One of the great privileges of being associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano is, from time to time, baptizing infants in the venerable Serra Chapel. Shortly after St. Junípero Serra founded this Mission on November 1, 1776, plans were laid for the construction of its first permanent place of worship. Even before the Chapel was completed, Fr. Serra holds the distinction of celebrating the first baptisms here at the Mission as early as 1778. When I was installed as Pastor of the Mission and the 34th successor to Serra, as part of the installation ceremony, Bishop Tod Brown, solemnly entrusted to me the first volume of the Baptismal registry of this Mission in which is inscribed, in Serra’s own handwriting, the names of those whom he first baptized.
At the conclusion of the Gospel of St. Matthew, we hear the stirring mandate, given by the Lord himself to his apostles, to go and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. For nearly 2000 years, we Christians have been faithful to that mandate and have been privileged to lovingly hand on the faith from one generation to the next, through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
While we Catholics believe that the central Sacrament of the Lord’s enduring presence with his people is found in the Holy Eucharist, our access to the Holy Table and the food of eternity can only come through the life-giving waters of Baptism.
In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we have an exquisitely beautiful meditation on this first sacrament of the Christian journey. St. Paul reminds his hearers that in Baptism, you and I were plunged into the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Through this sacramental moment, a radical transformation took place in our deepest identity – we became sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, and brothers and sisters to Christ, His Son, and hence, brothers and sisters to one another. No longer is the common expression, ‘blood is thicker than water’ applicable to us as Christians. For, through the waters of Baptism, you and I are irrevocably bound to one another as members now, of God’s Holy and Beloved family.
To die and to rise with Christ in the waters of Baptism was powerfully conveyed in the structuring of Baptismal fonts or pools in the early church. Invariably, they were positioned at the threshold of the church building and were literally pools of water where individuals would step down into the waters and be plunged completely, and then rise out of the waters, born again through the grace of this moment.
While Catholic theology over time developed an understanding that Baptism frees one from the original disorientation of our lives from God’s will and purpose – freedom FROM original sin – the grace of this Sacrament is far more a freedom FOR something. It is a freedom for each one of us to live the life that we now bear as being ‘Christ-ed’ or ‘Christened.’ As the Baptized of the Lord, we are called and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to be the prophetic voice of Christ in our families, society, nation and culture in which we live. We are called to be the leaven of transformation to a world that is yearning to be freed from the power of darkness and despair by the bright promise and hope of the Good News of Christ.
No wonder, then, that as recipients of so great a gift, we should Forever sing the goodness of the Lord.