Baptism by fire

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord (C)

“One mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Put aside for a moment everything you think you know about baptism, and imagine you are hearing John the Baptist’s words for the first time.  You’ve seen John calling sinners to repent, warning of punishments to come if they don’t, and then dunking them in the Jordan River as a sign of conversion.  And now he says a mightier one is coming, who will use fire instead of water.  Is it a promise or a warning?

If you were paying exceptionally close attention to the missalettes this morning, you might have noticed that there are a few verses left out of today’s Gospel passage and if you read those verses, they don’t reassure either—John warns that Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff, and then we hear of King Herod throwing John in prison.

Today perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of baptism as something like a Catholic baby shower, though I doubt John or Jesus or anyone who heard them preach would have thought, “Oh baptism—how cute.”

What does it mean when the Gospel tells us that the baptism of Jesus, Christian baptism, our baptism, is a baptism of fire?

In one sense, fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit—that’s why we use red vestments for Pentecost and at confirmations.  By saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, John is reminding us that the love of the Holy Spirit is not a mushy sentiment, but a fire that burns.  John likely has in mind a cleansing fire, burning up every kind of sin and injustice.  Fire, after all, is an even more effective disinfectant than water.

Still, if we really want to appreciate the significance of John’s words, we need to go a little deeper into what baptism is and does.  In the Gospel of Mark, when James and John are showing a bit too much worldly ambition, Jesus asks them, “Can you […] be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk10:38).  When he speaks of baptism, he is talking about his crucifixion.  So for him, the question, “Do you want to be baptized with me?” means “Will you be crucified with me?”

Early Christian baptistry, Naples.

In Romans 6, St. Paul asks the Christians to whom he is writing, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  The earliest Christian baptismal fonts—you can still see a few of them in Italy, for example—were dug into the ground, so that you had to walk down into them, because baptism means entering into the tomb with Jesus.  

So here a second meaning of John’s promise of baptism with fire emerges; it means passing through the Passion of Jesus, through the fire of his crucifixion, in order to rise again with him from the waters and from the tomb.  I think this significance of baptism is often lost today because we treat the sacrament too casually.  Baptism means a death and a resurrection; it means a conversion, living differently after than we did before.  It is the most profound, the most important transformation we could undergo.  The early Christians perhaps saw this more clearly because they mostly underwent baptism as adult converts.  

This does not mean that there is anything wrong with infant baptism, which has also been practiced since the earliest days of the Church.  But when we are dealing with infant baptism, parents accept a great responsibility.  In baptism, parents promise that they will raise their child in the Church, which means with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Today this is more challenging than ever and requires deliberate effort; we no longer live in a Christian culture, so just going with the flow will not result in Christian children.  Nor is there any possibility of religious neutrality; if parents do not make Christianity the primary influence in their children’s lives, then they will be formed by whoever speaks loudest and gets there first.  The sacrament is not magic, and if baptism is not followed by a sincere attempt to live a Christian life it will not save.  In fact, we may be judged more severely if we treat God’s gifts with indifference.

And what is the gift we are given in baptism?  Nothing less than salvation.  We could even say that baptism defines for us what salvation is.  Salvation isn’t an external reward for being baptized, as if the sacrament were an admission ticket to heaven.  No, salvation means dying and rising with Jesus.  Salvation means union with Christ.

This feast of the Baptism of Jesus comes at the end of the Christmas season, in which we celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus, the fact that God so loved the world that he became one of us.  And if we put aside commercial Christmas and listen to what the Scriptures say about this Incarnation of the Son of God, it is obvious that Jesus did not come to share only the pleasant parts of human life.  He was born in poverty.  Before he learned to walk, Herod was seeking to kill him.  Jesus’ choice to be baptized expresses the same mystery, that the Son of God desires to immerse himself into the reality of human life and death.

Being baptized means saying yes to that desire of God.  It means union with the Son of God.  Jesus did not need to be baptized in order to become the Son of God.  The words that the Father speaks from heaven at the end of today’s Gospel are intended for our benefit, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  In our baptism we express our union with the Son, becoming sons and daughters by adoption, heirs with him of the life of God.  And what is God?  A love more intense than the fire of the sun, eternal and infinite and always burning, like a bush that is unconsumed by the flames, a kind of nuclear fusion more powerful than any force we know, capable of creating all from nothing and of renewing what once was dead.  The mighty fire Jesus brings upon the earth is God.

St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City

January 9, 2022

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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