Fr Billy Swan
Each time the Church celebrates the feast of the Lord’s baptism at the end of the Christmas season, my mind returns to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I made a few years ago. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the banks of the River Jordan, to where Jesus was baptised by John all those years ago. During our visit to the Jordan, we renewed our baptismal promises. It was a very memorable and spiritual experience that brought home to me a number of important truths about who I am as a baptised Christian. Here I would like to single out just one of those truths that is truly good news for everyone who has been immersed in the waters of baptism. Because of our baptism, our lives have meaning.
There is broad agreement that a lack of meaning in human lives creates a crisis of identity and purpose. This point was powerfully argued by Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning where he observed that those who had the greatest chance to survive the horrors of Auschwitz were those who could find meaning in their suffering. As Frankl pithily puts it: ‘the person who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’ Having survived the concentration camp, Frankl went on to successfully develop a therapy known as ‘Logo Therapy’ based on helping people find meaning in their lives and thus reasons to live.
Not everyone would agree that such meaning exists. For many contemporary atheists, there is no God and therefore no meaning to anything. All that exists are material substances. Period. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) once wrote: ‘Here we sit , all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing’ (Nausea). Similarly for the English scientist Richard Dawkins, ‘the universe has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’ (River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). As many people drift away from religious faith and a biblical worldview, this inevitably leads to a loss of a sense of meaning and a drift towards the scary conclusions of Sartre and Dawkins. And when this happens, our sense of purpose in life, our reason to live and even our mental health can be effected negatively. According to psychiatrist Andrew Simms: ‘Profound suffering in the lives of many with mental illness is caused by a feeling of meaninglessness…Lack or loss of meaning in life is probably the most frequent spiritual symptom voiced by our patients. It may be symptomatic of depression, but depression may also be symptomatic of a vacuum in the soul’ (Is Faith Delusion?: Why Religion is Good for your Health).
This vacuum in the soul is evident in the lives of many today, even among those who are baptised. For most of us, our baptism was a once off that happened when we were infants but that we have mostly forgotten about. To illustrate the point, we say things like ‘I was baptised’ instead of ‘I am baptised’. In our minds, our baptism is something that happened once rather than something that defines us now. This is why Pope Francis asked us on the Feast of the Lord’s baptism to ‘ask about the date of your Baptism. That way you can bear in mind that most beautiful day of Baptism. To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing it is losing awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received’ (8th Jan. 2014).
For all of us who have forgotten the gift we have received at baptism and find that our lives lack meaning, it is time to re-discover the clarity and meaning of who we became on the day we were baptised.
On the day we were baptised, we were anointed by the Holy Spirit as priests, prophets and kings. As priests we were given access to the same intimate relationship of Jesus with the Father and given the awesome privilege to call him Father as his beloved sons and daughters. Because of our baptism, we are united with Christ in right worship and praise of our loving Father. The prayer of all the baptised is needed to add to the beautiful choir of praise being continually lifted up to God by the Church on earth and in heaven. As a priest, I often ask people who are elderly or house bound to pray for the parish, for the sick and for the Church. This reminds them that they have not the least task in the Church but one of the most important – to pray for the Church. From the moment of our baptism until the day we die, we remain priests.
As prophets we are given access to God’s wisdom and become signs of his presence in the world. Prophets think and feel with God and his word and are not afraid to go against the culture or popular opinion when necessary. By the example of their lives, prophets invite others to conform to Christ and to Christ’s nature as self-sacrificing love. Whether old or young, sick or healthy, rich or poor, the hearts of prophets point to God and his Kingdom. From the moment of our baptism until the day we die, we remain prophets.
At our baptism we were anointed kings. On that day, we were initiated into a wonderful enterprise greater than ourselves, the plan of God that the kingdom of heaven be realized on earth. On that day, we were consecrated to God and his service, set apart for his work and dedicated to him in love. In the words of the Rite of Baptism, with the sign of the cross, we were ‘claimed for Christ our Saviour’. This means that God has first claim on our lives or as Bishop Barron never tires reminding us, that our lives are not about us but about God’s purposes for us. On the day we were baptised, we received a vocation from
God, a unique calling to undertake in life, a special mission to accomplish. In the words of Cardinal Newman: ‘God has created me to do him some definitive service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission’. Every baptised person can make these words their own. In order that we might accomplish that mission, God has given us a variety of gifts to enrich the life of the Church and the world. He has given those gifts to us now. These are the gifts that God never takes back. They are given forever but also given for the time when they are needed. Because this is true, the life of every Christian is marked by meaning and purpose. If I am a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a priest, a religious, a single person, a student or a child – my gifts and my life are at the service of his kingdom. This holds true even if even if we are sick, feel we can’t do much or have not much to contribute. Based on the Gospel miracle of the loaves and fish, we must never underestimate what God can do with limited resources. What matters is that we give to God all we have with love in the confidence that he will grant the increase and make his kingdom grow. From the moment of our baptism until the day we die, we remain kings.
When I emerged from the river Jordan that day, from the place where Jesus was baptised by John, I felt invigorated and renewed in my identity as a baptised Christian. I realized that my life is continually being defined by who I became on the day I was baptised. None of us can live without meaning. Although the full meaning of our lives will only be revealed in the future as they remain ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3), our baptism has given our lives on earth ‘a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).