Basics: Baptism of the Lord

On your way into Church today you probably dipped your hand into holy water and made the Sign of the Cross. I’d bet confidently that most of us did that automatically and without any thought at all, just a sheer act of habit. I don’t mean that as a scold or judgment, it’s just human nature. You do something like that so routinely, your brain tends to slip into autopilot. So if that gesture is typically done unthinkingly, I don’t think you should feel terrible about that. But I do think we should all push back against that tendency, try to keep it real and prayerful.

Because when you do that simple action, you are doing something intensely meaningful. Even the placement of the water is no accident. It’s at the door of the church because Baptism is the door into the Church. Coming into the church, especially for Mass, is a big deal of a thing to do. Jesus is Eucharistically present. We are here to share in a foretaste of Heaven, a little reflection and invasion of Heaven on Earth. That’s not something you just casually stroll into and slump into a seat. You want to get in the right headspace for that. You want to act like it matters. That’s why we genuflect to Jesus in the tabernacle. Even before that, it’s why we ritually invoke our Baptism with holy water ever time we enter this space, and make the Sign of the Cross to remind ourselves what that Baptism means and to recommit ourselves to living it out.

It’s super basic, and that’s why it matters so much; the most basic things matter the most. Remember your Baptism! It makes you a member of the mystical Body of Christ. It claims you for Jesus and fills you with His life. It also gives you a mission, as priest, prophet, and king. You are not your own; you have been purchased at a price. To you, life is Christ and death is gain, because now you live, not you, but Christ lives in you.

Are those things true in your every thought and action? Nope. That’s all the more reason to keep remembering our Baptism, to keep going back to that water, to ask God over and over for the grace to live it out. To sign yourself with that water is a penitential act because you can’t do that without recognizing you don’t always live up to the calling of your Baptism. It’s a hopeful act because you’re signing up to stay in the fight, trusting that grace won’t let you down. It’s a joyful act because there is no greater joy than to know Jesus Christ and to live with Him and in Him, because even death has no power over you anymore, because eternal life is already yours.

That’s more meaning and mystery than you could plunge into every time you come into a church. But just as we only dip our hands into the water, we can at least dip our minds into the mystery.

Then we make the Sign of the Cross. If you grew up Catholic this is probably the first prayer you learned. I’ve noticed at family tables when the blessing before meals is prayed, in my family and in other families with little children, the adults often make a big deal out of encouraging and demonstrating the Sign of the Cross to the little ones. They fold their hands in a more deliberate way; they speak slowly and make the motions precisely and deliberately and slowly, with an eye on the toddler to see if they are following along. Everything about that moment says “this is important, this is something important to learn.”

I’m afraid this is something many Catholics seem to grow out of a few years later, though. The gesture becomes an abstract wavy caricature, the prayer becomes a few mumbled slurred not-quite-syllables. But we shouldn’t grow out of it. When we take such care teaching our little ones, there’s a profound insight at work there, maybe one that’s more instinctive than conscious. There is something foundational and basic going on in that gesture and those words.

I’ll try to channel Bishop Barron a little here**, who I think explains this beautifully. We start with a hand moving upward, invoking the Father. We experience the Father in an ‘up there’ sort of way, transcendent and holy and beyond. In the scene of Jesus’s Baptism, the voice of the Father came from the sky, unseen and unseeable, ‘up there’ in Heaven. But then our hand descends, as God the Son descended to take on our humanity, took flesh and dwelt among us, God visible and touchable. God sent His Son down — all the way down, into our brokenness and weakness and even, amazingly, to experience Godforsaken-ness on the Cross. And then we come to the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father and Son that lives in us… and our hand moves shoulder to shoulder, because this love that connects them is now the love that contains me! I, this body, am now included in the mystery and inner life of God.

Does the infant in the high chair comprehend all that? Well, I sure don’t. But we have our lives to spend living deeper into that identity, deeper into the pattern and identification with the Cross of Christ. From the toddler just beginning to clumsily trace the pattern, to the dying Saint who has become a living icon of that mystery of God’s love, this is not a prayer we should ever grow out of. It’s a prayer that our life’s highest goal should be to grow into.

** From the excellent MindPump podcast linked, at about 22:30


  1. Love the explanation of the Sign of the Cross...up, down and across.


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