Baptism is one of my favorite subjects to teach my Pre-K students. Often, it is the first time the boys and girls really get a chance to learn about what Baptism is. Other times, it provides them a chance to share about their own sacramental experience or that of someone they know. Throughout the unit, everyone is given a chance to celebrate being part of God’s family in the Church. Learning about Baptism is a PreK standard in their catechesis, and we begin January by learning about Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan. We learn that it was John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus and offered a baptism of repentance. John came before Jesus telling the people to, “’Prepare the way for the Lord!’ preaching a baptism of forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:3-4).
Like the people whom John baptized and preached to, we likely are feeling in need of renewal. As we welcome this new year, we can also be renewed and cleansed from such a challenging year spiritually, emotionally, and physically! We can start fresh this year, and hear John, “a voice crying out in the desert.”
For me, 2020 often felt like a desert. At times, I felt as though my thirst for the Eucharist was unbearable since going to Church was unsafe. Other times, it seemed like I was stranded alone with a new baby and deserted by any additional help. This year has taken its toll on so many, in so many ways, and everyone’s desert has been hard. This pandemic has left many of us yearning, thirsting, and begging the Lord for renewal. Let us consider putting on a new self in renewing our own baptismal promises, participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and entering 2021 with clean and refreshed hearts!
My son was welcomed into the Church through Baptism in September. We followed the safety restrictions, had an option for virtual participation, and were able to celebrate our little child of God being cleansed of original sin. It was a humbling and beautiful Mass and Baptism. While I was holding my son, Vincent (named after St. Vincent Pallotti), I could feel God's presence and see it unfolding before my eyes. For a moment, my desert had become an oasis. Life, water, joy, gratitude, my little boy’s squeals, and love were present there with us. I knew there and then that my son had been renewed and would in turn bring some renewal into our lives. Just as my son’s baptism brought refreshing hope into my family’s life, the Lord’s Baptism can bring renewal and hope into our lives as Catholics. At the Lord’s Baptism, he received his mission. May we continue to reflect upon our own mission as disciples in this upcoming year.
Our hearts are yearning to be cleansed and renewed amidst our many deserts. Like my students learning about Baptism for the first time, let us engage our hearts and open our ears to the Word anew. Like my son’s Baptism showed me an oasis amidst a desert storm, let us find joy in our own Baptisms this year. Here is a prayer to leave you with as we begin the year anew:
Heavenly Father, as a new calendar year begins, cleanse us with new hope and give us nourishment in your Son, Jesus Christ. Wash away our sadness, pain, and fears and help us to know your love throughout this upcoming year. Help us prepare the way for you to come into our hearts, oh Lord. Turn our own desert into oasis. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
If you’re used to communicating with others via text message, then you’ve probably, at some point, received a message and interpreted it out of context. A curt reply with a period at the end could be misinterpreted as either passive aggressive or as an irritated response. This happens to me occasionally, and I always have to remember that without hearing a person’s message verbally, it can be difficult to understand what they’re really saying or implying. Maya Angelou’s quote rings true here: “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
Our voices add a unique depth and fullness to our communications by revealing emotions, nuances, and subtle meanings more sharply than words alone can communicate. On this feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, I am struck by St. Augustine’s words from this morning's Office of Readings: “Today we remember that Zechariah’s ‘tongue is loosed because a voice is born.’”
St. John the Baptist was born to be the final prophetic voice who proclaimed the Word made flesh. Like the Old Testament prophets, John foretells the coming of the Messiah and calls sinners to repentance with words that cut to the heart (Luke 3:1-29). But, unlike the Old Testament prophets, John identifies the Messiah for the first time in salvation history. John points Jesus out and encourages his followers to pursue him (John 1:29-37). He is confident that his cousin is the foretold Christ, and by his proclamation John fulfills the mission of all the prophets as he straddles the boundary of the Old and New Testament.
