Sunday, March 23, 2008

Baptism: A Matter of Life and Death

(Easter Sunday-Year A; This homily was given on 23 March, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Acts 10:34-43, Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-9)

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., in his book Living the Catholic Faith, begins with a story about Niagara Falls (pgs. 11-13). If you have ever been to the Falls, you know how majestic, powerful and awesome the Niagara River is…and how dangerous.

The archbishop goes on to tell the story of what happened about 40 years ago. There was a man who took his young niece and nephew out on a power boat several miles above the Falls. Suddenly, tragically, the engine failed and that boat began to drift down the river. Hundreds of people witnessed it from the shoreline, but they were helpless to stop it.

A few hundred yards before the Falls, the boat overturned after hitting a rock and the children spilled out into the rapids, headed straight for the brink. The young boy caught just the right current and plummeted nearly 165 feet down into the one pool of water where there are no rocks, and he survived! To this day he is the only person to ever to go over Niagara Falls unprotected and live.

But the main focus of the archbishop’s story was not the boy, as remarkable as his survival is. The story, instead, focuses on his sister. She was not so fortunate as her brother, and found herself in a different current. She was closer to the edge, though not close enough to make it to shore, and in the part of the river that spills out, eventually, onto the rocks below. She was rapidly going in exactly that direction, some twenty yards from the brink, when suddenly a man jumped into the water!

Holding onto his friends with one hand, he jumped into the water and caught that little girl with his other hand and held onto her until the people standing by could pull both of them to shore. That is a true story, documented at the museum beneath the Falls where it happened.

Archbishop Chaput goes on to say:

Each of us is that girl. We’re all swept along, beaten up, and paralyzed by a river of sin—our own sins and the world’s sinfulness, flowing down all the way from Adam and Eve. It’s the river we call Original Sin…No matter how hard we may struggle, we can’t do anything about it on our own. We can’t save ourselves. Then a Savior jumps into the current, for no reason other than wanting to rescue us. And He pulls us to safety.
—Living the Catholic Faith, pg. 13

Obviously it is a reference to our baptism. Baptism for us as Christians is not an option. It is not an extra or just some sign or symbol for “spiritual cleanliness.” Baptism, as the archbishop points out, is literally a matter of life and death. Jesus Christ, by our baptism, saves us from spiritual death and separation from God, and He brings us into a new and eternal life.

I mention that this morning, here on Easter Sunday, because right here in this Church last night, five young men and women were saved from death and brought into a new life with God. Five people were baptized here and experienced that powerful sacrament of death and life in Christ.

In a moment, each of us will renew our own baptismal promises, the same as we do every Easter Sunday. Are we aware that this is also a matter of life and death? The prayer introducing those promises says:

Dear friends, through the paschal mystery
we have been buried with Christ in baptism,
so that we may rise with him to a new life.

That is the mystery of Easter and the power of our own baptism: life and death. As St. Paul tells us in our second reading this morning:

You have died. Your life is hidden with Christ in God.
—Colossians 3:3

We have died to our old ways of sin, to our old self, and we now have a new life in God. We are no longer heading for the brink of disaster and death, because we have been saved by someone who loved us, who came to us, and risked everything to bring us back to God.

That truth, the Good News of the Gospel which we celebrate here today, has the power to change and transform the world we live in. And let’s be honest, we live in a world that is in desperate need of a Savior and of being rescued. Many—certainly not all, but very many—aspects of our culture and our world are heading for the brink of disaster. We are morally, spiritually and, in many areas of the world, even economically, bankrupt.

Our world desperately needs to hear the message that God has not deserted us, that He has come to us and jumped into the water to save us from death and disaster.
We are all called to be witnesses of that message, since we are the ones who have experienced it personally.

A tremendous model for us in doing just that is found in our gospel this morning, in the person of St. Peter. Peter comes to the tomb where Christ, who was dead, has been raised to life again. He stands before that empty tomb, and then he does the strangest thing: he goes down into the tomb! Usually it is only the deceased that go down into the tomb, but here Peter enters and, in a certain sense, unites himself to the Risen Christ. To paraphrase St. Paul, Peter dies, and is raised up again, to a life hidden with Christ in God.

That is why we hear him, in our first reading, announcing the Good News and proclaiming to all that he has been called to be a witness to all that Christ has done (Acts 10:39). He announces to all that there is new life in Christ, and that, in His name, we have received the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 10:43).

This Easter, will we have the courage to go into the tomb, and then to stand up with St. Peter and make that same announcement? We who have been brought from death to life, will we be the ones to witness to the power of Christ, and the mercy of Christ, in our baptism, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the salvation of the world?