Trinity Sunday—18 May AD 2008
The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511
the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!
How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable His ways!”
[Ordinary of the Mass]
In the Old Testament, on the Yom Kippur, Day of
Atonement, the high priest was directed to place his hands upon the head of a
goat, confess the sins and transgressions of the people, symbolically
transferring their sins to the animal, and then to drive the goat out into the
desert to die, taking their sins with him.
In the Roman Mass, the priest makes a similar gesture over the bread and wine,
just a minute or two before they are consecrated and become the body and blood
of Christ. If you are sitting off to one side of the church, you may be
able to see him join his thumbs and extend his hands over the chalice and host.
The altar server rings the bell one time as he does so, and if you listen
carefully, you may hear the opening words of the prayer given in the missal, “Hanc
ígitur—Graciously accept, O lord, this service of our worship.”
Like the high priest of the temple, the Catholic priest gestures to show that
the sins of mankind were taken on by Jesus Christ in the Sacrifice of the Cross
as He offered Himself to the Father—the offering that is renewed in time in
place in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
But, while the sins of the Jewish people were forgiven on
the Day of Atonement, the Sacrifice of the Cross redeemed the entirety of
mankind, enabled the priests appointed by Jesus Christ to forgive the sins of
individuals, and confers sanctifying grace on those who assist at Mass,
particularly those who receive Holy Communion. The high priest and his
people were forgiven, but they were not made holy by their sacrifice. The
Sacrifice of Christ does both.
During the eight day of Easter and Pentecost—from the
Vigil of both feasts until the following Saturdays—the Church has the priest
say a slightly different version of this prayer as he extends his hands over the
offerings. Since these two feasts are the Church’s principal baptismal
feasts, the priest prays “on behalf of those brought to new life by water and
the Holy Ghost.” Yesterday, on the last day of the Pentecost octave we
were privileged to baptize two new souls, forgiving them of all their sins, and
starting them on this new life of grace. This is what our Lord meant by
being “born again.”
In today’s Gospel we read that our Lord authorized His
disciples to go out into the world, to “all nations,” and to baptize them
“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
For each individual Christian, Baptism is the beginning of the life of
grace, the life of holiness.
In modern times, many Catholics have lost sight of this
most essential aspect of Baptism.
Since the 1960s there have been false teachers who have
tried to make Baptism and the other Sacraments out to be nothing more than the
“rites of passage” undergone by primitive peoples to mark the significant
events in their lives.
Since the 1960s there has been an excessive emphasis on the
idea that Baptism makes one “a member of the community.” That is true
of course, but it must be added that the “community” in question is the
Catholic Church, and that by joining the community of the Church we are joined
to Jesus Christ in what we often call “the Mystical Body of Christ,” with
Christ as our head and we as His body.
Saint Paul tells us that the height of this unity with Christ and with each
other, is found in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “the bread, which
we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being
many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread.”
If we consider the Sacrament of Baptism, the primary thing
to consider is the grace which it confers. We know that Adam and Eve were
mortal creatures whom God elevated above the natural state by creating them in
the state of Sanctifying Grace. That is to say that God made them
radically holy, a place where the Holy Ghost would dwell, as in a temple.
We speak of them being created in the state of “original justice,” and, when
they fell from grace, as being in the state of “original sin.” The
mother and father of the human race could not pass on this “original
justice” for they had lost it—much in the way that a father and mother can
not pass on great wealth to their children if they have spent or gambled their
fortune away. “What we call “original sin” is not personal sin in
the descendants of Adam and Eve; it is more a question of lacking the
grace of holiness. In Baptism, God restores Sanctifying Grace, and dwells
in the souls of those made holy.
It matters not whether the person being baptized has grave
personal sins or has the innocence of a baby child. The grace of the
Sacrament wipes out all sin. We baptized both a child and an adult
yesterday, and it would be foolish to try to make comparisons, or to ask which
one gained more from the Sacrament, for they both, equally, received Sanctifying
Grace and the holiness that goes along with it. Both became perfectly
sinless and radically holy.
We might also note that the adult knew something of the
Catholic Faith before Baptism, while the infant knew nothing of It. Before
Baptism, the adult learned many of the things revealed by God, and said that he
believed all these things, which of course, the infant could not do. But
in Baptism the belief of both the adult and the infant is confirmed by the
virtue of Faith, a free gift from God to both of them. Faith, of course,
is accompanied by Charity and Hope—God infuses these virtues at Baptism, so
that we may believe in Him, love Him, and trust Him to bring us to Heaven with
Him if we but cooperate with His graces.
In Baptism the soul is marked with a special character, not
only marking us as Christians, but enabling us to receive the other Sacraments
fruitfully in due time. None of the other Sacraments can be conferred on
those not baptized. Baptism is the beginning of holiness here on earth,
which increases through the reception of the other Sacraments, and culminates
ultimately in the beatific vision of God in Heaven. Nothing unholy can
come before the face of God. It is the radical holiness of sanctifying
grace which makes our vision of God possible in eternity.
Let me close with one suggestion. The baptized
faithful should recognize that the Sacrament is more than something that took
place in the past. Even if we were baptized eighty or ninety years ago, we
must keep the Sacramental significance alive in our hearts all the days of our
lives. We should strive mightily to preserve the innocence of Baptism, not
allowing our souls to become stained with sin, not allowing ourselves to lose
sanctifying grace and the holiness which makes it possible to have the Holy
Ghost dwell in our hearts.
If we fall from that grace we should swiftly seek the
remedy of Sacramental Confession, so that it is promptly restored. We
should receive Holy Communion frequently—daily if possible—for it is the
nourishment of the grace we possess.
At Baptism we received the virtues of Faith, Hope, and
Charity—belief, and trust, and love. But like any of the virtues, these
must be nourished with practice. We should always be hungry to know
God’s truth, eager for opportunities to love Him, and patient in developing
the trust which comes from remaining habitually in the state of grace.
Frequent Mass and Holy Communion, the other Sacraments and sacramentals, the
Rosary, the Scapular, and spiritual reading are the obvious ways—and never let
a day go by without personal prayer.
Congratulations to those who were baptized yesterday.
Congratulations to their sponsors and families and friends. Let all of us
keep firmly in mind that our Baptism started us on the road to the vision of God
in Heaven—an let us all make every effort to keep on that road, even in the
places where it narrows a bit.