Is baptism necessary to enter the Christian life?
To understand the meaning of baptism in all its fullness, it is necessary to see how it was practiced by the early disciples of Christ. During the first Christian Pentecost, those who listened to Peter were “cut to the heart” when they realized that they had been unable to see in Jesus the One sent by God. Full of regret, they asked the apostles, “What should we do?” And Peter replied, “Change your hearts and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). Baptism thus expresses on the one hand the metanoia, the basic change of orientation caused by an encounter with God, and on the other hand the welcome of the Spirit of God which turns human beings into new creatures (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). It transforms sterile regret into a repentance which is the gateway to a life of communion.
Far from being simply an outward ritual of initiation to mark the fact that one is joining a new human association, baptism thus implies the profound transformation of human beings by the Breath of God. It is in some sense a permanent Pentecost that builds up the Church down through the ages. (We should not forget that, in the early Church just as in the Eastern Churches still today, baptism properly speaking is not separated from confirmation.) By opening their hearts to the newness of God, the baptized welcome a seed of Life that will transform them and allow them to live in a new way (see 1 Peter 1:22-23).
Because this life is essentially a life with others, of necessity it has an external aspect. The transformation of the heart remains essential, but it is expressed by a tangible and visible change in one’s way of life; henceforth one belongs to a community of prayer and sharing with a universal outlook (see Acts 2:42-47). “Whoever does not love their brothers and sisters, whom they see,” writes Saint John, “cannot love the God they do not see.” (1 John 4:20). This love is not first of all a feeling, but a life lived with others that makes our fellowship with the invisible God a lived-out reality. Baptism is therefore also a public act by which the community of believers welcomes a new member into its bosom.
God wants the fullness of life for us, and we have access to this life in his Son (see 1 John 5:11). Jesus is thus God’s definitive “yes” to us. Through baptism, Christ links us to his “yes,” which becomes the “yes” that we express to God in return (see 2 Corinthians 1:19-20). This yes spoken at our baptism will then be made concrete in all the choices, big and small, that we undertake in order to live out our faith. In this sense it can be said that the whole of Christian life is nothing other than a progressive discovery of all the dimensions of the yes of our baptism. Those who were baptized very young and whose commitment was taken in their name by their loved ones, as well as those who took themselves the step to ask for the sacrament, are equally called to translate the meaning of their baptism into their daily existence, by setting out over and over again in the steps of Christ.
How is Jesus’ baptism related to ours?
On the eve of the Christian era, in Palestine there was a man of God called John. He proclaimed the imminent coming of the Lord to transform radically the present world, and he called believers to accomplish a concrete act of preparation for this. By descending into the waters of the Jordan River, they expressed their need for forgiveness and their readiness to change their behavior in order to welcome the God who was coming to them. But John explained that this act was only a preparation: someone else, more powerful than him, would come to “baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire” (Matthew 3:11).
At that moment Jesus arrived and, instead of calling down God’s fire from heaven, asked John to baptize him, notwithstanding the surprise and hesitations of the Baptizer (see Matthew 3:14). He had the conviction that his place was in the midst of the people, in full solidarity with those who are aware of their faults. In this way he expressed that fact that God does not want to liberate us from an inauthentic life without first sharing fully in that life. By letting himself be submerged in the waters of the stream, Jesus symbolized his desire to go to the lowest point of the human condition, in order to open it to God’s light from within.
And so, this “death” was immediately followed by a “resurrection.” “Coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit come down upon him” (Mark 1:10). The wall between humanity and God having been broken through, God is once again at home among human beings. And words come from the Father that express, in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, his relationship with Jesus as well as the mission he gives his Son to communicate this relationship to others. Starting with the humanity of Christ, the Creator Spirit is renewing the face of the earth, allowing it to enter into communion with the eternal Father.
It is not incorrect to see our baptism as the act by which Christ puts his arm around our shoulders and takes us with him into the space marked out by his own baptism. We die with him to an existence characterized by false sufficiency and isolation, in order to enter into a new life, a life of communion (see Romans 6:3-6). In the company of Jesus we hear the Father address to us these words of light: “You are the Son whom I love; my favor rests on you” (Mark 1:11). Sons and daughters in the Son, henceforth we can continue the mission of Jesus in the circumstances of our own lives, witnessing to the coming of God’s Kingdom that is entering our world and transforming it from within. In a word, baptism sets us within the Body of Christ. By drowning our limitations, and even our refusals, in the waters of divine mercy, our baptism opens a gap through which God can make himself present, through us, at the heart of human history.
Letter from Taizé: 2004/5