The Baptism of Christ, Pietro Perugino (1446–1523) and his workshop, c.1482 (detail)

Fr Thomas’s homily at Mass on the Baptism of the Lord (10 January)

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan.

Among those many people that S. John baptised this was a truly unique case. Indeed, in S. Matthew’s account of the event, S. John recognises this and tries to switch rôles before finally accepting Christ’s request for baptism. There was nothing new about baptism as an idea, ritual cleansings were a common part of religious practice; so when S. John started to preach his baptism, it was an idea which was easily understood. But this particular baptism was something entirely different.

S. John preached that people should repent of their sins and receive baptism — but of course, Christ couldn’t do that, he couldn’t repent of his sins as he had never sinned, would never sin, could never sin. But yet, having been baptised the voice of the Father declared that he was ‘well pleased’ with him — he certainly did the right thing.

The point is that when all of those other people were baptised by S. John they were transformed by the baptism; but when Christ was baptised by S. John it wasn’t him that was transformed, it was the baptism itself. It was by his baptism that Christ made those waters of baptism holy, it was by his baptism that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism which has been given to every Christian ever since. S. John said that his baptism was simply one of water, but that somebody was coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit — baptise with the full power of God — by his baptism, Christ created that promised reality. It was because of Christ’s baptism that our own baptisms have the meaning and effect which they had on us — and indeed the meaning and effect which they still have on us.

In most cases, it has been a few decades since we were baptised and so this feast gives us the chance to reflect on what happened back then and what impact it can still have on our lives — to reflect on what baptism actually is. Baptism is, of course, one of the sacraments — the first to be received and the gateway to the other sacraments. As many generations of English Catholics learnt from the Penny Catechism, ‘a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ’. The third part of that is what we’ve just said, that by being baptised himself — even though he had no need of forgiveness of sins — Christ instituted this sacrament.

The outward sign of baptism, is the pouring of water or in some cases the immersion in water. This outward sign relates directly to the inward graces which are given by the sacrament. There are two principle signs we can see with baptism. First, we can readily see how this is an act of washing — we use water to wash ourselves, and so the symbolism presents itself very quickly.

We pour water over ourselves to wash away any dirt that has built up on our bodies — in baptism this symbolises the way that by the pouring of water over us our inward dirt, our sins, are washed away. A newly washed body is clean and spotless, so too a newly washed soul — a newly baptised soul — is clean and spotless.

But there is also a second symbolism to the water — that of death. Where baptism is practised by immersion in water this becomes more clear than just a simple pouring. A person who is pushed under water for too long will drown and die; a person who is baptised dies, but dies with Christ in order that they may be raised again with Christ. Baptism makes us one with Christ — and Christ is the person who accepted death in order to save us. The death which we underwent at baptism means that we can live the life which Christ offers to us.

This two-sided impact of baptism on us — that our sins were washed away, and that we died to the world to live for Christ — is something which remains with us to this day, and indeed is something which will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Baptism is something which makes a change deep within our souls, a change which cannot be reversed. A baptised person can never become an unbaptised person.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re all sorted by baptism. Yes, it has made that vital change in us, and that change cannot be undone. But the grace which we are given by baptism is not something which we automatically accept. The grace is there by the working of the Holy Ghost; but we need to accept it if it is to have an ongoing impact on us.

The whole of our Christian life is built on that moment of our baptism — on the work which God did at the point, giving us the grace to live with Christ. But if we ignore it, or if we reject it, then it will do nothing for us. But it won’t go away, the grace will sit there — as God patiently waits for us — and if we turn back to him, and accept his working in our lives, than that grace will continue to strengthen us to live as Christ’s people here on earth.

The cleansing from sins at our baptism means that we should reject lives which accept sins; and dying to this world to live for Christ means that our lives should be structured around him and the way he wants us to live. Our baptisms should have a real impact on our daily lives, and the challenge to live in God’s way is a central part of that — a challenge which is only possible with the grace which comes from God, which was given to us in our baptisms.

So, as we celebrate Christ’s baptism today — let us reflect on our own baptisms, however long ago they were. Let us consider how well we are living up to the challenge of being those who have died to the world to live for Christ, and let us turn to him asking for his grace and power in our lives so that we can live lives worthy of those who have been cleansed by his baptism.