Last week I preached on hell, and this Sunday I will speak on death. Normally we talk about the “last things” in November, but last Sunday Jesus spoke of going to hell (“Gehenna”) and this week Paul gently chastises us: are you not aware, brethren, that you have been “buried with Christ?” Baptism is not, for Paul, a cute ceremony for babies with flouncy white gowns, perfumed oils, and flickering candles. Baptism is a death: “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” These days, we can barely even pronounce the word “death.” Almost no one dares say “she died.” We have to tiptoe around the fact lest we be accused of insensitivity. We say “she passed….” Not even that she passed away, but simply “she passed.”
So first of all, we have to be able to say the word “death.” And we are “dead” in two senses. First, we are dead men walking because, if we will all die in 40 or 50 or 80 years, we might as well be dead now. What will come is already here. I just marked my 26th anniversary of ordination, and those last 26 years seem to have come and gone in a blink of an eye to me. But where will I be in another 26 years? I’ll be dead, most likely. Note well that I am young compared to many of those in our parish. If you are mildly offended that I point to your age, and that you will probably die before me, we need to have this little talk about death. The world as we know it, and especially ourselves, as St. Paul says, is passing away. “Soon,” in the grand scheme of things, we will all be dead. So we might as well think of ourselves as dead already.
Baptism has Killed Me
But we are dead in another, far more important, sense. We are dead because “we have died in Christ through baptism,” as St. Paul writes in the second reading. The word in Greek means “immersion”—that is, drowning. Baptism’s triple immersion plunges us under the earth with Christ for the three days he lay in the tomb. Water kills, but water brings life as well. And so Paul goes on to say “we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised form the dead we too might live in newness of life.” The old life, before baptism, is not worth living. It is really a living death to exist on this planet without God, captives of original sin. We go to work, we eat, we drink, we party, as zombies if we do all that without a greater purpose, without relationship to God, shackled to our own lusts and compulsions. So Paul says we rise from baptism not just to continue our former life but to “newness of life.”
Baptism is an inoculation against real death, which we call hell: an eternity apart from God and his family of saints. How does an inoculation or vaccination work? The nurse puts a little bit of a pathogen into our bloodstream, which awakens our natural defenses to annihilate the pathogen. By tasting a little of the sickness, we overcome that sickness. In baptism we taste death, but the grace of God awakens in us to destroy that death. By this grace, sin becomes bitter to our taste, and we are freed to choose always the good, the true, and the beautiful. Baptism makes eternal life possible by giving us the capacity to refuse sin and the eternal death to which sin leads.
The Sign of Death is My Life
“Consequently,” Paul concludes, “you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Every time we sign ourselves with holy water we make that sign of death over us. After all the cross is a sign of death. The first century Romans mocked early Christians for choosing the sign of the cross—like choosing an electric chair or a gas chamber for one’s church logo. We chose the cross as our sign because we chose death, the death of Christ, in order to reach eternal life. When death comes for us—that is, when sin knocks on our door—we chose death rather than sin. When lust grips us, when anger throttles us, when despair chokes us, we say simple: sorry, I’m already dead. You cannot hurt me. A dead man does not fear death. I have died with Christ, and my motto is “death but not sin.” We are dead to sin.
May Our Lady of Fatima, who called the world to prayer and penance, give us the joy of choosing death over sin. Death to my own will, so that I may live fully free in this world and forever in the next.