January 18th, 2023
One week ago, our little grandson, Asher, was baptized at our parish church during Mass. Typically, in the Catholic Church, children are baptized as infants, often held in their mother’s arms. Asher got a late start at this. He is a toddler, just over two years old. His mama held him to get doused with holy water, but otherwise, the boy was standing on his own two feet during the rite.
What is baptism? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word’.”
Okay, so what is a sacrament? The Catechism says this:
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”
What does “efficacious” mean?
Definition – “(of something inanimate or abstract) successful in producing a desired or intended result; effective”
One more thing: what is “grace”?
“Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life. Grace is a participation in the life of God.”
Enough theology for now. We’ll get back to all this later.
I read once a statement that went like this:
“Catholics, by definition, believe in magic.”
Yes, I think that is spot on. However, “magic” is probably not the best word to use. It is kind of pejorative. Rather, Catholics believe in “miracles”. We don’t expect God to do card tricks, but we assume that we live in a miraculous world, one where amazing things happen all the time. To the outside observer our participation in the sacraments smacks of magic. So be it. These actions are an integral part of our faith, and they keep us going when all seems lost.
Let’s go back to Asher’s baptism, or rather, let’s skip ahead to the opening of his many gifts. Somebody gave him a book about baptism. That’s an odd present to give a child who cannot yet read, but the intention was good. The book is titled: “Washed Clean”. It has sturdy pages and simple pictures. The writing is all poetry (a little cheesy, but theologically sound). Asher is unlikely to understand the contents of the book until he is too old to want to read it. Whatever. I have looked at it, and parts of it make me uneasy.
Baptism is in part based on the concept of Original Sin. The idea is that when our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, ate from the Tree of Good and Evil, they screwed it up for the rest of us. The consequences of their original sin have been passed down through countless generations. The point is that every human being enters the world damaged, and prone to evil. We all suck. Happy thoughts.
One of the lines from the book’s poetry says that through baptism, “you are freed from your sins”. I spend most of my waking hours caring for Asher. He is a wonderful little boy, and blessing to all that know him. What sins could this kid possibly have? What sins can a new baby have? It seems perverse to assume that an infant or a toddler is already corrupt and depraved. However, there are Christians who believe that we are all pond scum, at least until we get baptized, and then we are saved pond scum. The basic assumption is that because of Adam’s Fall, we are all lost souls. The root of this view goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul:
1 Corinthians 15:21 “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.”
St. Augustine built on this theme, and then Luther and Calvin took it further. The Puritans and Cotton Mather brought this incredibly negative belief to the New World. The notion that all people are innately sinful has caused endless trouble in our world.
The little book also has this line in it: “You receive grace and a mark on your soul”. That statement may well be true, but unprovable in any tangible way. Grace is like a spiritual neutrino. It exists, but we usually cannot detect it. It is efficacious. We can perceive it by its effects in the physical world. Likewise, the mark on the soul of the baptized is like an invisible tattoo. It’s there, but nobody but God can see it right now.
A friend of ours wrote to us concerning Asher’s baptism. She said,
“It may not show visibly, but he has been transformed.”
That I truly believe. The outward signs of the baptism indicated that something happened to Asher. The pouring of the water on his head, the anointing of his forehead with Holy Chrism (Asher’s hair still smells of aromatic balsam), the prayers spoken by the priest…all these things pointed toward something occurring that was unseen but miraculous. Asher wore a white garment symbolizing purity (it was a tuxedo in his case). That too implied there was a moment of grace. Asher came through the sacrament changed. How exactly, I don’t know. I do know that God was present in all of us.
We had a number of guests at the baptism who were not Catholic. Some were not even Christian. A young Muslim friend of ours attended the baptism. My good friend from the Orthodox synagogue was there. Several Buddhists watched Asher receive the sacrament. What did they get out of it all? I don’t know. I know that their presence brought a feeling of unity to every person in the church, regardless of their faith tradition. The baptism was a time of joy and healing for some of us. It was a time of reconciliation.
It was love.