John’s historical mission of giving voice to the Word is also our mission. At our baptism, we were anointed as a priest, prophet, and king. We share uniquely in Jesus’s ministry, and we are called to be lay prophets who proclaim the good news of repentance and redemption. We must, like John the Baptist, spend time coming to know the promises of the Messiah so that we can recognize Him when we see him. And when we see Him present in the sacraments, or when we encounter Him as we are accompanied by a spiritual mentor, or when we experience Him through the fullness of our prayer, we must point Him out for all to see. To fulfill our baptismal call to be prophets of the Gospel of Christ, we must give voice to our experiences of God. John’s words must be our words to the world, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
“At the school of Mary, we learn that her life is marked not by protagonism but by the capacity to enable others to be protagonists. She offers courage, teaches people to speak, and above all encourages people to live the boldness of faith and hope. In this way she becomes the transparency of the Lord’s face who shows his power by inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.” – Pope Francis, Homily on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2018
Such a strange thing Christ has done! He has left his mission to the baptized until he comes again in glory at the end of time. This is the part of Advent waiting that we often do not dwell on. The first half of Advent is very much focused, though, on this reality. Our waiting is not passive, but very active. We are protagonists who are called to boldly witness Christ in our lives. Bold witness in the way of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who encouraged St. Juan Diego to go forth to build not simply a physical temple in the Lord, but one that is living.
In a time of needed renewal within the Church, we turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary to be with us, but also to give us example. She did not focus on the reality of the change in her life when she heard the message of the Angel Gabriel. Instead, she rose and went “in haste” to her cousin Elizabeth to rejoice and be in solidarity with her. Elizabeth’s son, St. John the Baptist, later went forth to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah through conversion of hearts and minds to the Lord. We, too, are meant to do the same. We cannot sit back and wait for others, but need to go forth with urgency, in haste, “inviting and calling people to participate in building up his living temple.”
This inviting and calling that enables “others to be protagonists” has a name – co-responsibility. It is co-responsibility for the mission of Christ and his Church. Pope Francis invites us to “move towards a participatory and co-responsible Church, one capable of appreciating its own rich variety, gratefully accepting the contributions of the lay faithful, including young people and women, consecrated persons, as well as groups, associations and movements. No one should be excluded or exclude themselves” (Christus Vivit, 206). Therefore, may our Advent waiting not be passive, but very active in our bold witness of Emmanuel, King of the Nations and Prince of Peace!
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
“What should we do?” the crowds ask John the Baptist in this Sunday’s Gospel. This simple question permeates our earthly lives. What should we do with our time, treasure, and talent? What should we do in school, in our careers, in our community? What should we do with our lives?
As we prepare to celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent, we can look to the Scriptures to help us answer this resounding question. In the readings for Sunday, we hear responses that can be boiled down to two words: “rejoice” and “give.” These words can guide not only our Advent journey, but our entire spiritual lives.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” St. Paul writes to the Philippians in the second reading. This is not a suggestion, but a command—one coming from a man who has experienced beatings, stoning, shipwreck, cold, hunger, and robbery. This call comes from a man who, by human standards, has no cause to rejoice. What, then, sets Paul apart from the average human person? A relationship with Jesus Christ. It is this relationship, which nothing can break, that enables us to rejoice regardless of our circumstances.
During this time of year, it is fitting to be merry and to rejoice. Decorations and lights fill stores and homes, festive music plays, and social engagements abound. The world rejoices over the coming of our Savior on Christmas Day. He has already come and opened the doors of salvation, and he continues to invite each generation into this wonderful gift as we celebrate his birth each year.
But what does this rejoicing look like for Christians?
Herein lies the second piece of advice from this Sunday’s readings: rejoice through giving. This, too, is something our culture thinks about during the Advent and Christmas seasons. We participate in “Secret Santa” gift exchanges with friends or colleagues; our parishes collect gifts for families in need; we exchange gifts on Christmas Day with family and loved ones. The prayer attributed to St. Francis says, “it is in giving that we receive.” Do we not feel this in a special way at Christmas time?
The capacity with which we rejoice cannot exist in its fullness without our capacity to give. The more fully our “kindness is known to all,” as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, the more fully we experience the true joy that comes from Christ. Our acts of service make us more capable of truly rejoicing.
The Christian life is one of both prayer and action. In the Gospel, John the Baptist directs the Jews asking him “what should we do?” to works of mercy--Catholic Social Teaching in seed form.
“Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise…Stop collecting more than what is prescribed…Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages,” he responds to the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers.
These seem like simple, almost obvious, directions. But we need to be reminded of them again and again. This Advent, may we be “filled with expectation” as we rejoice in Christ. As we seek to answer “what should we do?”, let us ask for the intercession of St. Paul and St. John the Baptist to more fully rejoice by modeling kindness through our daily acts of service and charity.
Questions for Reflection: How are you rejoicing this Christmas season? How can you participate in the spirit of giving?
