During Advent, as I was reading aloud the upcoming Sunday’s readings for Mass to my middle school students, I threw out a question, more hoping to challenge them than expecting a correct answer: Was the baptism that the people were receiving from John the Baptist the same as the baptism that you received? To my surprise — and delight — a couple of students eventually reached the right answer, from two different angles. One said, “Oh, no, because it wasn’t in the name of the Trinity.” In another class: “No, because Jesus hadn’t died and risen yet, so it couldn’t have been the same.”
My students’ answers demonstrate a much deeper understanding of the sacrament of baptism and the graces that we receive through it than I had at their age. Occasionally, I have been delighted to hear students say things such as, “That was the best day ever; well, except for the day of my baptism, of course.” What is it about this sacrament that so speaks to the heart of the young?
This Sunday, we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like those who came to seek the baptism of repentance, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist. But His being baptized was different. While the others seeking John’s baptism desired to repent of their sins, Jesus had no sin of which to repent. Yet He so desired to unite Himself to our human condition that He was willing to take on even the guilt of our sins in order to draw us to Himself (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). At the moment of His baptism, Christ sanctified the waters, so that now water can bring about in us a new birth into the life of God.
When we are baptized, we are given a share in Christ’s Paschal Mystery — His passion, death, and resurrection; that is, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ in the cleansing waters. Just as the Trinity was present at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan — the Father anointing His Son Jesus with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove — so, too, the Trinity is present at our baptism. Not only are we baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but at the moment of our baptism, the Trinity Himself comes to dwell within our souls. As Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king at His baptism, so are we anointed priest, prophet, and king at ours — set apart to offer worship to God, to proclaim His truth, and to share in His kingdom. As we become children of God and washed clean of original sin and any personal sins, we receive sanctifying grace, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. We are marked with an indelible seal as belonging to Christ.
Having been taught all that we are given by God in the sacrament of baptism, it is no wonder that my students are in awe of what they have received. Seeing this great gift is a tangible encounter with the love God has specifically for them. May we all rejoice with that same awe for the gift of our baptism and enter into its beauty more and more daily!
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.