We mark the first liturgy of the Church, the first precepts for worship
The very first liturgy most Catholics participate in is baptism. I know, I know. If you are a cradle Catholic, you don’t have any recollection of your baptism. Nevertheless, when our parents brought us to the Church to receive this first and once-in-a-lifetime sacrament, suddenly—even as seven-pound flour sacks of original sin—we entered into the everlasting prayer of the Church. We participated in our first liturgy.
Baptism is the first liturgy of the Church. The first sacrament instituted by Christ, here He reveals His own divine identity and makes it possible to be intimately united to Him in this sacrament of regeneration and charity. Baptism is the first promise of redemption. We can be made clean Christ tells us. Jesus, in his institution of holy baptism, fulfills the ancient verse of scripture which says, “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).
Baptism makes possible our rebirth. It’s no accident that baptism requires a washing with water. We don’t take a mud bath or splash wine on new Christians. Baptism is a cleansing.
But, maybe we can’t help asking: Why was Christ baptized? After all, Jesus had no need of forgiveness, since our Lord was conceived without even the stain of original sin. St. Ambrose offers an answer, telling us, “Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters.”
By His own holiness, Jesus makes it possible for us to be washed clean in the waters. He’s begun something new. In imitation of Him, by following the path He has trod, we can be made like Him. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, “Christ was baptized, not that He might be cleansed, but that He might cleanse.”
That’s the life of Christ in a nutshell: laying down a pattern of being, such that we can be conformed to Him. He Himself inaugurates the means to become like Him. Baptism is the first phase in this project of Christian life. It’s the first moment where our hearts are re-shaped, re-fashioned after the model of Christ’s own Sacred Heart.
To call baptism the first liturgy of the Church, then, means that Christ lays down the first ceremonial precepts by which we worship Him. All the essential elements of Christ’s baptismal rites are present in each baptism the Church performs to this day. There is a washing of water. The persons of the Most Holy Trinity—all of whom were present at Christ’s baptism—are invoked by calling upon their names. The soul is flooded with grace in a public manifestation of the power and presence of God. This, and more, happens at every baptism.
Typically, baptisms are not held in secret. They are public affairs. Family and friends rejoice as an infant child is brought to the Church. With parents and godparents vouching for the child’s faith, promising to provide the resources for the child to learn Christian living, newborn boys and girls receive the extraordinary treasures of faith, hope, and love.
As St. Hippolytus recounts in the third century, “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.” Baptism confers the ability to draw on every grace and blessing of Christ throughout the whole of one’s life, from the very beginning of life on earth, to the body’s last breath.
We may not remember our baptism, but in baptism a certain mark was given to us that can never be taken away. Think about how few things on this side of eternity we can do that cannot be undone, better still that will always remain. There is no ritual for being “de-baptized.” Once conferred, baptism places a mark on the soul giving the Christian such intimate access to God, that the Holy Trinity actually takes up residence in our soul.
The Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity often reflects upon this extraordinary mystery of God’s presence in the soul. She writes, “What a joyous mystery is your presence within me, in that intimate sanctuary of my soul where I can always find you, even when I do not feel your presence. Of what importance is feeling? Perhaps you are all the closer when I feel you less.” Recognizing that we do not always feel the presence of God, we can, nevertheless, draw near to Him, who remains always present in our souls.
We may not always feel the glory of that first liturgy of the church: That extraordinary event of the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan. We can, however, always draw on the font of grace that sacrament provides. The deep well of faith, hope, and charity, which began to run forth with water on the day we received holy baptism, offers ever-new depths of wonder. Christ makes this possible by offering the Church her first great liturgy. Down to the present age, on this great feast, may our hearts overflow with love and rejoicing for the new way of life He has made possible.