Ponce De Leon trooped around the New World looking for the legendary Fountain of Youth. If he’d been as good a Catholic as he was a soldier and explorer, he’d have known that the Fountain of Youth was right there in his local parish back in Spain. The power unleashed in any Baptism “dispels all evil, washes guilt away,/restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;/it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.” To be younger than sin: that’s what we want and that’s what Baptism gives us! That is why Jesus resorted to Fountain of Youth language to describe it when he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Baptism is called by a number of names. For instance, the term “baptize” comes from the Greek word meaning “to immerse”. The idea is that every person submitting to Baptism is submitting to drowning in death with Christ. This is why Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Baptism, whether we realize it or not and whether we like it or not, does something to us. It is not a mere ritual or symbol. A real metaphysical and miraculous event takes place that changes us forever. We receive the life of grace, the Holy Trinity, Who comes to live in us and change us into a “little Christ.” Merely because the rite looks ordinary, or trumpets do not sound, or the earth does not shake, we should not be deceived. The average Baptism in your average parish on an average Sunday morning is a greater miracle filled with greater power than the parting of the Red Sea. It is what Jesus died on the Cross and rose again to give us. The new life conferred in Baptism is why the sacrament is also called “the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit”. For, of course, water doesn’t just drown; it cleanses and gives life.
Curiously, baptism is also called “enlightenment” (Eph. 1:18) in Scripture and in the Fathers of the Church. The connection between water and light may not seem obvious to us, but it was already present in Judaism because of the Pillar of Fire that guided and defended Israel in her Exodus through the Red Sea. An entire feast—the Feast of Tabernacles—was dominated by the motifs of light and water in the time of Christ, as the Temple was decorated with lights and the priests would ritually pour water drawn from the Pool of Siloam on the steps of the Temple to symbolize the water from the Rock given by God in the desert. Not accidentally, it is “on the last and greatest day” of this feast that Jesus announces: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (Jn 7:37–39).
This reminds us of the fact that Baptism, like the rest of the gospel, is hidden in the Old Testament and only fully revealed in the New. Various signs prefigure it, such as the new creation emerging from the waters of the deep (Gen 1), or the waters of the flood washing away evil and saving Noah (Gen 6-9), or the passage through the Red Sea which saved Israel and destroyed their oppressors (Ex 14), or the bitter waters of death transformed into drinkable waters of life when the tree (symbolizing the cross) is thrown into them in Exodus (Ex 15). These and many other images reflect the rich meaning in Baptism, and anticipate and foreshadow what Jesus will actually accomplish in us through the sacrament.
Jesus himself places such importance on Baptism that he even subjects himself to it by seeking out John the Baptist. Of course, John’s baptism is not the sacrament of Baptism (that will not be inaugurated until Jesus’ pours out the Holy Spirit after his resurrection). But Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism nonetheless reveals to us who he is and what he will do. He is the Beloved Son and his mission is to die and rise. His baptism by John fulfills in a sort of foreshadow his complete identification with every sinner who must die and rise with him.
Next week we will continue our look at this doorway into divine life, focusing on how it is celebrated and for whom.