Baptism is so important that Jesus himself submitted to it. He had no need to be baptized: He has no sins and he is Son of God by nature. He did not need cleansing and adoption — as we do. Yet, because of the importance of baptism, he allowed John to pour those waters over him.
The early Christians struggled with this. Why did the sinless Christ accept a baptism that implied repentance? Gregory Nazienzen — one of the great Greek Fathers — gave this answer: “He comes to bury sinful humanity in the waters. He comes to sanctify the Jordan for our sake.” Then he adds, “Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him and rise with him.” (PG 36, 350)
Jesus made clear the necessity of baptism for salvation. The Catholic Church has always followed that teaching. Last summer — when we had those wonderful readings from John, Chapter 6 — I spoke to you about two sacraments that we must receive in order to have eternal life: Baptism and Eucharist.
To some people it seems extraordinary that so much can depend on something so small: a bit of flowing water and a small piece of bread. But when you think about it, it is not so strange. Matters of great moment often depend on something small. Physicists speculate that the entire cosmos emerged from something as small as a plum — or a baby’s fist. An elephant — or a human being — develops from something tinier than the dot at the end of a sentence. Small things can have enormous import.
In the case of the sacraments, their import does not come from the nature of the material substances. You can break water down to hydrogen and oxygen; the Eucharistic bread is made from ordinary wheat, nothing else. No yeast, no sugar — only wheat and wheat flour. But the water and the wheat have power because of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul says that God “saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” At the moment of baptism, the Holy Spirit transforms us into God’s children by adoption. And before consecrating the bread, the priest prays, “Let your Holy Spirit come upon these gifts...”
Now, you might imagine the next thing I will say is: Make sure to baptize your children and that they receive the Eucharist. I am saying that, for sure, but this Sunday I want to propose to say something more: a sense of amazement, of awe before God’s gifts.
Let me give an illustration: I remember when my first grand-niece was born. Her dad was a regular guy, maybe a little quiet, sometimes would have a difficult time expressing himself. Once I happened by their bedroom door which was slightly ajar. Roel was holding his little daughter in his hands looking at her. I felt a bit embarrassed that I had happened upon such an intimate scene, but at the same time I thought that I could have lit a stick of dynamite and he would not have noticed. His child totally engrossed him. His face showed awe, amazement.
That should be our attitude before the sacraments. Today’s Psalm says, “How manifold are your works, O Lord!” And it reminds us that God’s spirit renews the face of the earth. He does it through very small things: flowing water and wheat bread. And as we see in today’s feast of Jesus’ baptism: He saves us “through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”