The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel records a conversation that God had with the Prophet about a gateway sacrament that would pardon each person’s offenses and impart upon them a life of grace. He did so in the sixth century B.C. or nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ!
God not only described to Ezekiel the action required to effectuate this gateway sacrament, but also described its resulting effects, and just as importantly, what the recipient would be required to do once it was administered.
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stoney hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” (Ez 36: 25-27)
This gateway sacrament is of course the great Sacrament of Baptism. It’s considered the gateway sacrament as it is the first and absolutely essential sacrament to be received prior to one receiving any of the other sacraments of the Church. Importantly, it is through the worthy reception of the sacraments of the Church that the recipient receives sanctifying grace and eternal life with God! Thus, the paramount importance of the Sacrament of Baptism, a gateway into the spiritual life of Christ’s Church!
This biblical passage is but one of many revelations of God’s premeditative plan for our salvation as contained in the various books of the Old Testament. This prophetic utterance concerning the institution of the Sacrament of Baptism would be justified by the sanctifying death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and brought to fruition when he commissioned his disciples, just prior to his ascension, with these words.
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28: 18-20)
There are two very important and parallel points to make when looking at these two passages side by side. The first deals with the action, element and form that are to be present in the Sacrament of Baptism. All of the Church’s sacraments have these three characteristics.
The action in this sacrament is immersing, pouring or sprinkling water (all of these actions are acceptable) upon the person being baptized. The essential element is water. While the form are the words expressed by the minister when the water is applied by one of these three methods during the baptism.
The action and the element of this gateway sacrament are both contained in the reading above from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel while the form, or words of institution, is revealed by Jesus to his disciples in the reading above from Matthew’s Gospel. Thus, these two biblical passages provide all the essential characteristics of this great sacrament, namely the action, element, and form required, along with their resulting effect.
The second important and parallel point regarding these two passages is that each of these biblical passages has two parts. The first part of each provides either the structure or form to the Sacrament of Baptism, which we have already discussed, while the second to each concerns the responsibilities the newly baptized must adhere to as a newly initiated disciple of Jesus Christ. Thus, while the Sacrament of Baptism is the initiation into the life of grace with God, it requires an ongoing commitment to live a life worthy of God’s great gift of eternal life!
In the passage from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, God conveyed this when he said: “make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.”
While in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus conveys the same message when he told his disciples:
“Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”
Both of these biblical phrases contains the word “observe”. Here the word observe means to follow, or to adhere to, or to be obedient to. Essentially, God is revealing that in order to live with him for eternity, we must be baptized as prescribed and henceforth observe, or in other words, to follow all the teachings that Jesus commanded of his disciples.
All Christians, or roughly a quarter of the world’s population have been baptized. But sadly, many of those counted among the baptized do not observe or adhere to the teachings of Jesus. In addition, though the number of the baptized is large, it misses the mark by a great order of magnitude! The great majority of people remain unbaptized. This is a result of a crisis of faith in God in our culture today. We must do better!
What’s urgently needed is a greater evangelization effort which incorporates better catechesis and better apologetics! Poor catechesis for several decades has resulted in an ignorance, by many, of even the most basic elements of our faith, paramount among them, the need to be baptized and to live a life of discipleship in Jesus Christ! It’s not an either or, but rather both are necessary! We are three generations removed from good and comprehensive catechesis! We cannot adequately defend the faith if we don’t first know the faith! Good catechists will breed good evangelists and good apologists, as well as additional good catechists!
Jesus underscores how vitally important it is for one to be baptized when he said to Nicodemus:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” (Jn 3: 5)
Upon reflection, these words of Jesus are quite revealing about the absolute necessity to be baptized. Many would say that baptism can’t possibly be required for one to enter eternal life with God. They would likely submit that it would be patently unfair of God to condemn someone who has never heard of baptism let alone received it. Maybe, as many suppose, God will be merciful when judging those that are unbaptized.
But that seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus referenced above. How else should one interpret “born of water and Spirit” other than by means of baptism. In any case, every effort should be made to instruct the unbaptized as to the importance for them to receive the regenerative waters of baptism and to embrace the richness of the faith! Their eternal souls may well be at great risk if they remain unbaptized.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are three means of receiving baptism, though only one is a sacrament. Principal among them is Baptism by water as described in this article. But two others are also deemed effectual in relatively narrow circumstances. They are Baptism of blood and Baptism of desire.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer martyrdom for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”(CCC 1258)
The Catechism goes on to discuss the Baptism of desire by stating, “For catechumens who die before their baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.” (CCC 1259)
These are two, very narrowly applied exceptions to the Baptism of water and Spirit that Jesus refers to in John’s Gospel. And these circumstances are only effectuated by one’s predisposition, as noted above, immediately prior to death. With three quarters of our world’s population unbaptized, the risks assumed by the vast majority of people are unfathomable.
God is all merciful, but he is also all just! Mercy without justice isn’t mercy but license. Jesus taught frequently on the existence of hell and the reality that many will, by their actions, end up going there.
Many in our culture are so self-absorbed with the visual or material world, which is transitory, they ignore the reality of eternity. And by virtue of one’s life choices, where one will spend that eternity. Indeed, so many are woefully unprepared for what is to come once this life draws to a close! Sadly, if circumstances don’t change radically, many souls will be lost. And we the baptized will have to share some of the responsibility for those lost souls due to our own inactions during our life. It would be a sin of great omission. And sins of omission can be just as egregious as sins of commission.
Recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Upon his death, the rich man finds himself in the netherworld where he is in torment, and he petitions Father Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and to come to cool his tongue. Jesus’ parables are factually self-contained, meaning no additional information about the characters or their actions in the parable are required to understand the teaching of Jesus. The rich man’s sin was ignoring the plight of poor Lazarus when they were both alive, which was a sin of omission. In other words, it wasn’t what the rich man did but rather what he failed to do that warranted an eternal life without God! A place we call hell!
We can and must take action. We still have time to help make it right. Jesus said, “the harvest is rich, but the laborers are few”. As I reflect on the state of our world today, I sense that the harvest has never been richer, nor have the laborers been so few relative to the vastness of the harvest. It’s time for each of us to head for the harvest fields and put our backs into the work!
Many may say I don’t know how to do so. Well, if you lack an understanding of the faith, devote your attentions to understanding it as best as you can, rather than dithering valuable time away on needless things. There is no time like the present! Each of us must seek ways to spread the good news of the gospel to those within our sphere of influence and beyond. If you have the inclination and inspiration to do so, become a catechist, or an evangelist, or an apologist for the faith!
Our time in purgatory may well be spent contemplating the souls lost that God had placed within our lives and we chose to remain silent for fear of a misguided belief that instructing them about the necessity of baptism would insult them. Put aside your foolish pride and recognize that time is short for many! Courage is a heroic virtue needed today as never before!