Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)
Easter Sunday. Mary Magdalene had just told the apostles about the empty tomb, the angels, and her encounter with Jesus, risen from the dead. Rushing to the mountain where they were to see him, Peter and the others must have wondered what awaited them. Would Jesus really be alive, as Mary had said? If so, would he upbraid them for abandoning him? Would he continue to teach them as before?
Imagine their surprise when Jesus’ first words were a command to make disciples and baptize. What was past was in the past; it was time for them to get on with the mission he had prepared them for. They were to go out to “all nations” and proclaim the gospel—and to baptize all who came to conversion and belief in the Lord.
Conversion in the Early Church. And this is exactly what happened. From the moment they were filled with the Spirit, the apostles did what Jesus had asked. Whether it was the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12), a jailer from Philippi (16:20-34), or an Ethiopian government official (8:26-39), people who heard the gospel turned to Jesus and were baptized. In fact, this threefold pattern of evangelization, conversion, and then Baptism seems to be the way that the Church grew for much of its first few hundred years.
According to this pattern, candidates for Baptism learned about Jesus and his cross and resurrection. They were prayed with, and they learned how to pray. They were called to repent of their past sins, and they were urged to take up the fight against further sin and temptation. Once it was clear that these candidates had experienced some degree of conversion, they were baptized, welcomed to the Eucharist, and declared to be full members of the Church.
Things are different today. Instead of Baptism coming after evangelization and conversion, it usually comes at the beginning of a person’s faith journey—typically when that person is just a baby. While there are many good reasons for why this pattern has become common, there remains one unfortunate consequence: infant Baptism can lead us to minimize the power of the sacrament and the impact that it can have on our lives.
In our articles this month, we want to take a look at the Sacrament of Baptism, which the Church calls “the basis of the whole Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213). We want to try to recapture a sense of what we received when we were baptized and ask how we can begin to unwrap the gifts that God so graciously gave us on that day.
Sacraments as Powerful Signs. Before we delve into Baptism, however, it’s a good idea to say a few things about what a sacrament is. We all know that each sacrament has its own set of symbols: the bread and wine at Mass; the water, oil, and candle at Baptism; the vows spoken and rings exchanged at marriage. Each of these elements symbolizes some aspect of the way God wants to work in our lives—whether to feed us, to wash away our sin, or to knit us together as husband and wife.
But the sacraments are far more than a set of symbolic actions. They also bring about the very things they symbolize. For instance, the bread and wine, now changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, really do fill us with Jesus’ presence. The vows we say at our wedding really do bind us together and empower us to live out what we are promising. Likewise, the water poured over us at Baptism not only symbolizes a cleansing from sin; it ministers that cleansing. When the priest or deacon says the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we are truly and actually “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
Two years ago, in a general audience, Pope Francis reflected on the power of Baptism to do what it signifies: “Baptism allows Christ to live in us and allows us to live united with him,” he said. “There is a before and an after to Baptism,” and it brings about “the passage from one condition to another” (April 11, 2018).
In a similar way, Pope Benedict XVI focused on the words spoken at the moment of Baptism when he addressed a group of parents at the Sistine Chapel: “These words are not merely a formula; they are reality. They mark the moment when your children are reborn as children of God” (Homily, January 7, 2007).
Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict touched on a vital key to Baptism and to all sacraments: as we perform the ritual acts and recite the prescribed prayers that are part of that sacrament’s celebration, God is at work in a powerful, definitive way.
With these truths in mind, let’s take a closer look at how St. Paul understood the Sacrament of Baptism.
“Are You Unaware?” In the first five chapters of his Letter to the Romans, Paul focuses on the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (1:16). He describes how all people were bound in sin and how God graciously sent his Son, Jesus, to redeem us by his death and resurrection. These chapters are a dramatic piece of writing, encompassing heaven and hell, good and evil, sin and redemption.
Paul knew, of course, that it is important to explain what God has done to rescue us, but it is just as important to describe how this salvation reaches us. This is where Baptism comes in. In chapter 6, he writes, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
This is the miracle of Baptism. When the water flowed over us, we were united with Jesus and his death on the cross. All the power, grace, and mercy that God released into the world on Good Friday flowed into our lives on that day, and we were made into a new creation.
This is how generous and loving our heavenly Father is! He has done everything he could to bring us back to himself. He has even given us this beautiful sacrament, in which our sins are washed away and we are filled with his light and his life. He doesn’t wait until we’ve earned these blessings because he knows we could never earn them. Instead, he takes the initiative and works wonders in us—even if we are too young to know what’s going on!
The ”Full Equation” of Baptism. Still, the Sacrament of Baptism is only one part of the equation. As we said above, in the early Church, people were usually baptized after they had already experienced some kind of conversion. Something had already happened to awaken them to the power of God and the call to live in Christ. They had already experienced the Holy Spirit touching their hearts, and they had already begun to look to him for help, consolation, and forgiveness.
Today, however, because Baptism typically comes before conversion, the grace and power of this sacrament can lie dormant in a person’s life—perhaps for a very long time. It’s only as we turn to the Lord that we begin to experience the power contained in Baptism. Just as Peter urged his first listeners at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is calling out to us: repent! Believe that Christ is in you! Put your faith in the new life you have been given! Trust that you are a new creation, and let that new creation come to life within you!
God has given us amazing gifts. He has washed away all of our sins; he has made us his sons and daughters; he has opened the kingdom of heaven to us; he has even placed his own divine life within us. All this happened the moment we were baptized. Now he is asking us to take up these gifts and let them change our lives.
It’s not just God who is asking this of us. The saints and angels gathered around his throne are urging us to embrace our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is cheering us on, eager to share with us all his wisdom, power, and love. And the Church is calling us to live as children of heaven so that those who have yet to believe can be converted.
All it takes is one or two small steps on our part, and God will respond with a flood of grace. We have been baptized into Christ. So let’s live in Christ!