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What Baptism Does for Our Soul

The feast of Jesus' baptism reminds us—in our worship and our theology—exactly how the sacrament affects us and what it's for.

Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, 2022

The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

-Luke 3:15-16,21-22

The sacrament of baptism confers a permanent mark or character on the human soul of the one who receives it. Where in our soul does this character reside? Is it like sanctifying grace in its essence, or is it in our mind, or our power of choice, or in our emotions, or in our memory, or in our imagination?

And what is this character for?

The two principal hymns of the Church’s worship in her Byzantine rite for the feast of the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Savior, which we celebrate this week, present with precision and force the meaning of our baptismal character. Not only that, but, as should surprise no one, these hymns touch with clarity the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas on the very same point of our baptismal character (and indeed the character of confirmation and of holy orders). Here they are:

When you, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan / the worship of the Trinity was made manifest / for the voice of the Father bore witness to you / and called you his beloved Son. / And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, / confirmed the truthfulness of his word. / O Christ, our God, you have revealed yourself / and have enlightened the world, glory to you.

Today you have shown forth to the world, O Lord, / and the light of your countenance has been marked on us. / Knowing you, we sing your praises. / You have come and revealed yourself, / O unapproachable Light.

Well, where in the soul does the indelible character of baptism reside? St. Thomas tells is that it dwells in our knowing or cognitive power. And why is this? Because the sacrament is an outward sign conveying grace, and a sign is understood; it is a matter of knowledge. Our baptismal character is a permanent strengthening of our power to know in view of the worship we must give to the God who has revealed himself to us. Our character is a marking for the sake of worship, which is the highest end of “our selves, our souls, and bodies” as the Mass of the Anglican use of the Roman rite says.

Take a look again at those Byzantine hymns and notice that the baptism of the Lord reveals, manifests, confirms the truth of the Trinity, so that we may cry out in worship, “Glory to you!”  We are told that the light of Christ’s countenance has been marked on us, that is has permanently characterized our Christian mind. And why? Because “Knowing you, we sing your praises.” The character exists for worship.

This is what the “priesthood of the faithful” means. By the character of baptism, they are able by faith more intensely to see the “unapproachable light,” and so offer due worship to the most holy Trinity. The importance of this last point is forcefully borne out in St. Thomas’s definition of the purpose of the sacrament of matrimony: “the procreation and education of children for the worship of God according to the rite of the Christian religion.” You can see how a deeper understanding of our baptismal character as ordered to worship helps us in turn to understand marriage, whereby the lives that come to be from it are intended for the life of Christian worship.

Someone might ask, but what about love, the will? Surely the character is not just about our intellects! Well, the will has no way of expressing itself without the use of signs, and signs are directed to understanding, and baptism is such a sign. A slap on the back, a handshake, a hug, or a kiss all express different degrees of affection, which is in the will and appetite of human beings, but they are all signs that have to be understood in order for the love to be communicated.

The wondrous character of baptism makes us able to use and receive the other signs of Christ’s love for us, that “Spirit and fire” that far exceed the Old Law or the baptism of John. Now all water is a sign, the matter for birth to eternal life. Before Christ it was not. Indeed, the whole world and all of human life from birth to death have been transformed by these holy signs, the sacraments: they establish his Church, and the sacramental character of baptism opens the floodgates of his grace for our whole life after, and indeed into eternity where the character is not lost because then our worship will have been perfected!

Glory to him and to his Father and their life-giving Spirit, world without end. Amen

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