Our Father: Baptism

seven sacramentsToday we begin a new series, exploring the sacraments through the Our Father. I laid out the general theme in a post several months ago. Now I want to take some time to consider how each line of the Our Father helps us think about a sacrament.

The purpose here points in both directions. On the one hand, we want to be able to pray the Our Father well. The sacraments can give some substance to the words, a way to focus on what we’re saying. On the other hand, we want to appreciate the sacraments. The Our Father can give us a way to appreciate each of the seven sacraments – and, indeed, a daily way to rediscover them all, for they are all important to our lives. At the heart of the Our Father is the most powerful prayer for making a spiritual communion. But while we’re at it, we can spiritually unite ourselves to all the other sacraments that surround communion.


We begin, then, with Baptism: Our Father, who art in heaven.

Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth. The word means “plunging.” The original rite involved going down into the water and coming up again. (We have radically simplified that rite; the Latin Church sometimes likes to minimize the experiential aspect of the sacraments in order to emphasize the divine power, which does not rely on us.) So the symbolism is of dying, as we go under the water, and rising again as we come up. There is freshness, a cleanness, a refreshment in this new life – just as there is some fear and trepidation as we approach the water. Baptism is death and rebirth.

But behind this rebirth is another element of rebirth, regeneration. It is not just that we are born again from the womb of the Church our Mother. It is even more that we are conceived again by God our Father.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son, the only one who is Son by nature. But in Baptism we are joined to him, so that we become sons and daughters – “sons in the Son,” says a traditional formula. We enter sacramentally into his human death, and so are reborn united to his divine sonship. We receive the power he put into the waters – and it is the “power to become children of God” (John 1:13).

We are born again “not of blood” – that is, this Sonship is not baked into our human nature. “Nor of the will of the flesh”: our sinfulness turns away from this Sonship. “Nor of the will of man” (John 1:13), because we simply do not have the power to make ourselves sons of God. We are born again “of God,” with the sonship only he can give us.


Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we can remember that by Baptism we have been given a rebirth to heavenly life. We have been called – and truly are – sons and daughters of God. This dignity is heavenly, impossible to obtain apart from the infinite divine power of Jesus, through his sacraments. And it is heavenly, too, because our citizenship, our home, our inheritance, is in heaven, with the Father who has made us his own.

Every time we pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” we ought to remember how awesome our Baptism is. We carry that Baptism with us. It is our spiritual garment, the constant source of our spiritual dignity. And everytime we think of Baptism, we should realize that it has made us able to call the God of heaven our Father.


It is appropriate that Baptism comes first in the Our Father. Baptism is the door, the beginning. We remind ourselves of our Baptism at the door of the Church, because Baptism is our entrance into the mysteries of all the other sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the heart that beats at at the center of the Church, of the sacraments, and of the Christian life. Baptism is our wedding garment, without which we are not allowed entrance.

It is only a beginning. When we pray about Baptism at the beginning, we realize that it must be completed by worship (hallowed be thy name!), by service (thy kingdom come!), by endurance (thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!). It must be fulfilled by the Eucharist (give us this day our daily bread), by Penance (forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive), and by Suffering and Death itself (lead us not into the Test, but deliver us from the Evil).

We do not understand Baptism if we think it is the end. We do not understand our sonship if we think once we have it, nothing else matters. Baptism, and calling God our Father, is the beginning of our heavenly journey.

How does Baptism change the way you look at your life?

A Baptismal Meditation on Easter

grunewaldchrisreThe heart of Easter, of course, is the reading of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection – or rather, the impact of that resurrection on those who discovered it.  But what does it mean?  What do we discover when we discover the Resurrection of Christ?

We can perhaps better understand Easter if we understand that, in another sense, the heart of Easter is Baptism.  Historically, that is the reason for the celebration.  In the early Church, every Sunday celebrated the Resurrection – but Easter (originally tied more to Passover) became the time to baptize catechumens.  We noted at the beginning of Lent that the pre-Easter season, too, was originally about the catechumens.

In the Middle Ages a strange thing happened: the Easter Vigil withered away, and gradually became a sort of liturgical odd duck on Holy Saturday morning.  The reason, again, seems to have been the catechumens – once there was no one to baptize, Easter Vigil lost its original significance, though Easter was still celebrated as, by now, the center of the cycle of Christ’s mysteries.

The Easter Vigil was restored to Saturday night only recently, by Pope Pius XII, in 1951 – both as part of a rediscovery of liturgical spirituality, and as a rediscovery of the catechumenate.

