On this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord I would like to offer a few reflections not on Christ’s baptism but rather what does it mean to be baptized or what is the significance of Baptism in our lives? It may well be that as we journey through life we never give what happened to us back there any serious reflection.
There was a time when we could do little more that sleep eat and excrete when our parents brought us to this church or some other to present us for Baptism. It was an expression of the way that they wanted the best for us and desired to pass on the faith that was important to them. What was it that really happened in that ceremony where we possibly never even woke up or perhaps even screamed our way through?
At a very basic level our lives were pointed in a particular direction, we were orientated towards God. The faith that had been faithfully passed down from one generation to another was been delivered to our doorstep and later it was going to be up to us to decide what we would do with it. Every generation is a link in a chain and if even one of those links had been broken through countless generations the Christian Faith would never have reached us.
As our parents, god-parents and relatives held us in their arms it was an expression of God holding us in His loving arms. As our loved ones smiled upon us so was God saying about us what he said about Jesus ‘This is my child the beloved in whom I am well pleased’. All this happened before we were capable of doing anything to earn or deserve that love and guess what God doesn’t change and that is the way he continues to love us. He loves us not for what we do but for who He is. As we get older its so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Gods love for us is conditional and performance based which is simply not the case.
In Baptism then we were invited into relationship with God as a child that he loves and not just initiated into a system of rules and regulations. What a tragedy that for so many the Christian life is and has been seen as a worthiness contest as to how well we keep the rules. I like the story you may have heard already of the man who having parked on double yellow lines failed to pay his fine and was summoned to court. The day before his friend remarked that he didn’t seem very worried about his appearance to which he replied, ‘ Why would I have reason to be worried when the judge is my friend.’
Baptism is also about being welcomed into the Christian community. There is an innate need in all of us to be part of a bigger picture and belong to a family that is wider than our own. This is where the ever-growing trend towards more and more people living in isolation is so contrary to what it means to be baptised and to be Church. It is also so detrimental to mental health and well-being. In every community this is a major problem where people live next door but don’t know each other. As a Church we have a huge responsibility in that regard to do what we can to reverse that trend. The extension taking place on our Community Centre is one such response.
In Baptism our heads were anointed with the oil of Chrism both as a prayer and a reminder that our lives were about service of others and not about ourselves. That for each of us God has a work to do that is given to no other; that our lives have the capacity to make a difference and we can leave this world in a better state going out of it than when we came into it. I have always found that thought very comforting that God does have a plan for my life and that He has called me to do something unique and special for him and that is also the fullest expression of who I am as a person.
Finally an aspect of what it means to be baptised that in the past seems to have got completely overlooked. Far too many Christians have lived their lives crippled by guilt and unworthiness. In fact we almost prided ourselves on being unworthy as we beat our breasts at Mass saying, ‘Lord I am not worthy’, while we forgot the really important truth is that Christ by his death on the Cross had made us worthy. In fact it could be argued that the prayer we use today is still inadequate and fails to paint the fuller picture. ‘Lord, I am not worthy,’ is only half the story while the other is, ‘but you Lord by your death and resurrection have made me worthy.’
Similarly we almost made a virtue out of guilt and holding onto guilt feelings. There’s even a joke about a version of Alzheimers called Catholic Alzheimers where we forget everything except the guilt. Even after we have acknowledged out wrong doing and asked forgiveness we still have a notion that God holds something on record against us and there will always be a remnant of punishment waiting in store for us. The bottom line is that either God is all forgiving and all merciful or He’s not God.
To appreciate what it means to be baptised is to choose to journey through life knowing that my guilt is taken care of; all I have to do is acknowledge my wrongdoing and ask forgiveness. Christ has carried my guilt so I don’t have to, and that as a child of God a burden of unworthiness is not something that I need to be carrying either since I live not under Gods frown but in His favour. To put it another way, it is our baptismal right as a baptised child of God to walk this life without any trace of guilt or unworthiness. It is to each of us, and not just to Christ, that God says ‘You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.’