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Father Vincent Hawkswell

Baptism: more than a metaphor

Voices Feb. 12, 2018

Baptism washes away original sin, restoring the original holiness and justice Adam and Eve had, writes Father Vincent Hawkswell.

First Sunday of Lent, Year B
First Reading: Gn 9:8-15
Second Reading: 1 Pt 3:18-22
Gospel Reading: Mk 1:12-15

This Sunday’s liturgy connects the water of baptism with the water that saved Noah and his family. To us who live in a scientific age, the connection may seem rather weak. “A mere metaphor, a chance resemblance,” we say with a shrug.

However, from God’s point of view, creation is entirely the result of his design; nothing happens “by chance” or “by coincidence.” In his plan, everything is connected to everything else.

Baptism is a sacrament: a “visible sign” of the “hidden reality” of salvation, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An example of an ordinary sign is the one you see on the way to the airport. It shows an airplane, but it does not carry you up into the air. In contrast, a sacramental sign actually brings about or accomplishes what it signifies, through the power of God.

In the sacrament of baptism, the “visible sign” is the water poured over the head. The “hidden reality” it brings about is the washing away of original sin and the restoration of Adam and Eve’s original holiness and justice.

At our human birth, we inherit Adam and Eve’s fallen nature, which is subject to death. The water of baptism saves us from death by causing us to be reborn as God’s children. It saves us just as really as it saved Noah from death by lifting up his ark.

In fact, the salvation baptism grants us is far more profound than salvation from drowning. Spiritual things are invisible to us, but they are far more real than physical things.

I like the way C.S. Lewis makes this point. We think angels can pass through rock because rock is hard and angels are insubstantial, like vapour, he says. In reality, angels pass through rock like airplanes through clouds: because angels are so real and rock so insubstantial.

Because we cannot see spiritual things, God reveals them to us by concrete signs. That is the nature of sacramental signs: they are outward signs of God’s inward grace.

Lent, which we are just beginning, ends with the Easter Vigil. In the liturgy of this vigil, during the blessing of the baptismal water, the Church prays as follows:

“Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power. In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament.

“At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.

“You freed the children of Abraham from the slavery of Pharaoh, bringing them dry-shod through the waters of the Red Sea, to be an image of the people set free in baptism.”

All these Old Covenant prefigurations “find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus,” who “begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan,” says the Catechism.

Immediately after his baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying. “By the solemn 40 days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert,” the Catechism says. Only with this preparation can we properly “repent, and believe the good news.”

The call of Jesus “to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, sackcloth and ashes, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion,” the Catechism says. “Without this, such penances remain sterile and false.”

Nevertheless, it adds, “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance,” especially fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.

If you have not started yet, it is not too late to begin.