Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Trinity Sunday—18 May AD 2008

On Baptism

The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511
Albrecht Dürer
(1471-1528, Nürnberg)

“Oh, 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]
[Latin Text]
[English Text]

    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.[1]  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.”[2]

    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.[3]  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.”[4]

    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.


[1]   Lev. xvi: 1-22.

[2]   Cf. John iii: 1-15.

[3]   John 15:5-8; Ephesians 4:4-13 ; Pope Pius XII, encyclical Mystici Corporis

[4]   1 Corinthians x: 16-17


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