ. So we are going to explore as part of our Novena the Seven Sacraments with a particular interest in the work of the Holy Spirit in each Sacrament.

[1] What is Sacrament? Put simply it is the visibility of the invisible presence of God in you and me and in the community. Jesus Christ, Eternal Word made Flesh (John 1: 14), ‘visible Icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15) – He is the ‘Sacrament of the Father’, for ‘to have seen Me is to have seen the Father’ as Jesus told Philip the Apostle (John 14: 9). The Church is the Body of Christ – making Christ visible in the flesh of the contemporary world and in every culture, not just proclaiming Him but manifesting Him, making Him visible to our modern world. Therefore before the Church celebrates sacraments, we are together the Sacrament of Christ, making visible and tangible His Love, His liberating Truth, His Life of Service in the quality of our communities of Mission, Witness and Prophetic Proclamation. Quite a challenge – to live community with commitment and love for one another. The Church’s sacraments are the grace-filled encounters with God that are the nourishment that makes the Church the Sacrament of Christ.

[2] Each Sacrament is an encounter with Christ alive and active in His Body the Church. Every sacrament is the action of Christ in His Body the Church, an encounter with the living God whereby we enter more deeply into the vey Life of the Divine, into the ‘mystery’ of the Trinity, that vortex and energy of infinite Love. Each sacrament is celebrated with ritual composed by the Church because ‘ritual’ is the way we can express the inexpressible, put into shared words what is essentially beyond all words. However, the ritual only is the vehicle carrying the Divine, the Grace, the saving and liberating encounter with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A Devotion is my reaching out to God, while the Sacrament is God reaching out to me and my community. No sacrament is my private affair, not simply my God coming to me – it is always shaping, renewing, building the community of the Church, drawing me more deeply into the community of missionary disciples that is the Church. Every Sacrament builds the Church for mission.

[3] The Seven Sacraments all touch an essential part of our life experience: Baptism and our birth; Confirmation and our maturing responsibility for others; Eucharist and the need to be fed, drawn into community, becoming what we eat and drink; Reconciliation and healing broken relationships; marriage and our growing in loving and life-giving union with another; ordination and our need to be guided, supported, cared for; anointed for healing touching our sickness, frailty and mortality. The Sacraments are not primarily religious rituals but God embracing fundamental moment s and experiences of our life’s journey and as the Emmanuel, being God who walks with us through them on our Pilgrimage of Life.

[4] Baptism, the Sacrament of New Life, drawn into the heart of God. The Greek word ‘Baptizein’ means both immersion and washing, a ‘water bath’. Ritual washing was common in Judaism prior to both John the Baptist and Jesus and indeed was a widespread practice throughout Middle Eastern religions.  The Q’mran community used frequent ritual washings as an expression of purity and faithfulness to God. It expressed a desire for ritual and inner purity, and an expression of ‘repentance’ and forgiveness. These ritual washings were not rites of Initiation into a new life, however, but perhaps more like the Christian practice of frequent confession. It had also become used as a ritual in the conversion of Gentiles to Jewish faith, as a preparatory rite of repentance leading to circumcision (the Jewish rite of initiation for males). John the Baptist appears to have used this sign of repentance while adapting it in his practice of baptising the Jewish people who came to him at the Jordan River – which is why he saw no reason to baptise Jesus as there was no need for repentance (Matthew 3: 13-17). These rites of baptism of repentance are an expression of the recipient’s desire for forgiveness of sin, while Christian Baptism is altogether different: a fundamental turning point in one’s life and immersion into a new realm of existence – the New Life of the Spirit of God. In other words it is God’s action not ours! Of course repentance and forgiveness are elements in entering this new existence but being plunged into an utterly new relationship with the Divine, becoming a child of the Father, brother of Jesus, ’co-heir with Christ’ (Romans 8:), filled with the Holy Spirit – this is Christian Baptism.  Therefore the New Testament makes a very clear and consistent distinction between John’s baptism of repentance and Christian baptism as the once only Initiation into the New Life of Christ: a necessity as the rite of entry into this New Life and the Community of New Life – the Church. This can be seen in Matthew description of the Ascension when Jesus instructs his disciples to baptise in ‘the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ as vital in evangelising the nations (Matthew 28: 19). Clearly it was the established liturgical practice of this early Matthean Jewish Christian community. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles also shows the necessity for baptism in the practice of conversion in the earliest Church. Meanwhile Paul develops a profound theology of Baptism in his writings, born out his own experience of his baptism at the hands of Aeneas (Acts) and his missionary experience.

