Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Today we observe the end of this short Christmas season. Since next year Christmas falls on a Sunday it will be shorter yet! So much has happened this Christmas, so many beautiful, joyful gatherings and celebrations, so much goodwill and kindness. I want to offer my words of gratitude to all our ministers who, by their art or their service, have made this season so remarkable. To our decorators, our musicians, our singers and servers, our greeters and ministers of Word and Sacrament, staff and volunteers, thank you!
Baptism is the perfect culmination of all that has gone before this Christmas season—incarnation, family, announcement of God’s plan of salvation—because in Baptism we become sharers of all these Mysteries. Not just so that we can claim them, but that they can now live in us. Baptism is at once the high point of our life, the greatest gift we can receive (I sometimes tell parents of babies being baptized that it is all downhill from here…), a new identity as members of God’s family and heirs to heaven, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit—but it is also the doorway to life, full initiation in the Church, the beginning of a new reality that we are in Jesus. Life starts here, for saints.
I was surprised to hear a protestant pastor friend of mine tell me recently that he only recently realized that we Catholics would not rebaptize any of his people if they were to become Catholic. He had not been aware that our Church recognizes any Baptism as valid that uses the flowing of water, the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and has the intention of the Church for the gift of salvation. Most Christian churches still would rebaptize Catholics if they were to go there.
It points to a fundamental misunderstanding we might have of Baptism. Baptism isn’t a function of Canon Law (although its proper administration is guaranteed by Church law requirements) or even an invention of the Church. It is an utterly free gift of God, his desire to share his life, his intervention in the time and space of creation to call us back by the sharing of his Spirit. There is no way we could limit it or control it, claim it for our own. We don’t deserve it any more than anyone else. The gift of faith is given to all who ask.
So to realize that all the Baptized are equally baptized—equally sharing in the life of God as brothers and sisters in one family, called to holiness and new life—well, it might change the way you look at other Christians who are outside the self-defined limits of churches. The unity of Baptism is the greatest and undeniable reality of who we are as one Body, even before we come to the inevitable controversies of governance, orders, Eucharist, marriage issues and the like. It is true that what unites is far greater than the things that might still divide.
I was privileged to be present a few years back as an agreement on Common Baptism was signed by the Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches (Presbyterian Church USA, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Reformed Church in America). For the first time there was a public, ratified document that said that we observed the validity of each others’ Baptism so long as the proper form was followed and the intention was there. Up until that point, we had recognized their Baptism, but they had not recognized ours.
Small accomplishments like this can help us to see that God’s hand is still active in varied ways in the lives of the Church. At every Mass, you would be surprised if you actually counted the number of times that we acknowledge the mercy of God and ask for his gift of Unity for his people. Baptism is the richest and most compelling topic of conversation that we can have with our Christian brothers and sisters in learning more about each other and finding opportunities to come together in prayer and service.
With Baptism, of course, comes the treasures of faith, hope and love that shape us according to the heart of Jesus. Without these supernatural virtues we would not understand God’s will for us—even as much as we do. To grow in our faith, to live in hope and to be guided by the love of God is something that can’t happen until we
gain a healthy and profound understanding of the power of the Baptism that we have received. The whole idea of an event of being “born again” is not familiar to us as with some other churches, because the Baptism we have already received is something we must seek to live out in every moment of life, not just once-for-all, as Sanctifying Grace continues to form us and shape us to know and love God and each other more each day.
God bless you.