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Vatican II and Baptism

I attended Sr. Catherine Michaud’s lectures on Vatican II and I was particularly struck by the teaching on Baptism. As I reflect on that talk, I realize why water was such a strong symbol and a metaphorfor crossing over into new life in both the Old and he New Testaments. Moses took the people through the waters of the Red Sea on their journey into new life, but Moses, “God’s best friend” did not always model God. Consequently, he himself did not cross over the Jordan with the rest of the Hebrew people into the Promised Land.

Jesus, on the other hand, modeled God and did not fail to be the model for us. He humbly requested to be baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan, publicly identifying himself with the Israelites saved by God’s hand in Exodus and later brought to the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan. As the Spirit descended on him in baptism, he heard a voice, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

John, the last of the “old” prophets, baptized his followers with water and preached repentance and salvation through fidelity to the Torah. Jesus, a Jew, not only preached the Torah but fulfilled its demand for “right relationships.” He was the new spirit with a message of love, forgiveness and new life. Jesus Christ is the face of God among us and in his humanity; he showed us who we are.

Because of Baptism we are initiated into the family of God. Putting on Christ, we are immersed in His death and resurrection and infused with Christ’s Spirit, making us sharers in his mission as Priests, Prophets, and Kings (Queens). Baptism glorifies God and sanctifies us, but the grace of Baptism is not cheap grace. It calls us onto the road to Calvary—a rough and rocky one with twists and turns; it requires the willingness to go through the same process that Jesus experienced. Our flesh will be crucified, and we will know the darkness of the tomb. It may feel like death, but like Jesus, we leave the tomb empty and rise again empowered to not only be the messenger but the message.

In an older theology baptism was rather narrowly about sprinkling babies with water to save them from an eternity separated from God. Some feared that if babies died before baptism, they were destined to limbo. Vatican II returned the Church’s theology to the more expanded understanding of baptism; it is about more than personal salvation, and the baptismal symbol of water represents more than the washing away of original sin. It incorporates the meaning of water from the Old Testament as both destructive and life-giving. Through baptism we die to the power of sin and are filled with “living water”; we are transformed into living water for the thirsty. Our experiences of being poured out for others are the Spirit working through us to continue Christ’s mission, and the voice of heaven is declaring over us as surely as at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan: “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”

Nancy Gotto