1 Peter 3:18-22
Paragraph 1213 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word.’”
Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life.
As we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal in the Church as a whole and in each of her members, it seems appropriate that the first reading we hear is that of Noah, the ancient symbol of baptism. The section we just heard comes at the end of the great flood, when the Lord made the covenant with Noah. That covenant was of great importance because it was much more than a simple contract, it was the creation of a sacred family bond that brought us into the Divine family. When this happened later with Abraham it was sealed by Abraham cutting an animal in half, laying it on the ground, then walking through it with the torch that represented God. By doing so they were each saying, ‘If I break the covenant, may this be done to me,’ pointing to the slain animal. God has kept faithful to the covenant with us. It is we who over and over again choose to turn away from Him and break the covenant. Yet He takes us back each time and never tires of doing so.
As we begin this season of Lent, we call to mind those ways where we have broken the covenant relationship with our Father and seek to come back to Him, to be renewed in Him. In his Lenten Message for this year, Pope Francis invited each of us to take a look at one specific reality in the life of the Church and of specific souls and it was this: indifference. Going back to the family analogy, when we welcome a new person into our family, whether by marriage or by birth, we usually have parties to celebrate it. But do we do that each and every time we see that particular person? No. It would get old quick and, frankly, rather expensive. We celebrate the initial arrival but over time we get used to the other and things normalize. But the problem Pope Francis point out is that sometimes this can lead us to become comfortable, complacent, indifferent. We begin to look less at the other person and more to ourselves, then we can quickly become less concerned about the other and become cold-hearted. This is what he is inviting the Church to reflect upon and he provides three specific areas upon which to reflect: the Church, the parish, and the self. And since we begin the Easter season with a renewal of our baptismal vows, I’d like to spend the next couple of weeks looking at these three aspects through the lens of baptism.
The first reflection is indifference toward the Church. The important thing to note is that Pope Francis isn’t thinking about just the hierarchical structure and the legalistic norms of the Church, he’s thinking more along the lines of St. Paul analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ, a body that lives and grows, and, unfortunately in some members, dies. It’s a living body that is intimately connected together, exemplified by St. Paul’s words: “If one member suffers, all suffer together.” The First Letter of St. Peter reminds us that baptism is “not a removal of dirt from the body.” If that’s what we think baptism is, then we’ve missed the boat. Baptism, as the Catechism said, is being made part of the Body of Christ. And it’s not just that we’re being put alongside others, as if what you do doesn’t affect me and vice versa. We are being connected to one another and to every other baptized person who has every existed. We are part of something MUCH greater than we can even imagine and in a way that has eternal consequences. How so? Because when one member suffers, all suffer together. Therefore, as members of the Body of Christ, we have an obligation to help others. Think about it this way. If you’re hammering a nail into the wall and accidentally hit your thumb, what happens? You immediately pull it back and hold it with the other hand. Or when we see football players and other athletes out on the field and they hurt a knee or something, what happens? They immediately, unconsciously, wrap up around it to protect it. This is what it means to be members of the Body of Christ. When some member in the Body hurts, it is for the rest of the Body to respond with prayer and offerings of grace, and sometimes physical aid, in order to bring protection, consolation, and peace. So where is the body hurting?
We can look at the obvious places like the Middle East and Africa, where ISIS and Boko Haram are reaking havoc on Christians, making martyrs daily. We can look farther east, in places like China where the Church is being persecuted not so much by violence as by governments trying to control the Church and tell her what to do rather than look to the Holy Father or their own bishops. And it doesn’t have to be persecution at all. We can look north. I was talking to my dad yesterday morning and he was telling me about the outrageous amounts of snow they’re getting and the temperatures being so low for so long. Then he asked if I had seen that Niagara Falls had frozen over. I shook my head in disbelief but he described it and sure enough, they are! In the cold we can see another part of the Body in need of help. Just as when we experience hurricanes and look sometimes for help from others, the same applies here. We may not always be able to do something about the situation – a smashed thumb just needs time to heal and usually a little ice – but we are invited to respond with some sign of care and concern for the member in need.
If we take Jesus just as a nice example to follow, says Pope Francis, then we have missed the point. He wasn’t just a nice teacher. He is our God who invites us to become one with Him, in Him, through Him by receiving and living out the sacrament of Baptism. Jesus was tempted for forty days in the desert for us, for you. What gift are we offer to Him this week to bring consolation to His aching members?