Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It is an opportunity not only to remember and reflect on the event of Jesus’ Baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River some two millennia ago, but also on the more recent event of our own baptism.
First of all, in regards to the Baptism of the Lord, in spite of the hundreds of beautiful Renaissance paintings you may have seen depicting John the Baptist delicately pouring a small sea shell of water over the head of Jesus standing knee deep in the Jordan, I regret to inform you that it did not happen that way. The Lord got dunked. Baptism in those days always involved full immersion, being plunged into the flowing waters of the river. It was a dramatic and effective symbol of dying and rising, of the death of an old way of life and being reborn to a whole new way of life. Only once have I seen an accurate painting of the Baptism of the Lord, that showed John the Baptist with his hand on the top of the Lord’s head, pushing Him under the water. That painting I saw in an ancient cave chapel in the Cappadocia region of Turkey (Google “Göreme Cave Churches” and the “Göreme Open Air Museum” to see the Byzantine frescoes that have been preserved there).
When Christianity spread from the warm and temperate climate of the Middle East to the cold and inclement weather of Northern Europe, baptizing in a still frozen river at Easter time became problematic. The custom of pouring a little water over the head, symbolically impoverished but much better for the health and well-being of the candidate for baptism, began to take hold. Baptism by immersion is still practiced by some Baptist groups, mostly in the South. And baptism by immersion is permitted by the Catholic Church and encouraged by liturgists, but we don’t do it very often primarily because of the practical obstacles: for adults you need a large baptismal pool which most old churches do not have, you need rooms for the newly baptized to change, etc. For infants the physical requirements are less, but most priests are uncomfortable handling a squirming, wet, naked infant; not to mention the distress of the parents. Therefore the urge to convenience wins, and most baptisms in the Catholic Church, like at St. Austin, are done by pouring a little water over the person’s head.
Here at St. Austin we perform about 100 baptisms, adults and children and infants, every year. Some we do outside of Mass, and some we do during Mass. The premier time for baptisms liturgically is the Easter Vigil.
The normal celebrants for the Sacrament of Baptism are bishops, priests and deacons. However, according to Canon 230 ¶ 3, in case of grave necessity, lay persons (including women) can “confer baptism.” Baptism is conferred by pouring water over the person to be baptized and saying, “(name), I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That is a real and true baptism.
Since, as we state in the Nicene Creed, “I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” the Catholic Church will not re-baptize anyone. Every Christian baptism “counts.” Even if you want to be re-baptized, we won’t do it. Only one baptism per person. There are a few cases where we will “re-baptize,” mainly because we think something was wrong or deficient with the first baptism so that it wasn’t a baptism at all. This is the case with Mormon baptism since their idea of the Trinity is substantially different from the Christian concept of the Trinity, and also in the case of some very liberal congregations that baptize “in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier,” rather than the more masculine “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Just as you can get baptized only once, so you cannot get de-baptized. Recently, someone set up a website in Holland for people to get de-baptized. This was really a site for people to register their formal leaving of the Catholic Church, primarily over the Church’s opposition to same sex marriage. And last year a man in France sued to have his name removed from the baptismal register but did not succeed. Once baptized, you are baptized forever. Baptism never goes stale, never wears out, never needs replacing. The guarantee on baptism is not just for a lifetime, but for all eternity!
Some people can remember their Baptism. Many of us who were raised as Catholics were baptized as infants and so have no memory of it. I myself was baptized at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in St. Louis, MO on December 10, 1950, less than two weeks after I was born. The priest who baptized me was Fr. L.T. Keitz. I know nothing about him, but in the scale of eternity, my baptism was probably the most important day of my life. I should remember him in my prayers.
As we celebrate this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I encourage you to stop and reflect on your own baptism, and to give thanks for this marvelous gift.