Baptism, before and after

Homily for the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Today’s three readings can be read as something like before and after photos.  Not, however, photos advertising a particular diet, plastic surgery, or hair cream.  The middle reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, mentions one of my favorite subjects, baptism.  The first reading and the Gospel give us the before and after of baptism.  

But before we get into the evidence of baptism’s effects in these before and after readings, take a look again at how St. Paul describes the first sacrament in Colossians: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Baptism means both death and life.  It means participating in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, dying with him in order to rise with him.  You may already have heard me say that I think we lose something if we only think about baptism in terms of babies and don’t remember the way that the sacrament was celebrated in the early Church.  Then baptismal fonts were below floor-level and deep enough for adults being baptized to step down into and be fully immersed.  

Ancient Christian baptistry, Naples

Baptisms, in other words, were really dramatic events.  In Colossians, Paul uses dramatic language—the bond of our guilt, he says, is obliterated and nailed to the cross.  In Rapid City, we know the dramatic effects of water.  After a dry and scorching week, we remember that water brings life.  But we also know that in 1972 this city was destroyed by flood—in fact, this church was built here after the original St. Isaac Jogues was washed away.  The Bible uses two very different sets of images to talk about baptism: the water represent both the tomb, because it means being buried with Jesus, and the womb, because baptism is a second birth.  

These two paradoxical images point to the one fundamental meaning of being baptized, which is newness of life.  Our old self dies, and we begin to live a new life.  We sometimes forget that baptism involves making the promise and being given the grace to live a different sort of life, a life that involves something more than just following our natural inclinations.  This is why in the ancient Church baptism sometimes involved years of preparation and scrutiny.  Godparents, at first, had the job of determining whether someone was ready for baptism, whether they were sincere and ready to fulfill their baptismal promises.  The before and after photos were meant to be dramatically different.

So how is the first reading a before photo?  Well, zoom out a little.  The reading itself shows us just how merciful God is.  Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked cities, but God tells Abraham that even if there are only ten innocent men in the cities, he’ll spare everyone.  That’s the good news. And the bad news? Well, what happens to Sodom and Gomorrah?  If you read to the end of the chapter, God buries them in sulfurous fire.  And what does that tell us?  There weren’t any innocent people.  Not ten, not any.  If you’ve been reading Genesis up until this point, this conclusion is not a surprise.  How many generations did it take before the first murder?  One.  Cain and Abel.  In Genesis 6, God decides to bury the world in water because he sees that “all mortals led depraved lives” (Gen 6:12).  Only Noah and his ark survive.  The Fathers of the Church pointed to the story of Noah as prefiguring what happens in baptism.  A sinful world is washed away, and salvation comes, not from the wood of the ark, but from the wood of the cross.  

The before photo, then, is a picture of original sin.  Original sin isn’t an easy concept to explain, but it is something we all feel.  Original sin is as a kind of moral entropy.  Entropy is the scientific law that disorder increases with time, that, as the poet W.B. Yeats put it, “things fall apart.”  Look inside yourself and you’ll probably find some self-destructive element there, that tendency to reach for one more drink even though we know the headache won’t be worth it.  And it’s there in our nature from the beginning.  If somebody tells you that you’re acting like a baby, usually it’s not a compliment.  It means that you’ve reverted to the most self-indulgent part of our nature.  

In the Middle Ages there was much debate about original sin because, let’s face it, it’s not a pretty doctrine.  But the key fact that none of the doctrine’s critics could get around was that its consequences are unavoidable.  We all suffer from its punishment.  We all die.  Entropy is built into our bodies too.

And one of the effects of baptism is to die—to enter into the tomb—in order to leave original sin in the before picture.  All sin, in fact, is forgiven in baptism.  It is a new start.  We still live in a world that has been marked by original sin, just as someone who is revived after heart failure might still have to live with physical damage from those moments when his heart stopped beating.  But, after baptism, we no longer need to think of this damaged world as our true and final homeland. 

Enough of the before.  Baptism washes away sin and gets us back to Go, but there’s more than that.  The other effect we see in the after photo: two very simple words from the Gospel, words we almost certainly take for granted—“Our Father”.  We are not God and we are not gods.  We are creatures.  Our genetic material is not divine.  True, we are created in the image of God, but the picture on a screen or a Polaroid in the album, if you want to go old school, are infinitely different than the person who’s been photographed.  

Emerging from the second womb of baptism, from this new birth, however, we are given a different kind of life, one not determined by our genetic material.  This new life is determined by the divine person who became one of us, the uncreated Son of God who became the Son of Mary.  When Jesus is baptized in the Gospels, the Father’s voice announces, “This is my beloved Son.”  In our baptism, Jesus shares that sonship with us.  So we can rightly call God, not only our Creator, but our Father.  Baptism means taking on all the privileges and responsibilities of heirs.  We are no longer just creatures, but sons and daughters.  In a few moments we will pray the Our Father in preparation for communion.  It is a reminder of our baptism.  And it’s a reminder of the point that Jesus makes in the Gospel—that God answers his children’s prayers with unimaginable generosity.  Because the Gospel encourages us to pray for many things, but there is no greater blessing than the divinity who enters into our body, than the Son and heir who shares his life and his inheritance with us; there is no greater gift than the Body of Christ.

Readings: Gn 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13

July 24, 2022, St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City, SD

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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