The Baptism of the Lord: “The purpose of Baptism is to share with us who we are really and to encourage us”

January 9, 2022

(Version 1: This is Father Mangini’s first version that he delivered at mass)

Today (yesterday) at St. Mary’s Church in Walnut Creek, I baptized Luca Slovik.  Thirty years ago, I baptized his mother Veronica.  I married his parents a few years ago.  I even married his grandparents.  When you are a priest for 55 years, you are not only a priest but a grandfather priest and a great grandfather priest.  It is a personal satisfaction to experience.  The parents of Luca really want to practice their Catholic faith.

The majority of young people who were baptized in the Catholic Church are no longer practicing the outward forms and rituals of the Catholic Church, do not celebrate their weddings in the Catholic Church, nor baptize their children.  There are many reasons, but I believe the principal reason is that it is not important to them.  They find their spirituality on their own.

Fifty years ago, it was a family custom and expectation, often I think motivated out of fear that should a child die without Baptism, they could not go to heaven.

The Sacrament of Baptism had some kind of quasi-magical determination for the future, it was believed.

Today, however, people do not necessarily follow traditions or rituals, just for the sake of them.

Also, I think there is a different understanding about life, about religion, about God, about heaven and hell.  If we stop to think about it, God’s love and promises are bigger than Church traditions and protocols and ways of thinking and doing things.

If, which I believe, we can understand Baptism, to deny or not deny anyone a place in heaven who is not baptized to be a follower of Jesus, is not up to us.

Heaven is not an exclusive place for baptized Catholics only. I remember the very important words of St. Peter, supposedly the gist of one of his homilies in Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, [the determining factor], in every nation whoever fears him [the more correct translation would be “respects” him] and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34) (that means, I think that they would go to heaven)

So how the Catholic Church got into the thinking of Baptism as the determining factor, has more to do with controlling, and monitoring compliance, with trying to simplify or order people’s behavior. Remember some Church teachers created a “limbo” (everyone else goes there. Only Catholics go to heaven.) if someone’s Catholic status was not clear.  A few years ago, that teaching was rescinded.

There is nothing magical about Baptism.  In Jesus’ day, it was a customary invitation for someone seeking a deeper spiritual life, for someone who wanted to disentangle themselves from a worldly or sinful life.  John the Baptist started a time of spiritual renewal for the people of his day, and Jesus himself wanted to support his call to the people of first century Palestine: It was time to get back to God’s covenant.

Jesus did not come to start a new religious movement.  Jesus sees himself as continuing the spiritual renewal of his Jewish people, a work that his cousin John began.  The Church does not become a Church as we know it today until the 4th Century, when what was referred to as “The Way,” is able to be free to be itself and come from the underground to the light of the day.

In many ways, the Second Vatican Council has called the Church to return “to the Way,” to be less dogmatic and more pastoral, to be less rule oriented and not to hold “spiritual sticks” over people.  Yet, there is a sizable group of very conservative Catholics who are pushing against Pope Francis at every turn.

The most important words in today’s story, the most important words at the Baptism of Jesus are the Holy Spirit acknowledging who Jesus is: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  That remains the purpose of Baptism, to recognize each person who comes to Baptism as God’s beloved sons and daughters.

The purpose of Baptism is to share with us who we are really and to encourage us to live and act appropriately as beloved children.  It is not about doctrine and traditions and rules.  It is about knowing who Jesus is and what he taught and becoming more like him and living in his spirit.  That can only happen insofar as we know Jesus in our lives and go about doing the good that he did.  

I don’t think that there are too many places that you can go in the world and not run into or know about Christians, those who follow the teachings of Jesus and have some sense of living a communal spiritual life.

But not everyone is a follower of Jesus, much less a Catholic.  Catholics need to be much more inclusive and not look down their noses at others who come from other religious traditions and cultures.  All good religious traditions and cultures lead to God.  Everyone created by God is a beloved child.  The litmus test to be a good Catholic is to be a good, loving and just person.  God has a way of putting this all together better than we can because of our limited way of thinking and our often narrow-minded hearts.

We would do better to leave the mystery of God to God and how God works to God, and not try to figure everything out according to our own rules, regulations and theology.

Note St. Paul’s job description for a good Catholic Christian: “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age” (that was 2,000 years ago, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God).

I think that applies to a good Muslim, to a good Hindu and Buddhist, to every person of good will.

To the Jewish people, centuries before Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah heard God say: “Comfort, give comfort to my people.”  Israel had just paid for her sins in the exile.  She returns to her home through a new path made for her by God.

The Baptism of Jesus reminds us to get on the path of light, to live the way of light and God’s love in our lives.  If we are going to be a Catholic Christian, then let us be the best one that we can be.  If you want to be Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu, be the best one that you can be.

We live in a new world of diversity, inclusion and respect.  We need to encourage each other to discover who and what is the truth for our lives.

Before we are a part of a denomination or any other religious movement, let us work at being God’s beloved children, and then God can be pleased with us, and we can be pleased with ourselves!

If we are going to be a Catholic Christian, which has the Gospels of Jesus and the teachings of St. Paul, and 2,000 years of history and experience, let us be the very best Catholic that we can be.

I have often thought that I could have been a Jewish Rabbi or a Presbyterian Pastor, but that was not how I was reared.  I am a Catholic Christian.  I was called to be a priest.  I do not need to search for another truth or path.  The question is not which is the best path to choose, but to live the path that I choose in the best way possible.

That is what we see Jesus doing today.  It all begins by discovering ourselves as one of God’s beloved sons and daughters.

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