In fact, I recently learned that the Church’s liturgical norms specifically say that baptized non-Catholic Christians should NOT be received at Easter Vigil (as I was!), precisely because it undermines the centrality of Baptism in that Mass.  (And, indeed, undermines the doctrine of Baptism, by confusing the radical rebirth which is Baptism with the less radical reception into full communion of those who are already baptized.)


Though the Gospel is central, as Christ is radically central, the interpretive key to Easter is in the New Testament readings.

At the Vigil, the great reading that follows the Gloria is from Romans 6: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Absolutely essential to Paul’s understanding of the Paschal mystery – at the very center, in fact, of Christianity itself – is what Augustine calls the “two resurrections.”  There is the resurrection of the body – but also the resurrection of the soul.  Christ promises to raise up our body, yes – but far more important, far more central, is that he raises up our soul, from death in sin, to life in Christ.

Easter is not primarily about bodies, it is about souls.  “Our old self was crucified” – not bodily, but spiritually, in Baptism – “with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  The death he died, he died” not primarily in the body, but  “to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The Epistle for Easter morning, from Colossians, repeats the same theme: “If you have been raised with Christ” – in the soul, by Baptism, though we have not yet risen bodily from the dead – “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  No, we have not yet received the resurrection of the body – but we have received the resurrection of the soul.

That is the joy of Easter: we find that God has the power to raise up, not only our bodies, but our sinful souls.


The readings at the Vigil all attest to this great reality.  They go through salvation history, yes, but they speak above all about the resurrection that Christ will bring to our souls.

This is most clear in the later readings, from the prophets.  The seventh, Ezekiel, says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.”  The waters of Baptism give new life to the soul.

The sixth, from Baruch, says, “O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies?”  Why do we dwell in death?  “Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.”  Find conversion in Christ: this is the message of Baptism and repentance.

In the fifth, Isaiah asks: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”  The solution is not a deeper focus on the body – that is what is crucified – but, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.”  Catechumen, be converted by God’s holy Word!  Renounce the empty promises!

And in the fourth, Isaiah says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” likening their situation to Noah and the flood.  We have been abandoned to sin and death – but Christ rescues us, by conversion: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.  In righteousness you shall be established.”  Not only in bodily life, but in the life of the soul.


The first three, more narrative readings teach the same things.  Creation culminates in the image of God, and God’s blessing of man.  God did not only make our bodies, he made our souls.  God who can lift up the body can lift up our souls as well.

At the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham says, “The Lord will provide.”  Abraham has absolute trust in God’s provision for him – and lives the coresponding life of conversion.

And in Exodus, “the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea,” as we walk through Baptism, “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.  Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians,” as he saves us from sin.

In what areas do you doubt God’s power to bring resurrection to your soul?

The Baptismal Life

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigWe would do much to rediscover the true Christian spirituality if we thought of all of our life as a living out of our Baptism. Indeed, this is probably the “anointing” – in Greek, the christening, or Christ-ian-ing – that John talks about:

“The anointing which you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it has taught you, you shall abide in him. And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:27-28).

This is the same Apostle John, of course, who gives us this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus: “Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God . . . . Amen, amen, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, 5).

But how do we “abide in this anointing”? How do we actually live according to this most bizarre claim that we are “born again” by Baptism ?


In fact, the Church gives us a wonderful frequent devotion to Baptism so common that we almost overlook it: the sign of the Cross. A whole spirituality is carried in this simple little devotion.

The main place of the sign of the Cross is at the holy water stoup, as we enter the Church. Notice, in fact, that the little prayer we say as we make the sign of the Cross is simply the Baptismal formula: “Go you therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” These words are meant to call to mind our baptism, which is why they are attached to the holy water: nothing more nor less than a sacramental reminder of the waters of Baptism.

(Thomas Aquinas, in fact, says that all the power attached to the sacramentals is in their devotional power in reminding us of the real Seven Sacraments. The power of holy water is devotion to Baptism.)


Baptism is our entrance into the Church. Yes, it “washes away sin” – though the point of the John the Baptist stories is to remind us that first, Baptism was a sign of repentance, of beginning anew. The difference between John’s Baptism and the Baptism of Jesus is that Christian Baptism gives us the spiritual power to truly begin anew. That means leaving behind our former ways – and thus “washing away sin” – but more powerfully, it means entering into Christ: the anointing, and plunging into Christ.

