Monday, March 21, 2005

Signs and Wonders: The Holy Sacraments in the Life of One Unholy Christian Man (III)


1213 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 and in the word."

No joke, I was “blown away” when I first read that baptism is the “gateway to the life of the Sprit..., and the door ... to the other sacraments.” This idea taught me a new and radically important meaning of baptism. For years I had thought of baptism as merely a “primal sign” of God’s cleansing rebirth in Christ. I knew as much as it was a great sign, and it showed God was still at work among his people. But then I realized that baptism is much more. Once I realized that sacraments in general are much more than reminders – that they are the very fingers of God’s grace – then I realized that the foundation of sacramental grace, baptism, is a direct touch of God which make us wholly new. We enter a new phase of life, a new mode of existence: we become members of Christ, forgiven in His death and alive in His resurrection. Just as Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan into the love of the Father in the glory of the Spirit, so too we rise from baptism into the glory of that triune love.

Finally, one of the things I appreciate most about the sacrament of Baptism is its indelibility, its divine permanence. As the Catechism says,

1272 Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.

The union of a man and woman in marriage is just as strong and irrevocable for the Church as the union of a sinner and Christ in Baptism. What God has made a new creature stays a new creature. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). And what God has done, let no man undo – or even pretend to re-do.

This, the irrevocability of Baptism, reminds me of Jacob’s limp after wrestling with God: he walked with a limp ever after as a sign and a reminder of his encounter with God (cf. Gene. 32:31ff.). His limp became an intrinsic part not only of his memory about God but also a feature of his own body. So it is with Baptism, the limp of grace: in it, God overcomes our sinful nature and pours an indestructible “memory” of grace into our souls, making such a cleansing encounter an intrinsic part of our identity. In Baptism, God dislocates the power of sin in all humans, frees them to walk in the new life and gives them a permanent sign of this change (cf. Rom. 6:1ff.).

The crucial point of this analogy is that Baptism becomes a seal not only of the remission of our past sins, but also of our present and future lives in Christ. As the Catechism says,

1265 Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” a member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jacob walked away from that wrestling match with a limp into greater maturity with God, so too we walk away from Baptism into greater and greater maturity in Christ. Jacob was defeated – broken – in order to walk. Likewise, we are defeated – buried – in Baptism in order to walk in grace. We are reborn not merely passively out of sin, but also, more dynamically, reborn as living members propelled into the mission of Christ in the Church! Though we have marred God’s originally good creation with our sin, God remakes us truly good – in Christ – and Baptism is the sign and the seal of this irrevocable restoration.

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