November 9th is a worldwide feast day celebrating the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. It may seem silly to have a feast day devoted to a church; after all, we are used to commemorating great saints, like Cecilia (November 22nd) or Andrew the Apostle (November 30th), or an aspect of Christ’s life, like the Solemnity of Christ the King (this year, November 25th). So why celebrate a building? Sure, it is a church, Mass is held there, the Eucharist is housed there – but that can be said of any other Catholic church. What makes the Lateran Basilica so special?
The full name of this particular church is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran. What a mouthful! The Lateran Basilica is one of the “major or papal basilicas,” the four highest-ranking churches in Roman Catholicism, due to their historical significance. The other three are St. Peter’s in the Vatican, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. St. John Lateran (as it is commonly known) is the oldest of the four, the oldest public church in Rome, and houses the cathedra (seat) of the pope in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome. Because it houses the cathedra, the basilica is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. It is also the sole holder of the title “archbasilica,” demonstrating its ranking above every other church in the world.
An inscription on the façade of the building says, “Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput.” Translated, it means, “The Most Holy Lateran Church, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” Today’s feast day celebrates not only the physical structure itself, but also what it symbolizes. As the seat of the Holy Father, it reminds our hearts and minds of the fidelity we show to the successor of St. Peter, an expression of unity that binds together all the faithful. Moreover, the physical edifice of the church calls to mind what the Catechism states, “The Church is the Body of Christ” (CCC 805). While the Lateran Basilica itself is a magnificent building, housing priceless works of art, in the end it is just a hollow shell. The faithful who enter it, pray in it, and celebrate the Eucharist inside it are what truly bring it to life and bring its purpose to fulfillment.
On this feast day, let us pray. Let us pray for the Holy Father, that he may continue to lead the faithful entrusted to his care. And let us pray for the Church, that her members may always work in unity to bring about Christ’s kingdom on earth.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples reply that some say John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. When Christ presses them further, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter steps forward and answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ, responds:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, by my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I build my Church.”
As Simon names Christ, Christ renames Simon. Simon’s recognition of Christ’s identity merits him a new identity, both by name, and by acceptance into God’s family. Simon, once son of Jonah, becomes Peter, child of God, disciple of Christ, the rock of the Church.
Our Christianity—our proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord—brings forth a new identity in all of us. The process first begins at baptism. On our behalf, our parents and godparents echo the sentiments of Peter through a profession of faith while the priest, describes our new identities through the words of the baptismal rite (emphases mine):
“You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
Not only does the baptismal garment symbolize the state of our souls, freed from original sin, but it also reflects on the nature of clothing as a sign of identity. A priest in his collar, an athlete in his uniform, a mother with a diaper bag slung over her shoulder - what we put on our bodies says something about who we are. During our baptism, we are clothed with Christ - the pure and spotless victim, symbolized by a pure and spotless garment.
The white of our baptismal garments also represents the invitation of Christ to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or gender. Despite the divisions we impose on one another through our many secondary identities, Christ makes no distinctions among the members of his Father’s house. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians:
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Our primary identity in Christ is universal and unified.
So, what does our identity in Christ mean for us in the day to day? The baptismal rite covers that too.
“With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that [Christian] dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
St. James puts it a slightly different way:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
To the best of our abilities, as members of God’s family we must do two things: care and keep.
Care: Be a doer of the word! Who needs your help? Ask God to show you who the orphans and widows are in your life, i.e., who needs you to provide something for them, whether it is material, emotional, or spiritual support. At some point, YOU will be a widow or orphan for someone else. When that time comes, ask God for the humility to accept help.
Keep: Keep spotless your baptismal garment! Avoid the near occasion of sin, and when you don’t, repent and start over. Go to confession, receive the Eucharist, and spend as much time as you can in prayer. Grow close to Christ through your own sanctification.
These directives from the baptismal rite and St. James depend on one another. The closer you are to Christ, the more you will serve his people. The more you serve his people, the closer you are to Christ. Notice that the baptismal rite specifies that you need the help of your “family and friends” to maintain your Christian dignity. You’re not in this alone. You have an entire community of believers behind you. Let’s be doers of the word together.
On this day we memorialize the death of John the Baptist, the man who introduced Jesus’s ministry to the world and whom Jesus said was the greatest man born among women (Matt 11:11). Yet, despite this accolade from the Son of Man himself, the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist also seems to have wrestled with something that many of us are still wrestling with today: doubt. Yes, even the Baptist, the camel-shirt-wearing, desert dwelling, locust-crunching prophet who calls the crowds that come to him a “brood of vipers,” sat in prison and wondered about whether the “nobody” carpenter from Nazareth was who he said he was.
