9 January 2010

Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord, Year C

What is a Sacrament? Not what are the Sacraments, but what is a Sacrament? Most children preparing for their Confirmation will be able to answer this. Many Catholics of a certain age, shall we say, will be able to answer this. Any student for the priesthood in seminary will be able to answer this, but what do you say a Sacrament is?

When we were in seminary preparing for our oral exam on the subject of Sacramentology, or the study of the Sacraments, we quickly came to realise that the simple definition by St Augustine of Hippo that a Sacrament is "a visible sign of an invisible reality" wouldn’t cut the mustard! We needed something more. Perhaps, we thought, we might be clever and commit to memory the definition from the Catechism: The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

Well, that’s certainly an impressive statement, but what does it mean? Eventually one of us came up with the idea that a Sacrament is a like a Divine Kiss. We roared with laughter at the idea and determined that we would all get this definition into the exam somehow – we’d have the last laugh! Or so we thought. In the end, none us used the definition, or at least I didn’t, and yet why not? Well, partly because it doesn’t give the full picture, it only hints at what is going on during the celebration of the Sacraments. Like when a mother kisses her child, so God kisses us. A mother not communicates to her child that she loves him through the gentlest of kisses, but also that love is made real through her action. So, too, God communicates His love to us through the Sacrament and His love is made real in the liturgy of the Sacrament.

Today we think especially of the Sacrament of Baptism. It is not a coincidence that Jesus’ baptism should form part of the Christmas season, indeed bring it to an end; rather it highlights for us that in Jesus’ baptism he begins his public ministry. His vocation is made clear by the Father: You are my Son, the Beloved: my favour rests on you. Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of John the Baptist, intended for sinners, in order to "fulfil all righteousness." Jesus' gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying. The Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on the Christ as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as his "beloved Son."

Through Baptism, the first of the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, we enter the gateway to life in the Spirit. It is the door which gives access the other Sacraments. In Confirmation, the Church teaches, the baptised are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed. Finally, in the receiving of our first Eucharist is the initiation into the Church completed. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism, and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation, participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.

This is heavy stuff! It takes a lifetime to get to understand what it is to become a Catholic. For some, we were baptised as babies and new nothing of the commitment our parents made on our behalf. For others, it is a leap of Faith and a total submission to God which led us to where we are today. For yet others, it is a road less travelled and perhaps only briefly considered, but for all of us it is a kiss from God we feel and we now have to decide – how do I respond?

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