Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Today’s celebration of the feast of the Baptism of our Lord brings the Christmas season to a close. On this day, the Church meditates on the ending of Jesus’ hidden life, and looks forward to the beginnings of His public ministry to the world. The Church also presents the event of Jesus’ baptism as the reason behind the Sacrament of Baptism which we received in infancy, or in some cases, as adults. In this first Christian sacrament, this gateway into the life of grace, God takes simple acts and simple elements, and uses them to effect a profound spiritual change in our fallen nature.
We know that from Adam and Eve on, humanity is subject to sin. That is, we are imperfect, fallen creatures, prone to choose to do that which is evil. Jesus operated under no such disadvantage. Yet, He chose to go to John to receive the baptism of repentance. St. John the Baptist, and many others in the ancient world, encouraged a symbolic, ritual washing as a sign of repentance for sin and a new beginning. The symbolism of being bathed in water as a sign of becoming spiritually clean is very obvious. But Jesus has no need to be made clean, as He is not subject to sin. By entering the waters of the Jordan in baptism, our Lord, in His humanity, teaches our humanity what is necessary. The voice of the Father heard that day reveals Christ’s deepest identity as God’s beloved Son. The great theologians of the Church tell us that by entering the waters of the Jordan, Christ sanctifies all the waters of baptism so that when that ritual washing is celebrated sacramentally, it not only signifies repentance and cleansing, but in fact effects that new life of grace in the soul of the person baptized. By baptism, we are identified with Jesus and receive this powerful identity as beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. From baptism on, we are free of original sin, we carry the life of Christ within us, we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit to guide us, and we are made part of the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. Through the ministry of the Church, we receive the other sacraments and are opened up to the infinite graces that God wants to give us through these privileged channels.
I think it is important here to address a pastoral concern of mine. The Sacrament of Baptism is first and foremost a gift for the person being baptized. Babies are brought by their parents to the Church, and then, the parents, godparents, and indeed the whole Church share in the lifelong process of helping them to grow in the faith and in God’s grace. While the whole family rightly celebrates, the baptism is not, in the end, about them. The sacrament of baptism is about the baby receiving the supernatural gift of faith and divine life! Since the sacrament is not for the family but for the child, when should the child receive baptism?
The answer is very simple. A child should be baptized as soon as possible after birth. Why? Because the supernatural life of grace and the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit given to the child sacramentally is of eternal value. A party to celebrate, and even a guest list filled with close family members, is of merely temporal, earthly value. The salvation of a soul is at stake.
With a concession to concerns about the pandemic and the quarantine through which we lived for three months last year; I see an increasing number of children whose baptism is delayed unnecessarily. I am, of course, thrilled every time a child is baptized, and the fact of the baptism is the most important thing. But the timing is important, too. Baptisms are most often put off to accommodate travel schedules for godparents or grandparents. When this happens, baptism becomes almost an afterthought. Unintentional though it may be, this means that the salvation of the child’s soul is also an afterthought. I would like to make a proposal, especially to those who are expecting a child, or who hope to welcome a child into this world, to those who are grandparents or future grandparents, and to those who are godparents or who will be asked to serve as godparents. Give preparing for and scheduling the baptism of your child a place of prominence on your list of things to do. Give it the same importance you give to doctor visits, baby showers, and in-home preparations. Do not delay the baptism. If, for some reason, baptism has been delayed, don’t let any more time go by. Make arrangements now and help your child receive this incredible gift of God’s grace!
In the course of pregnancy, there are numerous pre-natal medical visits and check-ups. These are of tremendous importance! Still, for all the appointments, we know that a pregnancy will last nine months. Doctors can give due dates with impressive accuracy. This means that before the child is born, we have nine months to plan a date for baptism. In those nine months, we have time to think about who the godparents will be and to ask them to plan for a baptism sometime in the next 9 to 12 months, and to be prepared to travel, if necessary, in that timeframe. After birth, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends doctor visits for the newborn multiple times in the first few months of life. No responsible parent would ever consider skipping those, or delaying the visits, as they are of vital import for the physical health and well-being of the child. Just so, Catholic parents should consider baptism an essential component of the early life and development of their child. Baptism should occur as soon as possible, and ought to happen not much later than three months. Consider it essential care for the spiritual health, growth, and development of the child.
This feast of the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of the moment of our first steps in the faith. Someone helped us take those first steps. Let us remember that we have a responsibility to make those steps possible for others, too. Baptism is a great gift, but before it is a gift for anyone else, it is a gift of God’s grace moving into the life of the one being baptized. So baptize your children as soon as possible, encourage baptism even if it means being personally absent from the celebration. Prioritize the grace of God being given and received over everything else. And be renewed today in your own baptismal grace, aware that God is working on your heart in every moment and drawing you closer in relationship to him, that you may, in everything you do, know your identity as a beloved son or daughter of God.