The Gospels suggest that part of John’s doubt seems to have come from his expectations for Jesus. When John is called by God out of the desert, he announces the coming of the Messiah with metaphors of destruction:
“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:10-12)
John’s expectation for the Messiah is that he will cleanse through destruction; that he will rid the world of sin, but in a grandiose, violent way. His metaphors and proclamations are laced with references to fire and culling, suggesting that John envisions Jesus the way we tend to envision John—full of passion, intensity, even a little frightening. When Christ comes to John for baptism, Christ does not condemn John’s vision, but rather Jesus’ ministry adds to the story. Rather than cutting the root from the tree, Jesus invites sinners to dine with him. Rather than shaking his fists from the river, Jesus sits on the mountain top and declares the poor blessed.
Later, when John is imprisoned for publicly condemning the unlawful marriage of Herod, he receives word of Jesus’ latest miracles: the healing of a Centurion’s slave and raising of a widow’s dead son. The Gospels paint an interesting portrait of John’s response.
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him
with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2-3)
I can imagine John sitting in the corner of his cell, hearing of these miracles and wondering whether everything he thought about the Carpenter had been wrong. In the darkness of his cell, alone, surely knowing he would soon die, John doubts whether this man who heals is actually the ax he had been expecting.
There are two things that stand out about John’s moment of doubt:
First, John’s response to his doubt is to go to the source himself. John does not sit frustrated and angry, allowing his doubt to grow into resentment or apathy like so many of us do today. He sends his disciples to Jesus directly. John’s response should serve as a model for our own inquiries. Prayer, direct communication with Christ, is necessary to knowing the truth about his identity. Imagine it in terms of a marriage. What if a husband and wife never communicated with one another when they were concerned with the actions of the other? Not only does a potentially problematic action go unaddressed, but the spouse who desires to know the mind of her lover cannot. She risks constructing a faulty image in her head, one that further drives a wedge between herself and her husband. So too do we drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord when we doubt and leave those doubts untethered by prayer. When we question Christ, when we question our faith, when we question what is right or how to respond to injustice with charity, we should take those questions to prayer and ask for understanding. We should ask to see God as he truly is, not as we want him to be.
The second important thing to note about John’s moment of doubt is Jesus’ response. Matthew reports it this way:
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:7-10).
In his response to John and the crowds, Jesus first reaffirms his own actions, for these are the actions foretold in Scripture of the coming of the Messiah. He does not answer with words, but with deeds, highlighting the truth that “by their fruit will you know them.” Jesus then also seems to chastise the crowd for their judgment of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Jesus says that John’s vision of Christ is admirable, as it comes from place of virtue and strength. Although John initially sees Jesus only through his own eyes, Jesus recognizes that those eyes earnestly desire the truth and have been well formed. Jesus rewards John for his faith, even if it is imperfect. He does not allow John to remain misguided, but he recognizes John’s effort to know Christ as well as he can and rewards him with the accolade “no greater than.”
On the memorial of his death, let us try to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let us yearn for the Lord. Let us know him in prayer and the sacraments. Let us have the humility to open ourselves and our expectations to revision. Let us place our doubts before the Cross and allow John’s words to guide our prayers:
“He must increase; I must decrease.”
Questions for Reflection: How can moments of doubt make your faith stronger? Is Jesus inviting you to “go to the source” – to come to him in prayer?
If you could only take three things on a desert island, what would you bring?
A common question at parties, dates, and job interviews, it’s not so different from what we might ask ourselves during the season of Lent. Lent, as our Catechism says, is “a span of forty days when the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Just as the “desert island” question invites us to stop and consider what we really need and want in life, Lent invites us to consider our truest desires, what matters most, when it comes to uniting ourselves to Christ Jesus.
To help us answer this question during Lent, our Catholic tradition gives us three spiritual keys, known as “penitential practices,” namely, Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
Before deciding what to “give up” during Lent, first “pick up” a new way to pray. Be specific: pick a time, place, and form of prayer. Don’t commit to more than you can do, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself some.
Lent primarily focuses on the practice of penitential prayer, humbly acknowledging our sins with sorrow and contrition, and turning our hearts back to God’s forgiveness and mercy. One example found at most parishes is the Stations of the Cross, usually hosted every Friday during Lent as a way of reflecting on Christ’s Passion and death. Other daily spiritual exercises might involve reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms, or making a heartfelt Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition. Don’t forget Lent is a powerful time to receive the Sacrament of Penance (also called Reconciliation, or Confession).
