The Baptism of the Lord is a good day to remember the most important day of our lives, a day few of us remember, a day we tend to take for granted.
Pope Francis stressed recently that Baptism is not a formality; it is not a “naming ceremony”; it is “an act which deeply touches our lives. A child who is baptized is not the same as a non-baptized child, a baptized person is not the same as a non-baptized person.”
How so? What changes does Baptism make in us? Looking at the baptismal promises, I can think of six …
First: Baptism makes us free.
The first baptismal promise we renew each year is “Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?”
Baptized Catholics might not feel freer than other people. But we are.
Think of it this way: If you broke into the house of a great celebrity, you might feel a certain amount of freedom to do what you wanted, but it would be a false, temporary, stolen freedom. There would be no rules, but there would be a constant black shadow.
If you got a job as the paid servant in the house of that celebrity, you would be more free in one way and less free in another. You would have a whole set of rules to follow to preserve your job. You would be careful about how you dressed and where you sat. You would only go to the refrigerator if you were asked to get something. You wouldn’t think of asking, “Can I borrow your car?”
But if you were a friend of the celebrity, a lot would change. Many of the rules might be the same – but your situation would be totally changed. You would speak familiarly with the celebrity, sit with him on the couch and help yourself when you needed to from the refrigerator – within reason. You would also say “Hey, can I borrow your car?” when you were in a bind.
The difference between servitude and freedom is friendship in life, and in the spiritual life, as well. Baptism gives us the run of the master’s mansion – the freedom of a friend.
Second, Baptism gives us happiness.
The second promise is to “reject the glamour of evil.” God responds to our promise by forgiving our sins. That, again puts us in a whole new relationship.
A forgiven person is delighted and happy. A forgiven person knows where happiness can be found – not in what he can do, or what he can provide, but in the generosity of his forgiving friend. We live in that relationship with Jesus, as he guides us to the things that will make our happiness last.
Third, Baptism gives us a built-in worldwide community.
Our third promise is “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?”
Those are relationship words: We are rejecting a false father and a dark prince. We are leaving the community of darkness for one of light.
Human beings are hard-wired for community. We love nothing better than connection with others. This can get us into trouble, but it can also get us into a world of good – specifically a worldwide team of people who are focused on brotherhood, love and peace.
Instead of the celebrity’s house, we can now walk into the celebrity’s properties worldwide and be welcomed. We have a pass to any Catholic Church from Ghana to Amsterdam, from Beijing to New Guinea, and in each we will find “our people.”
Fourth, Baptism makes God our Father.
The next three promises recite the creed, starting with our belief in “God the Father, creator of heaven and earth.” In response, God gives us the grace to be “a participant in the divine life of the Trinity.”
Here is where Baptism gets radical. Rather than merely being the friend of a celebrity, Baptism makes us a son or daughter. This is huge. Friends can borrow the car when they’re in a bind. Family members have nearly full car access. Family members can act in the celebrity’s name, opening doors that would not be available to a mere friend.
To see just how important this is, consider:
Fifth, Baptism makes Christ our brother.
By incorporating us into the life of the Trinity, Baptism puts us in a tough spot.
Returning to our analogy, we are like foster children from the rough part of town adopted by a kindly celebrity. This makes for a lot of initial difficulties in our getting along. The new family’s ways are not ours. Through trial and error and much forgiveness, we start to get the hang of it over time.
If we are truly blessed, the foster family will come with a kindly sibling who takes us under his wing and helps us meet the expectations of our new circumstances.
We are truly blessed in our baptismal family. We have just such a brother in Jesus Christ. Actually, it’s even better than that: He doesn’t only call himself a brother. He calls himself a bridegroom. His commitment to us is total.
So must ours be, which brings us to:
Sixth, Baptism gives us what we need to be able to love.
So last, in addition to freedom, happiness, community, sonship and fraternal love – we promise to believe in the Holy Spirit and the Church, in turn, promises that Baptism gives us the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Those gifts – wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, fear of God and piety – equip us to love. They give us the taste for God, the ability to see life from his perspective, the ability to discern the right and the strength to do it, and they give us both awe and consolation.
A wise priest once told me that if I don’t have all of these things – all of these gifts of Baptism – then I should demand them from God. He promised them, and he is the one who keeps his promises.
That’s why Baptism is such a big deal. Forever.
“Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy…”