Thoughts on Baptism
Every weekday morning during term time on my way from the Irish College to the Lateran University in Rome, I passed the octagonal Baptistery of St John Lateran – built around the same time as St Patrick came to Ireland – for a while the only baptistery in Rome. Why the eight sides? Because Jesus rose from the dead on the eighth day, and to become a Christian you had to be baptised in water, participating in the sinless Christ’s death to sin and resurrection to new life.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist. When John is unwilling to baptise him, Jesus says that ‘it is fitting that we should … do all that righteousness demands’. Many times he says that his will is to do the will of his Father. He’s telling John that his Baptism is part of the loving plan of God for the whole of humanity, and he’s beginning the public part of that plan just now. He wants us to see that though he’s divine, he’s fully sharing in our human condition, and while without sin, humbly takes our sin on himself and undergoes the cleansing of John’s Baptism of water. But the Baptism with water he receives from John is overshadowed by his Father’s voice from heaven, announcing publicly that ‘this is my Son, the Beloved’. The entire Trinity is present; the thunderous entry of the Father is accompanied by the Spirit, who, we’re told, ‘remains’ over the Son.
Christ’s Baptism is the revelation of what our Baptism means – we’re being told very publicly that our human nature has, in his human nature, been lifted up into the life of the Trinity, and Chapter 15 of the ICCA spells out beautifully all the stages in the Rite of Baptism.
But what does it mean for us? Saint Peter in his Second Letter says we become ‘sharers of the divine nature’. That’s the huge difference between Christianity and every other religion: when baptised, each of us is Jesus, each of us is personally called out to by Our Father: ‘you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’ Because we’re adopted into God’s family, into the Trinity, we’re never on our own, we have Father, Son and Spirit lifting up every aspect of our existence.
Our Baptism was never meant to cut us off from the world around us – rather, through us, our world too has to be ‘baptised’. Let’s take three areas considered central to the identity of the modern secular world: (i) science, (ii) human rights, and (iii) democracy. Many think these values were achieved in the teeth of opposition from Christianity.
(i) But historians of science have uncovered the medieval Christian origins of modern natural and experimental science. The development of science very much depended on a belief in the meaningfulness and goodness of created reality, and that belief in turn had its origins in faith in a creator. Saint Francis’s ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ saw the whole of creation adopted by the Father, so that sun, moon and stars, all the animals, along with ourselves, are all brothers and sisters in the Son. Inspired by St Francis’s Trinitarian vision of the universe, it was medieval Franciscans in particular (like Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste), with their appreciation of the implications for nature of the Incarnation, who pioneered some of the first steps in experimental natural science.
(ii) As regards the Christian origins of human rights thinking, authors like Harold Berman and Brian Tierney have shown one of the foundations of modern rights theory can be found in the medieval canonists’ principled defence of the freedom of each individual human being – again a struggle for individual rights in the medieval period that was largely carried out by Franciscans like William of Ockham.
(iii) That democratic conviction of the equal dignity of each human person as a child of God – founded in their understanding of Baptism – underlaid yet a third, political contribution Christianity has made to modern secular culture. Which is that the very fact we’re able – far more clearly than in, for example, the classic Greek political theory of Plato and Aristotle – to insist that the democratic state is at the service of the individual human person and not the other way round.
As a result, modern secular culture is so marked by elements which, as a matter of fact, are due to Christian revelation, that almost every culture in the world wants to share in those elements in some way. Whether these gains – of a scientific understanding of the natural world, of the rights of each person, of democracy within the context of a complementary interaction of the secular and the sacred – can survive without being nourished again and again by their Christian roots, is questionable. Natural science can lose its ethical bearings, the unique dignity of each human being from conception to natural death can be legally denied, the arena of the political can claim to be the only source of authority in society.
So the task of Christians helping to baptise and rebaptise the wider world around them, is the challenge of permanent re-evangelisation we’re all invited to take up in the public life of our society. Which is why Chapter 15 opens with a fascinating glance at the life of John Boyle O’Reilly as a ‘baptismal witness’, though Daniel O’Connell – who said he’d have fought for the rights of Protestants if he lived in Portugal, of Jews in England, of African Americans in the US, as well as for Catholics in Ireland – remains my favourite Irish baptised politician.