Penitential prayer isn’t meant to leave us discouraged, but should increase our desire to love and serve God. The Psalmist sings, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:2-3). Lent is a kind of “spiritual desert” that highlights our thirst for God, which may lead us to experience what the saints of our Church call “dryness in prayer,” times when we lack feelings of comfort and consolation. Rather than a sign that God isn’t listening, as Mother Angelica and others have described, dryness in prayer can be a gift and invitation to find our deeper satisfaction in God alone. In the words of Msgr. Charles Pope, dry and difficult prayer teaches us to seek not the consolation of God but the God of consolation.
Fasting is the spiritual practice of voluntarily abstaining from food or some other bodily need or pleasure (now we can talk of “giving something up”). Fasting is rooted in our Church’s scripture and tradition, especially in imitation of Jesus who fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). While the Church only asks members to fast from food on occasion, I’m convinced fasting is more relevant than ever as we live in constant temptation of becoming more gratified while less grateful, more satiated while less satisfied.
Fasting can be a practice of slowing down. This can mean we intentionally consume and do less, thus allowing God to speak to our souls with less interruptions from the myriad distractions and lesser goods that demand our time and attention. Fasting works to curb our appetites—for food and drink, yes—but also excess information (news and status updates), noise and visual stimulation (TV, video games), so as to redirect our thoughts and desires for God and restore relationships with those near us. Spend some time in prayer considering what things or activities God is calling you to fast from.
When asked, “How much money is enough” Industrialist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller famously replied, “Just a little bit more.” The practice of almsgiving, on the other hand, can actually be freeing—showing that we can be happy with a little bit less.
John the Baptist instructed his followers, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3:11), and Jesus warned his disciples of putting stock in material possessions (Luke 18:18-30).
Almsgiving turns the spiritual fruit we inwardly gain through prayer and fasting outward into material fruit shared with the poor and those in need. One year, I chose one item a day I owned (article of clothing, book, can of food, etc.) to set aside to give to the poor through my local church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society or food pantry. I was shocked (and a little embarrassed) by how much I owned but never used. The point isn’t spring-cleaning or making room in the closet for new summer fashions, but to make room in our heart for the poor and to de-clutter the way that leads to the Kingdom of God.
This Lent, I invite you to pray about incorporating these pillars into your forty-day spiritual journey in the desert.
I distinctly remember at the Baptisms of both of my goddaughters the moment where the priest poured water over their heads and uttered the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” On both occasions, I choked back tears, in awe of the reality of spiritual childhood and the life of grace that is ours for the taking.
The Church places the feast of the Baptism of our Lord precisely at the end of the Christmas season – the same joy that was found in Bethlehem as God became a baby is experienced a few decades later as John the Baptist baptizes his cousin in the Jordan River. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’" Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his 2013 homily on the Baptism of the Lord elaborates on this and says,
“The heavens are also opened above your children and God says: these are my children, children in whom I am well pleased. Inserted into this relationship and liberated from original sin, they become living members of the one body that is the Church and are enabled to live their vocation to holiness in fullness, so as to be able to inherit eternal life, obtained for us by Jesus’ Resurrection.”
As Catholics, we believe that Baptism leaves an indelible mark on our soul – that we are really, truly changed the moment the water is poured over our heads and those sacred words are said. Not only are we freed from original sin, we are forever claimed for Christ and made beloved sons and daughters of God the most high. To be baptized is not just something that happens when we are a baby, it is a promise that is to be lived each and every day, and a call that requires a response from us.
What does that response look like? A life lived in and for Christ should change us, our hearts, and those around us for the better. Our daily actions should reflect our Christian identities - from the way we treat others, to constantly seeking the Lord in prayer - Baptism is a commitment to a way of life. It’s also a commitment to community – a commitment to showing up through life’s ups and downs for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s amazing to think about – through our Baptism, we become living members of the one body that is the Church. In essence, we are promised at our Baptism that we will never, ever walk alone. As members of the Body of Christ, we can continually turn to each other for friendship and support and the Church for the fullness of the sacramental life.
This feast day reminds us that our most important identity is always as beloved sons and daughters – He has claimed, chosen, and called each one of us. Just as I experienced unspeakable joy at my sweet goddaughters Baptisms, our Father in Heaven rejoices each time we remember that we are first - before anything else - His children.
