Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism of the Lord–A Catechesis on the Sacrament of Baptism



Last week when we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we recalled that both Jews and non-Jews alike, the shepherds and the Magi, were drawn to behold the Lord. Because they were both Jews and non-Jews, they symbolize all people of all times who are called to be co-heirs of God’s 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. Our Lord himself said to John, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” At the time of the Exodus, when Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, 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.
In our modern day, this dynamic still unfolds for the People of God. But why does this happen through infant baptism in the Catholic Church when most Protestant communities practice adult or adolescent baptism? Let me take a few more minutes to explain.

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 and us 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. 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). [see the CDF’s “Instruction on Infant Baptism,” October 20, 1980]

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 modern times.

Why then is the practice of infant baptism in decline in recent years? In other parishes I have been in, I have heard parents say, “Well we want to wait to have our child baptized until she is old enough to choose it for herself.” Why do parents say this? Perhaps they’re influenced by the example of the adults who were baptized in the New Testament. 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, we must remember that Baptism is not simply a sign of faith already present, 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. Furthermore, the child is made a son or daughter of God and brought into the sacramental life of the Church as a co-heir with Christ of all of God’s blessings. How could we delay or refuse a child’s reception of these gifts until some older age of choosing?

Some parents may want to wait until the child is older so as not to restrict his freedom to choose. They may think that it is unjust to impose on him future obligations that he may not want. As nice 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 the good of their child’s natural life before he can choose them himself, like the house he will grow up in, the food he will eat, or the school he will attend; why not decide for the good of his supernatural life? Having a so-called neutral attitude toward the child’s religious life is in fact not a neutral, but a negative choice to deprive the child of the gifts and graces of Baptism.

Besides, the New Testament presents entry into the Christian life not as an imposition or constraint, but as admittance to a truer, more ennobled freedom. “If a [S]on frees you,” John’s Gospel says, “then you will truly be free” (Jn 8:36). When the child grows up, he will still be able to reject his baptismal faith, a sad reality attested to by many parents and grandparents today. But, if this happens, 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, by entering the River Jordan, sanctified the waters of Baptism, making them a fountain of healing, freedom, new birth, and everlasting life. Let’s work together to ensure that our current and future children that have not been baptized will be baptized with proper preparation and without delay. The Church 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.

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