[5] To understand our Baptism into Christ we must look briefly at Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan river. Although conceived by the overshadowing Holy Spirit, Jesus grew into the realisation that He was to give himself decisively to the work and Mission of the Father. He expressed that adult commitment by seeking John’s baptism. But whereas everyone who came to John wanted to repent (it was ‘their action’), Jesus’s baptism was God’s action – the Father spoke of the depth of relationship ‘You are my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!’; the Holy Spirit descended over the waters, as at the moment of creation (Genesis 1: 1-2) and again at after the Great Flood in the story of Noah and his Ark of New Creation. This Baptism is heralding a new Beginning for the world, the ‘Recreation of the face of the Earth’. Jesus in his humanity breaks through to a new awareness and experience of his being ‘beloved’ of God who is in the most absolute way His ‘Abba’ Father. In that embrace of Divine Love, He is empowered for the work of Ministry, Mission, He becomes the Servant (Luke 4: 16-22 & Philippians 2: 6-8). A New Era, a New Time, a New Creation has begun. 

[7] Our Baptism is being plunged into the same relationship with ‘Abba’ Father as Jesus’ relationship, heir of the Father, co-heir with the Son as Paul describes (Romans 8: 17). We too are empowered by the HolySpirit, this Divine Intimacy of Love that is Baptism for His Mission, His Servanthood in the world. We are caught up in the inner dynamic of the infinite and eternal Loving relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (‘This is the love I mean, not our love for God but God’s love for us!’ 1 John 4: 10) – which is why we are baptised in the name of the Trinity. Their ‘vortex’ of loving becomes the dynamic and energy and being of our own lives. The Sacrament of Confirmation in the Holy Spirit expresses the servanthood and Mission; our Baptism immerses us into the love of the Father, filling us with that embrace of Love that is the Holy Spirit and preparing us for the Spirit-empowered, Spirit-led Mission of the Gospel. Our ‘servanthood’ our mission flows from being infinitely beloved of God. It s a free gift, not dependent of our ‘performance’ our ‘earning’ of that love (see the Parable of the workers in the Vineyard all receiving the same reward – God cannot give less than everything to us – Matthew 20: 1-16). The repentance and forgiveness of sin that is part of baptism is in preparation (clearing the Highway for ‘the Coming of our God’, as it were – Luke 3: 3-6) for being immersed in the inner life of God who is Love. Baptism is about radical new relationship with God first and foremost.

[8] So being baptised (and every day is our baptismal day as it orients our life once and for all towards that Love we call the Trinity) is the free gift of Divine Loving Intimacy which leads on to mission, the desire to share the Good News of this relationship and build this new World. Baptism makes us a New ‘Being’ while Confirmation entrusts to us a New ‘Doing’. But more about this when we explore Confirmation tomorrow! Baptism is a call to holiness, to live the New Humanity we have received in these Waters of Re-birth. We are made Holy in Baptism: repentance and forgiveness (expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation among other ways) are ways of returning to that Baptismal Holiness we have already been given. Baptism is the Healing Sacrament, for the wounds of self-loathing, self-hatred, lack of self-worth are healed as we hear God whisper everyday in the still centre of our being ‘You are my Beloved Daughter/Son – in you I am well pleased!’ Our life of discipleship is first learning how to yield to the gift already given, to that Love, so as to become that Love in mission to the world.

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