Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent, Baptism, and Holiness

Advent is the Season in which we prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our preparation for Christmas, in celebration of His First Advent, is a reminder for us to prepare ourselves also for His Second Advent, when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Through the Gospel Reading for today (Second Sunday of Advent, Year A), we are being reminded of this in a very interesting way. The Gospel Reading (Matt 3:1-12) ends with John the Baptist’s words:
“I indeed baptize you in water unto penance, but he that shall come after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
By selecting this reading for today, the Church is calling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord in a special way as we remember our baptism.
Coincidentally, over the past few weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Romans 6:1-14 as part of my own personal Penance following Confession; as a constant reminder to myself of the kind of holiness that I am called to by virtue of my baptism:
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?
2 God forbid! For we that are dead to sin, how shall we live any longer therein?
3 Know you not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in his death?
4 For we are buried together with him by baptism into death: that, as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer.
7 For he that is dead is justified from sin.
8 Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall live also together with Christ.
9 Knowing that Christ, rising again from the dead, dieth now no more. Death shall no more have dominion over him.
10 For in that he died to sin, he died once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
11 So do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
12 L
et not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof.
Now, this is not a holiness that we can achieve in our own strength. Rather, it is something that comes about through God’s grace...and as we willingly co-operate with that grace. And this is why I think St. Paul sought to remind the Romans of the call to holiness in the context of baptism – because baptism is ALL about grace.

Baptism is not about what WE do...rather, it is about what God does to us. And the baptism of little infants, by virtue of the fact that they cannot accomplish anything for themselves, is a considerable testimony of the fact that salvation comes by grace alone.
Interestingly, in my days as a Baptist, I believed that baptism was nothing more than a step of obedience in imitating Jesus Christ – nothing more than a visible statement to others that I had chosen to follow Jesus. I certainly disagreed with the Catholic “notion” that baptism conferred any grace. I believed that only those who had made a credible profession of faith should be baptised, and that the only acceptable form of baptism was by immersion.

My belief of “immersion-only” baptism was primarily based on Rom 6:3-4 i.e. immersion was the only mode of baptism that adequately portrays the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus by the believer going under the water (death and burial) and rising up from the water (resurrection).  
The ironic thing was that I was so absorbed in my preconceived proof-texting that I completely missed what St. Paul was actually trying to say...

Couched within the principles of life and death, St. Paul’s argument is that it is precisely through the means of baptism that we die to sin and are raised to new life (i.e. what the Church calls “baptismal regeneration”). St. Paul’s clear teaching is that it is through baptism that we are united to Christ’s death on the Cross; through baptism, we are buried with Him; and through baptism we are raised to newness of life in Him.
It is in this context of being united to Christ through baptism that St. Paul can say that just as Christ died for sin once and for all and now lives unto God (v10); so too we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (v11). And because baptism has made us new creatures in Christ, the sin that has tainted the old creation should no longer have control over us (v12). Instead, we are called, by virtue of our baptism, to live in, through, and for God – knowing that oneday Christ will fully complete the work of the new creation that He has begun in us (Rom 6:21).

In this sense, our baptism is eschatological – through baptism we were made new creatures in Christ, but this work will not be fully completed until we attain the Beatific Vision. St. John, the beloved disciple, put it this way:
“Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God: and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when he shall appear we shall be like to him: because we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2)
So, as we continue through the Season of Advent, may we be reminded of the gift of God’s grace bestowed upon us in our baptism; and may we never cease to storm the gates of heaven with prayers for God’s continued grace in our that we can be prepared to greet our Lord, not only when we celebrate His arrival at Christmas, but also when He calls us home to eternity.