Today the Church celebrates an event in the life of Jesus that showed us the gateway to heaven. As a biblical fact, Jesus’ Baptism at the River Jordan is also an event celebrated by all Christians. What do we learn about this vital first sacrament in our Catholic faith, and how can we keep the spirit of our baptisms alive in our lives and for our families?
Baptism at the center of it all
John the Baptist had been baptizing repentant Jews for some time when Jesus approached him at the banks of the Jordan. The Holy one asked to be baptized. John was stymied: How could He who is without sin be cleansed of sin? How could He who was God pretend to dedicate himself to God through baptism? And how could John perform a rite over his Lord? I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.(Mark 1:7) Jesus replied: Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. (Matthew 3:15).
Salvation history pointed to Baptism, when the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. (Genesis 1:2) Noah and his family were saved in water. The Israelites were saved from Pharoah’s soldiers when they crossed through the Red Sea.
And John the Baptist, as the forerunner to Jesus, clarified that his was merely a baptism in water, and that a baptism in the Spirit would follow when Jesus appeared: I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:8). And we all know the rest: and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
This marks the beginning of Jesus public ministry. And, while he did not need to be cleansed of original sin, as we do, and he did not need a way to be restored to heaven, as we do, he gave us a model to follow. The Catechism states:
All the Old Covenant prefigurations find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus. He begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan. After his resurrection Christ gives this mission to his apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1223)
Baptism in Church history
Your parents dedicated you to God when you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You were marked with Holy Oil as one of Christ’s own forever. In the early years of the Church, stinging oil was used, to brandish you – like a cattle owner brandishes his animals – as belonging to Christ. Original sin was wiped away, sanctifying Grace entered your soul, and you became a member of Christ’s Body, His Church.
Through the Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation – you affirmed your commitment to Christ, your communion with His Body. We work that out amidst the day-to-day blessings and challenges we face. Even those lost lambs can be found, by their mark.
Martin Luther was known to say: When times got tough, I would touch my forehead and feel the imprint of my branding; I am Christ’s, and not my own.
Luther was a protestant leader, and Christian unity fragmented over not only Church authority but over the meaning and significance of Baptism, especially infant baptism. When Mark Twain was asked, Do you believe in infant baptism, he replied, “Heck, I’ve seen it!”
Among the over 10,000 Protestant denominations, dividing lines can be drawn around baptism. Which baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? For Catholic converts, if they were baptized in the Trinity, their baptism is accepted as valid. Protestants divide over baptizing babies vs. young adults.
These are issues that continue to fracture the broken body of Christ’s Church. In the early days of Protestantism, the issue was: Should protestants who had been baptized in the Catholic Church be re-baptized in their new-found break-away churches.
The fact that Baptism lies at the center of it all is relevant. Baptism is a dividing line in unity with Christ. Grace comes to us through His Body, the Church.
How to celebrate Baptism in your families
My first three children were baptized in the Episcopal Church, as was my husband and I, as babies. Our Baptisms were accepted by the Catholic Church. The tradition in the Episcopal Church is to baptize on high feast days. My third child was baptized on today’s feast, The Baptism of Our Lord. What a day to celebrate a Baptism!
We always have a birthday cake on Baptism birthdays. I always asked the priest to give my children a special blessing, on the way out of Mass, to honor this week of the Baptism birthday. For my daughter whose Baptism birthday is today, we have a special tape, where we listen to the homily recorded at her Baptism. The homilist said: “There has never been another (her name), and there never will be another (her name), even if someone else shares her name.” It’s a lovely tradition, and reminds her how special she is, not only to us, but to the Lord. She was created uniquely by him, he has counted the very hairs on (her) head. (Luke 12:7)
As you celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, remember to celebrate your own Baptism. Establish traditions so you can honor your “new birth” as much as your birth-day.
Activities for young children for the Baptism of Our Lord