"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’" -Luke 1:39-45
Year after year, we hear this reading in the days leading up to Christmas. As we prepare for the day on which we celebrate the Son of God entering the world, we tend to hear this passage and focus on Elizabeth’s words: “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and “blessed are you who believed.” Rightfully so, we concentrate on Mary’s fiat and, thus, the beginnings of the life of the one who would save us all. However, we may tend to overlook another thing Elizabeth exclaimed: “the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
John the Baptist would go on to be the great “forerunner of Christ.” As we commemorate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we remember that it was he who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John preached the coming of the Kingdom of God to the thousands that flocked to the desert to hear his preaching. It was he who baptized Christ in the Jordan, thus anointing him for his ministry. John the Baptist’s own ministry goes back to the moment when John, in his mother’s womb, hears the voice of Mary calling. That voice is not just that of a young woman, but a young woman who is the Mother of God. Thus, John, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, seems to be recognizing and acknowledging the fact that the Lord Himself is present in Mary’s womb.
Several years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI made a comparison to John’s leap for joy: “Mary, expecting the birth of her Son Jesus, is the Holy Ark that contains the presence of God, a presence that is a source of consolation, of total joy. John, in fact, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, just as David danced before the Ark.” Benedict reminds us of the scene in 2 Samuel 6 when David dances excitedly as the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem. In both cases, the Word of God is physically present. Before John, the Word is Jesus in the womb of Mary. Before David, the Word is in the form of the Ten Commandments within the Ark. For them, being in the presence of the Lord was not something they took lightly. They were not afraid or saddened, they were filled with a joy so immense and so uplifting that the only way they could express themselves was by jumping and dancing.
These Biblical events point to the line at the heart of Pope Francis’ exhortation: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” Faith in Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate, is not something that should bring us down. It is not something that should feel like an overwhelming burden. When we go to a sports game or another competition, for example, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting and hoping that our side will come out on top. When our team scores, we jump to our feet and cheer loudly. We clap and sing and even shed some tears. How much more, then, are we call to be excited when we are in the presence of God in the Eucharist or spreading the Good News to those we encounter?
We are invited to witness to our faith gladly, for we believe in a God who loved us so much that He gave His only son to die for our sins so that we might be able to have eternal life with Him (cf Jn 3:16). That kind of love reminds us to live our life of faith happily. Pope Francis once commented, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.” He was correct. How could a true believer exemplify the love of God with a frown? Let us follow the examples of David and John the Baptist who show us that true faith does not bring about sadness or dread, but instead brings us joy and peace. When we encounter someone who may challenge our beliefs, do not yell and scream back, but face that opposition with grace and a smile. When we go to Mass and notice that those around us may be mumbling their way through the hymns, I invite you to sing loudly and proudly, remembering that you are glorifying God. And when we get tired in our faith lives, let us be reminded of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us and, like John the Baptist, “leap for joy” ourselves.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
This coming Saturday, we will celebrate the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist was the cousin of Jesus, and is most well-known for baptizing Christ in the Jordan River. The baptism of Jesus signaled the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Although this Saturday we will recall St. John the Baptist’s death, by recalling his ministry of Baptism we are given the opportunity to reflect on this important sacrament.
If someone mentions baptism, I’m sure the first image we all conjure is one of a small baby, clothed in a white gown, surrounded by their parents and godparents, getting baptized. Indeed, this is the most common association of the sacrament. I’m sure most of us don’t remember our own baptisms, as our parents and godparents make baptismal promises for us and undertake the responsibility of raising us in our Catholic faith. However, infant baptism, while certainly the most recognizable form of the sacrament, is not the only point at which a person can be baptized. At the Easter Vigil, we often are witness to the baptisms of those who are entering the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). These new Catholics have been preparing for months to enter the Church and receive the Sacraments of Initiation, and the joy of their baptism is evident on their faces as they are cleansed in the waters.