Baptism only “washes away” by “pouring in” divine life.

It means, above all, entering into the sacramental life of Christ’s Church. Baptism gives us access to the sacraments. It is the beginning of the sacramental life. That’s why we remind ourselves of our Baptism when we enter the Church: it’s a delightfully literal symbol that Baptism is the way we “enter” the Church of Jesus.

(It is also nice, in light of the Great Commission we quoted above, to make the sign of the Cross as we leave Church: we are sent to “teach all nations” and draw them to Baptism, to life in the Church. Our life outside of the Church is about preparing ourselves and others to enter the life of the Church.)


The physical sign we use, along with water, is a cross, drawn on our own body. (We can remind ourselves of this by making this cross actually look like a cross, not a sloppy hand wave.) The sign of the Cross reminds us that we are united to Christ. In Baptism we have died and risen with him. Our sufferings are united to his sufferings – and we are reminded that the divine love will include real suffering. But union with his suffering also means resurrection, the power of God that draws us through and beyond suffering. To mark Christ’s cross on our own body is no small thing!

But the prayer we say, along with recalling our Baptism, recalls the spiritual heights to which we are called, the reason the Cross is worth it. We are called through the Cross into the very life and love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Abide in that anointing. Live your Baptism.


What does the sign of the Cross mean to you?

This Sunday’s Readings: Baptism of the Lord

baptism of the lord IS 42: 1-4, 6-7;  PS 29: 1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10; ACTS 10: 34-38; MT 3: 13-17

This Sunday’s Psalm, for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, is an interesting choice. Psalm 29 is the most emphatic of the Psalms about God’s power. But this Sunday, the liturgy emphasizes how his power is upon the waters.

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters. The voice of the LORD is mighty; the voice of the LORD is majestic.” God’s power is in the waters of Baptism. The power, indeed, of his Word: his Word who is Jesus, and his Word which is invoked to bring his power: “Christ loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water and the word” (Eph. 5:25-26). “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever.”

In Matthew, Luke, and John, the Baptism is the beginning of Christ’s ministry; in Mark, it is the beginning of the Gospel itself. It is the beginning of our Church year, and the beginning of our own life in Christ. The power of God on the waters.


The Baptism of Jesus is mysterious. Surely there is more to be said about it, but maybe “it’s mysterious” is an okay way to interpret John the Baptist’s saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me? Jesus said to him in reply, Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” No, it doesn’t exactly make sense for Jesus, the true Baptizer, to be baptized – but it is part of his saving plan.

For our part, let’s focus more on what follows. “He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.” What does Baptism do? It opens for us the gates of heaven. How? By sending the Holy Spirit.

It is important to make this connection. Baptism “washes away” sin, and thus restores our path to heaven. But sin is a negation, an emptiness. Baptism “washes away” sin by filling us with God’s Spirit, God’s love. “A voice came from the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Baptism makes us pleasing to God not just by what it takes away, but by what it gives us: divine sonship.

To say the same thing another way: the dove coming down on the waters recalls Noah. The point is that the reign of death is over. Life is restored.


In our reading from Acts, Peter describes the Baptism of Jesus: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” Now, of course there’s something a little odd here: Jesus carried the power of God in his very person. And yet the point is, this is what Baptism does. It makes us Christians, conformed to Christ. It anoints us with the Holy Spirit and power.

And then what happens? “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Not only is our sin washed away, but we begin to do good, to live the love of God, and to conquer the oppression of the devil. That’s what happens when God is with us.

And thus Peter tells Cornelius and his household, whom he is about to baptize, and on whom “the Holy Spirit is poured out,” “I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” Our access to God is not by being a member of a club or doing a one-off trick, but by being members of Christ’s body, filled with his Spirit, and thus living as he lives: in the fear of God and acting uprightly.


Our Old Testament reading comes from Isaiah: “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.” Not to crush “a bruised reed,” but “to open the eyes of the [spiritually] blind, to bring out [spiritual] prisoners from confinement, and from the [spiritual] dungeon, those who live in [spiritual] darkness.” (Literal prisons are important too, but let us see the point here.)

Baptism is the victory of justice: but the true victory of justice is not when people are condemned, but when people become just. The one “upon whom I have put my spirit, he shall bring forth justice to the nations.” When the Spirit comes, through Baptism, we are made whole, made good, made just and upright and godly.


What does your Baptism mean to you? How do you celebrate it?