Have you ever wondered why Jesus is baptized? John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River as a sign of their turning away from sin, a purification ritual to symbolize a fresh start in life. But Jesus is supposed to be without sin. He doesn’t need to start over. Why would He be baptized? Just as with the Eucharist, which Christ instituted in His last night with the disciples, Jesus established Baptism as a practice for, a sign of, of His church, in other words, He is does this because he wants it to be something for us to do. So what are we doing when we are baptized? What happens?
As with the Eucharist, there are different ways people understand it or try to explain it. One of the things that we talk about in Baptism is the washing away of sins, just as John the Baptist preached. If we wondered why Jesus would need that, it can also make us wonder, why babies would need it. What could be wrong with a beautiful little baby, that would need to be cleansed? How could she have done anything wrong, in her short life? Perhaps we should wait, until a person has accumulated some sins. What we’re talking about in the Sacrament of Baptism is not merely a person’s individual sins, but the sin of the human condition. Our dividedness, from each other, and God. The complex web of circumstances that mean some babies are born in hospitals, with good homes to go to, and parents who can read to them and feed them, surrounded by whole families and communities around to help them as they go through life. And some babies are born to addicted parents, abused as children, given a sense that they are worthless, in communities torn apart by war. That is what “original sin” means—the sin into which we are born, the sin of an unfair world. We pray in the prayer of confession about the sins we have done, but also the sins done on our behalf, the injustices and inequities that we would not have chosen, but affect us, and that no individual can undo. I simply cannot, no matter how much good will or earnest effort I expend, take all of the sin out of the equation of my life: from the way things I buy are made, to the food I eat, to the education I received and the way I am treated, to the mere fact that I grew up with a loving family in a peaceful, prosperous part of the world while others did not. It’s not a level playing field. Even when we work hard, some of us do well, and others come up against circumstances of illness of misfortune that make a mockery of their labor. And even the good things that we try to do can have unintended consequences, that do harm, when we wanted to help. You might wonder how we presume to more people into this world, that we can’t really seem get right. And yet, we are called to do exactly that—the thing we can’t do, in faith, and it takes large measures of hope and love. One image of parenting is of being given a small child’s very imperfect drawing or craft project, and accepting it with exclamations of love, but parenting is just as much presenting this very imperfect world to our children and wishing we could have done better. We ask, through this sacrament, that God will take that burden of sin from them, will not look at them as just parts of the mess we’ve made, but as God meant them to be. As if God reached his hand into a muddy river, swirling with all the litter we put there, and drew out a grimy stone, polished it, and held it up to the light—all along, the diamond He had made.
Another way we think about Baptism is as a sign of joining the church, the community of followers of Jesus. In the liturgy of Baptism, we promise to raise them in the faith, asking for the help of those around us because it takes all of us to raise our children. We give them godparents, friends and mentors to accompany them on the journey of faith. This part is what we affirm for ourselves in Confirmation—that this community is what we want for our lives, that we still need others as we become adults.
So Baptism is both a sign of the washing away of sins, that we need because we can’t do it for ourselves, and joining the community of faith, that we need because we can’t go it alone. And yet it is something even more. It is the mystery behind both of those things—for how are we freed from the inescapable web of human sin, and how is the life of the community created? Baptism is an acknowledgement, a confession, that it is not our own choices or efforts that accomplish these things, but only a fundamental connection to the person of Christ. We can only become the unique individuals that God created us to be, by finding our being in Him. That involves a death, just as his life involved a death—we must die to the other kinds of life, to be born into that life of freedom and connection. We have to die, to be born again—because the first birth brings us into this world, full of love, if we’re lucky, but full of hatred, too, we can’t deny it, full of pain and fear. To born into the true life, the life in which we will only give and receive love, we must become part of God’s new Creation, of which the risen Christ is the first born, and into which he brings us through Baptism. We ask, in the Baptismal prayer, that we will be united with Christ in His death and resurrection. Again, it is weird to think of a baby being brought through death. We worked so hard to bring them safely through birth, through the difficult newborn stage. Baptism sounds almost like chemotherapy, like taking poison to kill every cancer cell, before the patient is killed, we hope. Except that in Baptism, the patient does die. Dies to the dead end of that human reality. On our own, we couldn’t survive it—it would just be suicide, escaping the horrors of the world we’ve made, yes, but to no purpose. One fewer potential sinner is no victory, and this is to be a victory. So we don’t do it ourselves, we don’t do it alone, we go through the journey of death and rebirth with Christ, hand-in-hand, he gives us his death and life to be our own, as a gift. What is born is not one less sinner, but a new member of the community of love, peopling the new Creation as God intends it to be, with those He has made and loves. Freed from the weight of human sin, joining the community of saints, we are redeemed: ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven—gotten back and gathered in, to the life of love for which we were made. As we read in the Book of Isaiah:
Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.”