When we are baptized, we receive symbols of our initiation into the Church community: water which cleanses us from Original Sin; a white garment demonstrating outwardly our new life in Christ; Chrism oil which strengthens us for life ahead; and a candle lit from the Easter candle symbolizing the light of Christ. These symbols of our Catholic identity are symbols that have been a part of baptism for centuries. If you’ve attended a Mass of Christian Burial, you may have noticed a reference to baptism in the funeral rite: the pall. A white cloth covers the casket of the deceased, and at the beginning of the funeral Mass, the priest notes that, “In the waters of baptism the deceased died with Christ and rose with him to new life. May he or she now share with him eternal glory” (Rites of Committal for the Order of Christian Funerals #305A). Throughout our lives, we are called to remember our baptisms, and the symbolism of a funeral pall brings us full circle from the new life we celebrate at baptism to the eternal life we attain in death. As we recall the Passion of St. John the Baptist this weekend, I invite you to take a moment to recall the baptismal promises that we make in the Rite of Baptism:
Do you reject Satan?
And all his works?
And all his empty promises?
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
Much has been made of the so-called Francis Effect in the public relations game the secular media plays with the Church. At first, it seemed a boon to the Church, though the jury is still out as to its lasting impact. But even Pope Francis himself would agree that it is not the Francis Effect that we want in our lives. It is a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We want the Jesus Effect.
The name Jesus means “God saves”. We hear these phrases often – “Jesus saves” or “You must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” And these things are true. Jesus does save us from the power of sin, and he is very, very personal. He knows each one of us intimately, and longs for us to know him just as well.
In coming to know Jesus, we come to know our true selves. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We know this God has revealed himself to be nothing other than LOVE itself. God is love – we read it in John’s Gospel. We are made in the image and likeness of LOVE. When you look in the mirror, do you see LOVE looking back at you?
We all try to be loving people. And we know from experience that when we love, we are happier. If we are made in the image of LOVE, then, when we love, we are being our true selves. This is why the more we get to know Jesus, the more we come to know our true selves. We are made to love. We are made to love and to be loved. We are always loved by God – this is what enables us to know how to love others (and to actually do it!). The power of this love is far more powerful than the power of sin. Both powers are more powerful than we are. We easily become “slaves to sin” because, without the power to overcome it, we can only give in to it. But with the power of love – AH. We are no longer slaves – we are free to love, free to be our true selves. You can see why it is so important to be in relationship with Jesus always, to seek him out, and to value every encounter with him.
I struggle to find words that adequately describe the power of this love experienced in an encounter with Jesus. Powerful, yes. Safe and secure. Energizing. Liberating. I think depending on where we are in our lives and what challenges we are facing, this love will have a different effect on us. It is interesting to look at some examples from the Scriptures of people who encountered Christ, and ponder the Jesus Effect in their lives.
John the Baptist first encounters Jesus while both are still in their mothers’ wombs! When Mary arrives for her visit to Elizabeth, John leaps in her womb – he leaps for joy. He recognizes the presence of Jesus, and is happy – so happy he can’t control himself. He wants to come out and play with Jesus. The joy present in that moment is immense.
Can you think of a moment when you encountered Jesus and simply experienced pure and utter joy?
This same boy who recognized Jesus from his first encounter becomes the one who facilitates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world. John was baptizing people as they acknowledged their sins, but he was always fully aware that he was merely preparing people for their encounter with Jesus – calling them to repentance so that when the One who could forgive sin and conquer it –really take its power away – arrived, they would be ready to hand over their sins and be purified with love. John knows that Jesus does not need to be baptized for the sake of forgiving his sins – Jesus doesn’t have any! But Jesus tells him to do it anyway. The humility of John to do as he is told by Jesus, even without understanding, is rewarded with the voice of God affirming Jesus’ identity. His encounter with Jesus resulted in a trust in his way.
Can you think of a moment when you did something you felt God was calling you to do, even though it didn’t make any sense to you?
In our baptism, we die and rise with Christ – united to his Paschal Mystery. Our original sin is washed away – our lives controlled by sin dies, and a new life – freed by love – rises. Our dying and rising is united to Jesus’ death and resurrection – our lives become witnesses to the power of love over sin. Baptism is first a personal union with God – but in becoming personally united to God, we become joined to all the others who are united to God, and we love who are not yet united to God as God loves them. We desire that they, too, will come to know the love of God that we know. We become a community; we become church.
Now, just because we are baptized does not mean we are all loving and never sin. We know that’s not true! But God’s love for us is so great that he gives us many opportunities to become reunited to him. The most powerful opportunities are those we are given by participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism brings us into the loving embrace of our God – the rest of the sacraments sustain us in that love. They are genuine encounters with Christ, and they have a Jesus Effect on us.
The Jesus Effect is not always one of joy. In Luke’s gospel, we meet someone who encounters Jesus and, instead of leaping for joy, breaks down in tears.
