For most of us—with the exception of some converts—baptism is a sacrament most of us never remember experiencing.
Baptism is a crucially important sacrament. It’s the only sacrament mentioned explicitly in the Nicene Creed. Christ’s specially appointed forerunner was John the Baptist. And the first thing Christ did in His public ministry was get baptized.
For us, baptism washes away the guilt of original sin. It enrolls us in membership in the Church. St. Paul tells us it is a participation in the death and burial of Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). The catechism elaborates:
Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The solemn significance of baptism is underscored by the fact that it can only be done once and is irreversible. As the catechism puts it,
Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated.
When the majority of us were baptized we were not only too young to not only to fail to appreciate it but even to remember it. This is why the renewal of our baptismal vows at Easter—usually at the Easter vigil or the Easter Sunday Mass—is so important. It is the one time of year that is specially devoted to recalling our baptism.
Many of us may not realize it, but in many ways this is what our entire Lenten journey has been pointing towards. Every third year, in the readings for the first Sunday of Lent, we are reminded of this by the Old Testament reading, taken from Genesis 9, which describes Noah’s flood. (We most recently had this reading in 2015.)
The flood account might seem an odd pairing for Lent. Isn’t the desert—the setting for Jesus temptation, which, in turn, recalled the wandering of the Israelites in the desert—the overriding motif for Lent? Certainly it is.
And yet, the flood account is relevant because of the importance of baptism for the Passion. Remember, as St. Paul explained, it is baptism that we are buried with Christ, so that we might be assured of resurrection with Him. As Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy, puts it, “Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him.”
That statement actually contains an illuminating pun in stating that we are ‘plunged’ into the paschal mystery. Plunge is one of the original meanings of the Greek word baptizo, which has been transliterated into our English word. Is this not what Lent has been building up to? Indeed, during this season we have been preparing ourselves to ‘take the plunge,’ so to speak, with Christ on the cross.
The account of the crucifixion in John 19 confirms this connection, where we see blood and water flowing out of the side of Christ—symbolizing the baptismal waters and the Eucharistic wine, thereby effectively giving birth to the Church.
Here’s where the flood comes into the picture. Recall that the flood waters were sent as punishment in Genesis. But Christ has taken the punishment upon use, transforming what was a symbol of condemnation into one of salvation. And so, at the start of Lent, the Genesis account of the flood reminds us that the desert in which we wander will be consumed in a flood of grace (as one of my local pastors once explained in a homily).
This kind of imagery fits in with Old Testament prophecy. As Isaiah 41:18-19 puts it,
I will open up rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the broad valleys;
I will turn the wilderness into a marshland,
and the dry ground into springs of water.
In the wilderness I will plant the cedar,
acacia, myrtle, and olive;
In the wasteland I will set the cypress,
together with the plane tree and the pine,
And likewise, Isaiah 43:19,
See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
The flood and water imagery is not actually opposed to that of the desert. Rather, it complements it. In a sense, we are called to follow Christ in reverse order during Lent: He was baptized in the Jordan then went out into the desert. We, on the other hand, fight our temptations during Lent in order that we might cross the Jordan. (This does actually follow the sequence of the exodus account: for Israel the wandering in the desert ended with the crossing of the Jordan and then then entrance into the Promised Land.)
There is so much that happens over Easter Weekend. The vigil alone is overwhelming in its beauty, mystery, and spiritual power. It can become easy to overlook or miss out on some of the elements of the liturgy, whether at night or the next day. This year, make sure the renewal of your baptismal vows isn’t one of them. It’s not just a critically important part of the liturgy. In a way, it’s the whole point of our Lenten journey.