Thursday, 16 January 2020

Baptism of the Lord Year A 2020

I have heard of a case where a single parent of a child requested that a Muslim be the godparent of the child. Good for you if you were shaking your head in disbelief. But, by and large, it is not surprising that some people do not really know what baptism entails except that it is purely a customary convention that one submits to. For some, it is no more than an accepted norm and it explains why having a Muslim godparent might make just burnish one’s social credential. Cool is it not that my child’s godparent is a Muslim, especially in a country that fears the Cross more than Dracula does?

According to Canon 872, “Insofar as possible, one to be baptised is to be given a sponsor who is to assist an adult in Christian initiation, or, together with the parents, to present an infant at the baptism, and who will help the baptised lead a Christian life in harmony with baptism, and to fulfil faithfully the obligations connected with it”. A godparent or a sponsor, as the official term goes, is to help the newly baptised live a Christian life. 

While it is true that a Muslim[1], can validly baptise a person, it is impossible for a Muslim to teach a baptised how to be a Christian because he or she does not lead a Christian life. A Catholic who lapses in practice, let alone a Muslim, cannot be a godparent for the simple reason that the responsibility to mentor a baptised is impaired by the fact that one does not live it himself. For example, would you trust your invasive medical procedure to a doctor who has not practised his surgical craft for 20 years?

Today, as we mark the end of the Christmas season, it might be good to step back and take a look at the necessity of baptism, the sacrament of incorporation into the Body of Christ. This is relevant because we live in a multi-ethnic set up where a simple cultural expression has the explosive potential of bursting into a confessional conflict. A good example was the simple hanging of lanterns in a school that promised to flare into a religious bloodbath. For sure this is an exaggeration but this country excels in a language most people want to avoid learning—(the language of) Stupid. The result though is we live in fear and we might be tempted to compromise on baptism in the name of harmony by consoling ourselves that “every religion is the same since every religion teaches us to do good”.

The Catechism will hopefully enlighten us and disabuse us of this error. In (#1257), “(t)he Lord Himself affirms the necessity of baptism for salvation. It is necessary for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitudes”. Thus, she cannot neglect this mission entrusted by the Jesus that all who can be baptised are “reborn of water and the Spirit”. By nature, the Church is missionary and so, to be Church, she needs to bring this sacrament to those who may be searching for it. 

However, there is a small print to this necessity. God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments. What this implies is that we have a duty and we cannot shirk from our duty to make available this sacrament to those who can ask for it. But to save, God can do it any which way He wants.

For example, on an island, at the back of nowhere, there is an indigenous tribe whose members are shorter than the grass. No missionary has ever stepped ventured onto the island. Can the inhabitants there be faulted for not knowing of, not asking for and not receiving baptism? It explains what was said earlier that God is not bound by the sacraments. So yes, baptism is a norm but not an absolute necessity. There are some who desire to be baptised but never received it. For example, the catechumens who are killed in a religious persecution, they receive what the Church traditionally called the “baptism of blood”. They are saved even though they have not received baptism. Then, we also acknowledge the possibility of salvation for those, according to the 4th Eucharistic Prayer, “and all who seek you (God) with a sincere heart”. Under the inspiration of God’s grace, those who have no possibility of knowing the Church, but are seeking God and striving to do His will, they are saved by the “baptism of desire”.

The difference between normative and absolute necessity does not excuse the Church from her mission. It just means we have a challenging obligation to make Christ and His Church known. In this matter, we are not helped by ourselves being resistant to God’s grace. We do the Lord a great injustice because our bad examples (our sins) may be stumbling blocks to belief and to reception of baptism and incorporation in the Body of Christ.

If the world were lost, it is not because Christ is not powerful. The sad truth is that the world cannot see Christ because they cannot see past Christians. If only Christians appreciate their baptism more and the implication of what it means to be baptised, we could be truly the light that shines for a world to see. This is not because we are better than the world but because Christians are made to shine brightly with the light of Christ.

Why is Christ’s light not shining brighter? The reality of sin could be an easy answer. But, perhaps, it could be our conception, idea or notion of what it means to be a Christian. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”.

In short, salvation is free but not cheap. In other words, we need to take seriously what it means that we have been saved. Bonhoeffer was right to speak out against cheap grace. Immediately after Christmas, on 26th Dec, we enter promptly into the truth of our salvation—St Stephen—the protomartyr. And even the Innocents are not spared on 27th Dec. Fuzzy warmth is a nice feeling, but these saints remind us time and again that there is a cost to pay for our discipleship. It does not seem fair but when is life ever fair in this valley of tears?

Perhaps, the cost of baptism has not been sufficiently appropriated by many Christians. We want a discipleship without the hardship. We definitely want an easy Christ to follow. But there is no way that Christ comes without the cross. The poor appreciation of our baptism may explain why we seek an easy discipleship. 

However, if we wade into the River scene at the Jordan, we discern a clear model or exemplar for each one of us. When Jesus stepped into the waters to be baptised, heaven opened up with the voice confirming Him to be the beloved Son. This is what happens at our baptism for in the Sacrament of Baptism, (along with Confirmation and Ordination) there is an effect which is permanent and it cannot be lost or erased, not even by mortal sin. We call it a spiritual seal, an indelible mark, a character or an ontological change. St Paul in scripture calls it “putting on Christ”. It is a configuring or a reshaping of a person in such a way that he or she now bears the shape of Christ. It can never be changed. Even if you changed your religion, the shape inside you is that of Christ the Lord. This is how much the Father wants to love us as it echoed in the Preface for Sunday VII: “For you so love the world that in your mercy, you sent us the Redeemer, to live like us in all things but sin, so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son, by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours that by sinning, we had lost in disobedience”.

Through baptism, the Father configures our souls into the shape of Christ His Son so that what He sees in Him, He will also see in us. That is how deep the love that God has for us that He made baptism a necessity for salvation so that each one of us can be incorporated into the Body of His Son, the Church. In the 1st Reading, we are told that “the islands are awaiting His law”. The question is not if they are awaiting. Instead, the question is if we are ready ourselves for the law before bringing His law to those hungering for it. The failure in numbers, the crisis of Church membership, as only 1 in 6 is a Christian, points not to a crisis of doctrine. Rather it is symptomatic of the crisis of discipleship.

[1] Canon 861 & 2 states… (i)ndeed, in a case of necessity, any person who has the requisite intention may do so. It means anyone, even if the one baptising is not baptised. The minimum requirement is the “intention of doing what the Church does”.