The day after John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan, John saw Jesus nearby and pointed him out to his disciples, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” We continue to reflect upon Jesus’ baptism and our baptism.
This year will be ten years since the terrorist attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. Those events changed our lives in large and small ways. As a permanent deacon at that time, I began to pay more attention to the religion of Islam. A Muslim friend of mine helped me to understand something about Islam, and together we got involved in inter-religious ministry, between Muslims and Catholics, with the help and guidance of Bishop Aymond. That experience helped me to deepen my Catholic faith.
My friend, Ahmad, would invite me to attend Friday prayers at his mosque in Dallas. Before going to the mosque he would show me at his home how to make the ablutions that Muslims make before gathering for prayer in the mosque. Ablution means to wash or bathe with water. Islamic ablution helps us to understand how they see their relationship with God, or Allah, and how to approach him and communicate with him.
Be careful not to fall for the line that Muslims worship a different God. A better way to understand it is the way neighbors live in a neighborhood. Once when we moved into a new home neighbors told us we had the meanest man in town living next door to us. However, we found out that he was gruff, but probably the kindest man in town. Somehow we just learn about persons differently, and so it is with the way some people know God.
Muslims believe that in order to pray to God we must separate ourselves from the world. For them God doesn’t live in our neighborhood. God is not in this world because the world is full of sin, corruption and temptation. Heaven is free from corruption and sin. God lives in Heaven. For Muslims, God/Allah is far away from us who are down here in the mud and filth of the world.
Muslims believe they must seek Him outside of this world. Muslims remove their shoes and socks to prepare to approach Him for prayer. Three times they bathe their hands in water, saying, “O Allah, please make the water clean in order that the water may make me clean.” Likewise, they wash their arms, their faces and their feet. When they wash their feet they say, “O Allah, please guide my feet in the correct path.”
When I came to understand the meaning of the words they were saying in Arabic, I realized that these words were not so foreign or strange to me. In our Catholic Mass, prior to the Eucharistic consecration, the priest washes his hands and says, “Lord, wash away my iniquity, cleanse me from my sins.” We call that an ablution. The custom of ablutions as a symbolic cleansing of sin is an ancient tradition of the people in the Middle East, including Jews and Christians.
When John the Baptist was preaching and teaching the baptism of repentance at the Jordan River, he was following an already ancient tradition well known to the Jewish people of his time.
John didn’t know what Christian Baptism was because no one had ever seen it before. John the Baptist was a Jew, the last prophet of Israel, of the Old Testament. John came to announce the coming of the Messiah promised by the prophets. He met the Messiah and baptized him, but John was not a Christian and was never baptized as a Christian. He had no concept of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Church understanding of the Trinity came later, only after Jesus’ Resurrection. John’s preaching was for his listeners to repent of their sin and prepare the way for the Messiah to come. His baptism was merely a ritual ablution to signify the desire to be cleansed of sin.
The Messiah could not be a sinner, but came for the salvation of the world. This is why John said, “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me….” We heard in Matthew’s Gospel last week what John told Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” John says in today’s Gospel, “… I came baptizing with water… … he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus insisted that John baptize him, and John did as Jesus requested. John did see the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus. John had no idea that his Jewish ritual ablution would be taken and changed by Jesus into a totally new mystery for the salvation of the world: Our Sacrament of Baptism. Prior to this, John never experienced anything more than a ritual ablution. The Holy Spirit had never come down upon anyone he baptized. John was martyred not long after he baptized Jesus.
In the moment of Jesus’ Baptism, John’s mission was complete. In that moment the Old Testament came to an end and the New Testament began. In that historic moment a simple ritual was changed into something entirely new. In our Sacrament of Baptism we are not simply made clean, we are reborn to eternal life. In the mystery of our baptism we are incorporated into the life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are no longer corrupt mortals, but immortal children of God! Death no longer has any power over us as a result of our Baptism. That is what we call a “game changer”.
By Christian baptism we are changed, transformed, reborn to eternal life. By our Baptism we die to this world with Christ and become a new creation. We are saved! Baptism changed human history!
Our challenge as Baptized Christians is to live with the dignity of Sons and Daughters of God, and bring our lives unstained into the Kingdom of God, without losing the eternal life Christ gained for us.
There is still much confusion among Christians regarding baptism. Many fundamentalist Christians treat baptism as if it were only an ablution. Children don’t get baptized as infants and baptism is delayed and treated as a sign of repentance or conversion of adults, much like it was for John the Baptist. And, for some groups, baptism can be repeated again and again, like a mere ablution. But it is much, much more than that. Jesus teaches us that we are reborn in Baptism to eternal life. That is precisely why we baptize Children, because it gives them new, eternal life. This rebirth is not something we leave to chance, or until they are 15 or 20 years old. What is at stake is our eternal existence. Baptism is a matter of life or death!
And baptism is the first sacrament that opens the door to the other sacraments. The sacraments are for the Baptized only. Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick. Baptism gives us our identity in the Kingdom of God, our citizenship. We do it once! We do it early, because we love our children so much that we want them to live the eternal life of the Kingdom, close to God, here, now. We baptize our children because God loves our Children and He wants them in His Kingdom. Jesus told his disciples, “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20). We baptize our children and new disciples out of obedience to Jesus.
Compared to other religions, our God is close. He lives in our neighborhood, or even closer. We have high esteem for Muslims, as our Church teaches in the Catechism. They believe in God. They pray and fast and make sacrifices. Our mission is to witness to our baptism to the entire world, including Muslims. We are called by our baptism to introduce the entire world to Emmanuel, “God with us”, the light of the world, Jesus Christ, who loves us so much He came to live with us here, in our neighborhood.