At the beginning of the Rite of Baptism, the priest asks an important question: “What do you desire?” The traditional rite directs the godparents to respond on the part of the child, “Faith.” The priest then asks a second question, “What does faith give you?” And the godparents reply, “Eternal life.” The modern rite gives a simpler suggestion: The parents or godparents respond to the question, “What do you desire?” with, “Baptism.”
I usually do not tell the parents how to respond to this question ahead of time, because their responses reveal what they understand about the Sacrament – valuable information for presenting to them the mystery about to be celebrated. Some parents respond with the ends or results of baptism: “To be freed from original sin” or “To become a member of the Church.” These are the results of baptism, and good responses to the question, but the traditional response, “Faith,” is the best one because it is through the infusing of the supernatural gift of faith that the salvation of the child comes about. It is important to note that when we talk about faith being what brings about salvation, we are not talking about the strength of the person’s convictions. This is what we normally mean by the Protestant belief in salvation by faith alone. Faith does indeed bring about salvation, but not because my personal belief is so strong, but rather because Faith is a gift given to us by God through the Sacraments.
Sometimes, less than ideal answers surface. “That she will be protected” has become rather common – a conception of baptism as a superstitious amulet that protects children from bad things happening to them. The most difficult response I have ever received, though, came not from a parent or godparent but from a six-year-old boy. He started screaming hysterically, “I don’t want to be baptized!”
This put me in a real pickle. No one should ever baptize someone against his or her will. The Church does not believe in forced conversions. But what was this boy really trying to express? As it turns out, his uncle, attempting to explain to him what was going to happen and why it was so important that he be baptized, had told him that if he were baptized, if he died, he would go to Heaven. Six-year-old boys, it turns out, do not always understand future hypothetical conditional statements, and he thought that his uncle’s explanation meant that once he was baptized he would die and go to Heaven – not a good prospect for a six-year-old boy who knew that he would miss his family and friends very much if such a thing were to happen.
This little boy was not entirely wrong about baptism, though. As St. Paul teaches us today, baptism does in fact bring about death. If a child’s parents or godparents responded to the priest’s question, “What do you desire?” with: “We want him to die,” we would certainly find their response odd, but they would not be wrong.
“Are you unaware,” St. Paul asks us today, “that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” Baptism brings new life to the soul – washing away the stain of original sin and beginning the life of grace – because it makes us partake in the very death and life of Christ. When the child emerges from the font, it is Christ who is rising from the dead in the person of that child, who has just been re-created in the image of the living God.
“Consequently,” St. Paul writes, “you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” This reality of being dead to sin can be a powerful motivation in times of temptation. The Devil often convinces us that sin is inevitable because we do not have the power to resist. This temptation is built on a truth: Without divine assistance, we can resist particular temptations to sin, but we cannot refrain from sin for long. But it is also based on a lie: that we would have to resist temptation on our own.
When we engage in the battle against temptation, the first step is not to summon up our own strength, but instead to rely on God. We should begin by recognizing that we are already dead to sin, and that Christ is living inside of us through the life of grace. Defeating temptation is about participating in a victory that has already taken place, that won by Christ.
St. Paul’s injunction that “you … must think of yourselves as dead to sin” also points to a more difficult reality: saying no to sin can feel like death. Often times, sin is present in our lives not just because of our own weakness, but because of bad decisions that allow habits of sin or opportunities for sin to be abundantly present in our daily lives. Dying to sin can mean real death in our lives. It happens when people choose to spend less time with friends who lead them into destructive behaviors. It happens when a couple chooses to limit their time alone in order to avoid temptations against chastity. It happens when someone gives up a technological device or places serious limits on its use in order to avoid occasions of sin, or when we have to give up a show in the middle of a Netflix binge when we realize that maybe this show is not actually going to help us grow in virtue, even if it means we never learn the ending of the story.
Doing these sorts of things hurts. It feels like death. But it is only through a real death to sin that we can conquer the fear of death that plagues us while we are still in the body. Dying to sin on a daily basis reminds us of what St. Paul teaches us today: We have no need to fear death, because we have already died. That is why Christ tells us, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Losing our life for His sake means a daily death to self and to sin.
Almost four hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher Plato, whose thought remains foundational for the Western intellectual tradition, including Catholic theology, wrote that philosophy is practicing for dying. On this point, as on many others, Plato was as close to the truth as he could be without Christian revelation. Pursuing wisdom and virtue are the best human practice for the day when the soul will leave the body to dwell in the eternal halls. But what Plato could not have known is that though the sacramental life of grace, we do not merely practice for death, but we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10).
In the normal order of things, someone’s body is buried because he has died. But in the supernatural order, our burial in the waters of baptism is not a sign of defeat but the victory of life over death, so that “we too might live in newness of life.” The best practice for dying is not merely the pursuit of wisdom but the death to sin through which we are reminded that we have already died, and death holds now power over us if we live for Christ.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXX