Saturday, January 12, 2013

Homily, Baptism of the Lord, Year C

Last week when we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we recalled that Jews and non-Jews alike, the shepherds and the Magi, were drawn to behold the Lord, the fulfillment of the blessings promised to Israel. Because they were both Jews and non-Jews, they symbolize all people of all times who are called to be co-heirs of these blessings. This week our Lord reveals that Baptism is the way to claim this inheritance. This also gives me an opportunity to do a little bit of catechesis on the Sacrament of Baptism to help you understand and explain our faith.

Jesus submitted to St. John’s Baptism not because he was in need of purification, but as a act of humility and in order to bring to fulfillment what was done for the Israelites long ago. At the time of Moses, they were held in slavery in Egypt. Moses, through the Passover, led them in an Exodus from Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. But Pharaoh’s armies chased them to the Red Sea so Moses, by the power of God, parted the waters of the Sea so that the Israelites could march through to the other side. Once safely across, the waters came crashing down behind them. In this episode, God’s People were saved through water from slavery to Egypt in order to pursue the Promised Land. By passing through the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus leads a new exodus from slavery to sin and for the promised land of heaven. And Jesus does this so that all peoples of all times could hear the words pronounced over him by the voice of the Father: that each of us is a beloved son or daughter of God.

In our modern day, this dynamic still unfolds for the People of God. Nonetheless, it may shock you to know that infant Baptism in the Catholic Church is in decline.[1] Let’s take a moment to look at the Church’s teaching on infant Baptism so that our own parish doesn’t fall victim to this trend (see the CDF’s “Instruction on Infant Baptism,” October 20, 1980).

The Church’s practice of baptizing infants comes primarily from our belief in original sin and in the necessity of baptism for salvation. We believe that Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendents a human nature wounded by their own first sin; a human nature deprived of its original holiness; this deprivation is called original sin. As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened, subject to ignorance, suffering, and death, and inclined to sin (CCC 416-418). It is this sin, contracted not committed, that is washed away when an infant is baptized. And so the Letter to the Romans says, “For if, by the transgression of one person [Adam], death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17).

Our belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation comes from Christ himself, who said in John’s Gospel, “Amen, amen I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). And we read in the first letter of St. Peter that it is Baptism “which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 3:21).

The practice of infant baptism is also well established in Sacred Tradition. St. Augustine considered it a “tradition received from the Apostles” When the first direct evidence of infant Baptism appears in the second century, it is never presented as an innovation. St. Irenaeus, in particular, considers it a matter of course that the baptized should include "infants and small children" as well as adolescents, young adults and older people. The oldest known ritual from the start of the third century contains the following rule: "First baptize the children. Those of them who can speak for themselves should do so. The parents or someone of their family should speak for the others." The magisterium, popes, and councils from the earliest centuries affirmed this practice, from the Council of Carthage in 418 to Pope Paul VI in our own day.

Why then is the practice of infant baptism in decline? In other parishes I have been in, I have heard parents say, “Well we want to wait to have our child baptized until she can choose it for herself.” Why do parents say this? Perhaps they’re influenced by the example of the adults who were baptized in the Gospel. These adults after being converted to the Christian Faith by the preaching of the Apostles were then baptized. We may ask, “How can infants be baptized if they have no faith to profess beforehand?” But, this question fails to acknowledge that in the case of an infant, it is the faith of the Church that is professed. Plus, remember that Baptism is not simply a sign of faith as many of our Protestant brothers and sisters believe, but it is also a cause of faith. Through Baptism the child is given the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love. The child is also made a son or daughter of God and a co-heir with Christ of the riches of Heaven. Furthermore, Baptism is the gateway to the sacramental life of the Church and all of the blessings God gives us through the Church. How could we delay their reception of these gifts?

Some may want to wait to let their child choose baptism because they think that baptism as an infant restricts his freedom to choose. They may think that it is unjust to impose on him future obligations that he may perhaps later be led to reject. Therefore parents should wait until the child can make the commitment himself and in the meantime they and the child’s teachers should hold back on the Catholic stuff. As reasonable as it sounds, this attitude is simply an illusion. There is no such thing as freedom completely immune from any kind of influence. Parents make all sorts of decisions for their child’s natural life before he can choose them himself, like the proper house in which to live or the elementary school he will go too. Having a so-called neutral attitude toward the child’s religious life is in fact a negative choice to deprive the child of all of the gifts and graces of Baptism.

Besides, the New Testament presents entry into the Christian life not as a form of slavery or constraint, but as admittance to a truer, more ennobled freedom (see Jn 8:36). When the child grows up, he will still be able to reject his baptismal faith, a sorrow attested to by many parents and grandparents. But, we should not underestimate the power of the seeds of faith sown in the soul in infant baptism, to one day spring to life again, aided by the parents’ patience, love, prayers, and authentic witness.

Jesus today has shown us that he has sanctified the waters of Baptism, making them a passage-way to healing and freedom, a fountain of new birth and everlasting life. Let’s work together to ensure that our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our neighbors and our friends that have not been baptized can be washed and graced by baptism without delay. The Church, described by St. Paul as Christ's "body" and His "fullness," is the visible sacrament of Christ in the world, with the mission of extending to everyone the sacramental link between the Church and her glorified Savior. Accordingly, the Church cannot fail to wish to give to everyone, children no less than adults, the first and basic sacrament of Baptism, the sacrament of our salvation.

[1] Baptism is a first step in involvement in the Church. A 10 year study in the Archdiocese of Louisville shows that as baptisms decrease so does elementary school enrollment. Baptisms are down from 3,065 in 1998 to 2,329 today, while total elementary school enrollment is down from 16,732 to 12,469 students.

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