Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The season of Christmas draws to a liturgical close today with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is the day our Lord went to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John rightly protests, knowing that there is no reason for Jesus to receive his baptism of repentance. After all, Jesus has nothing to repent of for He is without sin. But John allows it “to fulfill all righteousness.” In this moment, Jesus is participating in a human activity and transforming its purpose. The baptism offered by John (and the various forms of baptism used in the ancient world) symbolized a desire to leave sin behind and begin anew. The water and the washing was merely an outward sign. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit appears like a dove and the voice of the Father is heard. Later in the Gospel, the voice of the Father will be heard again at the Transfiguration, in almost identical words, telling the Apostles to listen to Jesus. Even later in the Gospel, Jesus will tell the Apostles to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. At His Baptism, our Lord changed the water from a mere outward sign to something that actually accomplishes what is signifies. He sanctifies the waters of baptism such that those who are baptized as He commanded the Apostles to baptize are not just symbolically washed, the desired repentance and forgiveness of sins is actually accomplished. Baptism is now an efficacious sign, truly cleansing souls from sin by the power of the grace given when Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan.
The Church’s practice of and theology surrounding the sacrament of Baptism follows from this event. In Baptism, we are truly cleansed from sin, whether personal sin (in the case of an adult who is baptized) or original sin, that sin of our first parents that is part of the human condition from the time of Adam and Eve (in the case of an infant who is baptized). As the voice of the Father spoke over Jesus, so in baptism, God speaks over us and calls us beloved sons and daughters. In this first sacrament, we are brought into God’s family, grafted on to the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. We come to share a new identity and are given the gift of faith. In the ancient rite of baptism, the dialogue before baptism asked what the person being baptized sought, to which the godparents replied “The faith.” When asked what the faith offers, the godparents responded, “Eternal life.” Baptism opens to us the doors to eternal life. Empowered by Christ’s life and light within us, endowed with the gift of faith, we receive those foundational graces that will allow us to grow in God’s life and love throughout our lives until the day we meet Him in eternity.
Some practical observations about the sacrament of Baptism might be helpful here. The Church has always taught that the sacrament should be administered as soon as possible for a child. While there is no definitive rule governing the timeline, baptism ought not be delayed. When a couple learns they are expecting a child, it would be good to contact the parish to set a tentative date for baptism. The most important thing is the child’s health, both physical and spiritual. The doctors in concert with the parents will ensure the child’s physical health. The Church, in concert with the parents, through the sacrament of Baptism, cares for the child’s spiritual health. Just as parents would never delay those necessary checkups in the weeks and months after birth, so we ought not delay the sacrament of Baptism.
The role of godparents (or sponsors) is very important in Baptism, and in the life of the child. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago by a friend who asked me to be godfather to her newborn daughter. “She will need someone to pray for her every day, and I would like you to pray for her every day.” With those words, my friend captured the real essence of the duties of a godparent (and reminded me that my job began the moment she asked, not a few days later at the baptism!). Sponsors or godparents are witnesses to an event, but more importantly, they are true spiritual guides and witnesses of the Catholic faith to the child they sponsor. As such, the Church requires that anyone who is to be a godfather or godmother be a fully-initiated, practicing Catholic over the age of sixteen. During the baptism itself, the godparents profess the faith on behalf of the child who cannot yet speak. In fact, one of the responsibilities of godparents in times past was to go to the home on the day of or the day after the birth of the child, retrieve the baby, and bring the baby to the Church for baptism. It was not uncommon for the mother, and sometimes the father, to be absent from the baptismal ceremony itself. Only one godparent is required, though both a godfather and a godmother are most welcome. The Church’s Canon Law specifies that if there are to be two sponsors, one is male and the other female. There are many cultural accretions to the role of baptismal sponsor, such as the idea that should anything happen to the parents, the godparents would step into the parental role and provide for the child, that, while noble, are not essential to the office. There can also be a certain feeling of familial obligation, a sense that one must ask family members to be godparents to avoid offending someone. To be a godparent is a great honor and beautiful spiritual responsibility. Perhaps one who would be offended at not being asked would not be the best of godparents? When looking for godparents, then, consider those people in your life who live their Catholic faith well and with joy, who will pray for your child, and who will help them on the road to salvation. One last word on godparents: it is not necessary for the godparents themselves to be physically present at a baptism. They can be represented by a proxy, while still taking on all the other responsibilities necessary. If a baptism would be delayed only to accommodate a sponsor’s schedule, I would urge the family to name a proxy instead.
The urgency of baptism is not only about the embrace of faith and openness to eternal life. The urgency of baptism is also about embracing the Christian mission. After His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus goes into the great spiritual retreat of the desert for forty days, and then begins His public ministry. The Sacrament of Baptism prepares us to take up our mission in the world, to grow in the faith that has been given, to nurture the gifts of the Spirit with which we are endowed, and then to live the faith with integrity and joy, becoming in our lives true witnesses of the love and life of Jesus Christ we received in the waters of rebirth. Let us today be renewed in our desire to live out the mission that was given to us on the day of our baptism.