Today the Church solemnly commemorates the day Jesus Christ was baptized. It is the Great Epiphany that fully reveals Jesus’ divine sonship and his salvific mission, the feast that perfects and concludes Christmastide, and sets the stage for the coming Paschal mysteries of his passion, death, and resurrection. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus writes in a homily on this day, “Christ rises from the waters, and the world rises with him.” Most Catholics don’t realize the importance of Baptism because it is given us before we are cognizant. But all four Gospels relate how the Son of God made sure to get himself baptized, even though he didn’t need it. We do need it because there is no other way to heaven, either through baptism by water or baptism by desire.
Do you know the day on which you were baptized? It’s actually the most important day of your life, far greater than the day you were conceived or the day you were born. It wasn’t until a priest poured blessed water over your head that you became a Christian, and became capable of real happiness. I was baptized on the last day of 1961 by Fr. William J. McCormick (who later became an archbishop) at Our Lady Star of the Sea parish in the Pelham Bay section of New York City. I know that I can be a saint because of what my dear parents did for me on December 31, 1961. It’s a good idea to look up the day you became a saint and commemorate that day every year by renewing your vows. “I resolve to be a saint,” as St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, “not because I am sure of myself, but because … I am sure of you.”
The Father loves Him
In writing this homily, I went to the filing cabinet and pulled out my yellowed and brittle baptismal certificate with its fading blue ink, obviously written with a nibbed fountain pen. My parents’ love for me, and God’s providential mercy, come to me across the years through that baptismal record from another age. How desperately we need the cleansing only baptism affords—more than a cleansing, we need to be completely remade. Baptism destroys the old man—drowns him—and resurrects a new man in the image of Christ. But Christ’s baptism reveals more than the depth of our sin; it reveals the Father’s love for his Son, and for all his sons. “Here is my servant,” Isaiah prophesied in our first reading. “My chosen one with whom I am well pleased. I have formed you, I have held you by the hand.” God the Father is pleased with his Son, and when he looks at every one of us, he sees a Son. Baptism is the Father’s smile of loving delight on each of his children.
Get in line with Jesus
Jesus does not stride toward his Father to claim his inheritance. He gets in line with sinners, and he waits his turn, for true love waits. Only St. John recognizes him: “But … I need to be baptized by you,” the Baptist says with a trembling voice. Jesus replies that he wishes to “fulfill all righteousness:” baptism is that important. It is the only way to approach God; that is, we become sons only by confessing our absolute poverty and surrendering to his tender love. Jesus gets in line, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners who want to be saints.
And what happens when we get in line for our share of grace? The Father speaks to us. “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Give him your sins, and he will give you eternal life. You see, all of this happened on the day of your baptism, and it happens every time you get in line for the “second baptism,” the Sacrament of Penance. All of us, I think, know how humbling it is to get in line for confession, and all of us know what it feels like to be remade when we hear the Father’s voice through the priest: “Your sins are forgiven. I am well pleased with you. Go in peace.”
Your homework, on this feast of the Lord’s baptism, is to find out the day you were baptized. Try to find your baptismal certificate and frame it. It’s more precious than any graduate degree or civic honor you can frame on your wall. Remember the day God made you a saint with gratitude. Profess the vows your parents made for you that day, and thank them for bringing you to the font. Most of all, thank your heavenly Father for the gift of eternal life, and don’t forget to thank Our Lady, your heavenly mother, who herself brings each of us to the saving font of her divine Son.