The Pardon of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50) is one of my favorite Scripture passages. Imagine what it must have been like to meet Jesus while he walked the earth. This woman’s response to meeting Jesus was one of utter humility and repentance. The two go hand in hand. You can’t really be repentant without being humble first. Humility enables us to acknowledge that we are not perfect. Humility is the greatest form of honesty, I think. We acknowledge who we are in front of God – not in front of anyone else, not compared to anyone else. It is just our true self – and how well we are being that (or not). Her response to Jesus was so beautiful because in it, she is saddened by her own sinfulness, while being completely overwhelmed by the forgiveness offered to her. Her focus is completely on Jesus. She is not distracted by the others present who speak ill of her. The power of the love of Jesus is so strong that it overshadows their sneers. Imagine that!
Can you think of a moment when you encountered the love of God so strongly that it silenced all the negative voices around you, at least in your ears? Now – can you think of a moment when you were that love of God to another?
The sacrament of reconciliation is an intense moment of this kind of love, and the season of Lent of a perfect time to encounter Jesus in this way. We can bring anything to confession, and Jesus will give us graces to overcome these temptations. He judges us only to save us – he judges what it is in our lives that is keeping us apart from him – and he tells us to stop doing these things – AND he gives us the grace to do so. He doesn’t leave us hanging. He wants to be intimately united to us. He gives us all we need to do it. This is the Jesus Effect – and it is everlasting.
Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on February 11th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online
Some days in the Church calendar give me pause. I don’t know about you, but the meanings of all our solemnities, feasts, and memorials aren’t always clear. It’s hard enough to understand the holy days of obligation, let alone all the non-required celebrations. Some days the logic of the Church is clear, but on others, when I look at the upcoming feasts, I stop to wonder what the heck the Church was thinking.
Yesterday’s celebration – The Nativity of John the Baptist – has always been curious to me. Admittedly, I’m too literal. In most questions of faith, that is my problem from the outset. I see what’s on the surface – the name, date, or historical information – and am blind to the depth of what is revealed below the surface.
Often, my faith needs help. It needs a rock tumbler of sorts. You know those machines that take ordinary rocks and spin them around until their edges are smooth and their inner colors radiant? They turn the plainest rocks into gems. Growing up, a kid in your neighborhood probably had one, and, if you were as nerdy as me, you thought it was pretty cool. Sometimes, like with the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist (and other churchy sounding things), I need a rock tumbler for faith. Luckily, I have one. Let me walk you through how it works.
At first, I hear something about the Church (teaching, feast day, tradition, ritual, etc.) and think “that’s weird, why do we do that?” Then my literal brain tries to explain it. Example: when I think of John the Baptist’s birth (JB for short), it doesn’t strike me as his most shining moment. Yes, it’s biblical and had some impressive in utero gymnastics and marital muteness (what wife doesn’t wish her husband speechless every so often, right?). But, at the same time, JB’s birth plays second fiddle to his ministry, to his baptizing. We don’t call JB “the Baptist” by mistake. JB’s ministry makes it into all four gospels, his death in three, but in only one gospel (Luke) do we hear of his birth. The faith tumbler is usually loud at first and produces few obvious results, as you can see.
Generally, when this tumbling process begins it doesn’t cue me in that it’s started. Rather, I mistake the noise of the faith tumbler for my own frustration and keep searching for some literal satisfaction. After my biblical strikeout, I dive headfirst into history. The fact that we don’t actually know JB’s birthdate doesn’t surprise me, but when I start finding evidence that Luke’s account of JB’s birth is more likely a construction of scriptural allusions (not illusions) than it is historical fact, my mind starts spinning even more.
Thank God, after long enough, my frustration mounts and I give up. I let go. I get frustrated with the Church and wonder: Why they don’t they just stick to Jesus and forget all these other nonessential feasts? They’re unneeded, a historical (some, not all), and it’s just mixing up the Gospel message…
That’s when it hits me. The sharp edges of my literalness soften. The walls of my attitude give way. The roughhewn rock of my faith vanishes and its inner colors come forth. I see what was there from the very beginning and what will be there until the end of time. The Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist is not just about John the Baptist; it isn’t just about history or allusion or mistaken priority either. It’s about today and it’s about Jesus’ coming. It’s about us and the fulfillment of the kingdom now.
Did you hear that beep? That was the faith tumbler. Its cycle is finished and I’m lucky for it.
Mark Bartholet is the Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC.