Several years ago, I stood in the corner of a parish cafeteria as Sister Linda, our director of religious education, welcomed 60 wriggling grade school students to our weekly catechism classes.
“Our journey begins with baptism,” she said. “And baptism leaves an indelible mark on your soul.”
I was startled. An indelible mark? As a catechist who would instruct several of those kids right after Sister’s overview, I should have known that. Somehow, though – despite years of Catholic school, Masses, Bible study and rosaries (not to mention an impressive collection of holy cards) – somehow I’d missed the mark, that mark, entirely.
I panicked. Why had I agreed to serve as a catechist? I loved my faith, but that didn’t mean I was qualified to teach it. And our students would be a challenge, with many facing violence, poverty and discrimination in our struggling city neighborhood.
In addition, our parish’s resources were limited; buildings and bank accounts leaked, and the gaps in the pews during Mass were growing wider. Sister had tapped me to teach because the need was great and the laborers were few; I couldn’t refuse. But I needed to catch up with my own catechism, and fast.
I consulted my spiritual director, Google, and quickly found the online version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And as I started to read about baptism, I felt cheated. Why had I never fully known, let alone embraced, the significance of this sacrament?
Granted, the water and words had run off – and over – my bald infant head, but as I’d grown up in the faith, why hadn’t I ever grasped that I wasn’t just Catholic or Christian or vaguely validated as a member of society – that instead, I now belonged to Christ, and to his body, and to more than I could imagine?
Through a mysterious combination of words, water, oil, gesture and intention, I was truly “a new creation,” just as St. Paul had declared (2 Corinthians 5:17). And if an already newborn child is remade through this sacrament, then from what stock do we come? From what chronic disease do we as humans suffer that so radical a treatment is needed as soon as we’ve cleared the womb?
The obvious answer is original sin: baptism therefore “signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1215). Because we usually pass through this door with eyes and mind and limbs still not fully formed, years of catechesis must follow the trip to the font (cf. CCC, 1231), until we can regard that strange basin with any kind of understanding.
The door opened at baptism leads to other doors — other sacraments that immerse us more deeply in Christ, the one in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) and in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
And while brilliant minds have pondered the sacraments for centuries, the ordinary soul in the pew (or the one avoiding it), simply asks: Why baptism? What difference does it really make in our day-to-day lives?
Is it a kind of “spiritual vaccination,” something that prevents a far-off damnation that we can’t comprehend anyway, the way a neonatal injection wards off mumps? Or should we drown in those few drops, and emerge as radically different beings?
The Second Vatican Council stressed the central role baptism plays, not just in saving the individual believer, but in recreating humanity, in restoring man to God and to each other through the redemptive work of Christ. The council documents are inspiring: the world can and should be a better place because of baptism and everything that comes after it.
And yet, as I know from my own experience and from those many have shared with me, do we truly know and live that?
And if not, why not?
While researching baptism for my catechism class, I felt rather frustrated. “How can take this all in?” I thought. “This material is so rich.”
And “rich” is an apt word here, one echoed in Scripture: St. Paul speaks of the “inscrutable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). In his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross likens Christ to a “rich mine with many pockets containing treasure,” and calls us to “dig deeply,” adding that “however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit.”
How do we locate this treasure lode in our own lives, along with the tools to break open its riches for all?
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I descend from Irish coal miners, hardworking men who survived by carving out anthracite from the belly of a Pennsylvania mountain. From an early age, they learned to swing a pickaxe and hit the rock – hit the mark – so that it yielded its treasure.
I think I’m going to ask those long-dead souls to pray for me that I can teach my students – and hopefully learn myself – how to hit our baptismal mark, that indelible seal on the soul, and send the shards flying throughout a world that needs them more than ever.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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