Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Waters of Baptism

The story of Noah and the flood is one of the best known and fascinating narratives in the Old Testament. Not only is it a gripping saga about a family trying to survive a devastating natural disaster in an ark filled with animals, it is also a tale about the destructive power of sin and God’s desire to save us.

The book of Genesis tells us that, when God saw the wickedness on the earth, “[He] was sorry that he had made humankind....” (Gen 6:6). These words sound harsh to us today; however, God does not utter them out of anger and contempt. Rather, He says them out of profound grief. The people whom He breathed His own life into and created to be “very good” had turned out to be wicked. God is saddened by the sinfulness of His people.

This story gives us some insight into how sin offends God. Our Heavenly Father is all good and He created us to be good also. However, when we sin, we reject the goodness God placed within us and choose something less. To use a very mundane example, imagine putting our time and effort into cooking a meal and it ends up getting burned. It would be natural that for us to feel disappointed that it did not turn out to be as delicious as we imagined. In much the same way, we disappoint God when we are not the good and holy people He created us to be.

Because sin offends God who is “all good and deserving of all our love”, it warrants punishment. In civil society, when laws are broken,  a fine or jail sentence is handed out to restore justice. Just so, when God’s commandments are broken, a punishment must be inflicted to bring the evil doing to an end so that no one else may be harmed. In the story from Genesis, that punishment comes in the form of a devastating flood.

However, the story does not end with sin and punishment. For all the terror and destruction the flood inflicted on earth, the point of the story is that God wants to save us, not punish us. For that reason, He commanded Noah to build the ark to protect his family and to give His creation a fresh start. When the waters recede, He makes a covenant - that is, a sacred promise - that He will never destroy His creation again. God makes that promise on His own initiative because He wants a relationship with the people He created. In the end, God is willing to put aside His right to punish us so that He can loves us and  be loved by us in return.

The ultimate sign of God’s desire to save us comes in the person of Jesus Christ. He took upon Himself the sins of the world and endured the punishment we deserve by dying on the cross. Any good works or any penance we might perform over a lifetime could never begin to make up for the offense against God that only one of our sins causes. However, because Jesus never sinned, His offering on the cross is pure. Also, because as God, Jesus is infinite, the blood He shed on the cross can be extended to all people who ever lived and ever will live. It can never be used up. There will never be a point where the wickedness of humanity will exhaust all the forgiveness that flows from the cross of Jesus Christ.
The forgiveness of sin, therefore, comes through Jesus Christ. He has paid the price of salvation for us, a price that we could never have paid on our own. Because of the cross, sin has no more power over us. It has no claim on us. And, just as new life and a new creation followed the flood, so new life and a new creation flow from the cross of Jesus Christ. Because He rose from the dead, Jesus not only conquers sin but the ultimate punishment, death. Not only are we offered the forgiveness of our sins through the cross but everlasting life with God in heaven.

How are the graces and merits of Jesus’ death on the cross applied to us? How do we get credit for what Jesus has done? Through baptism. Saint Peter makes this clear in today’s second reading. Just as God saved Noah and his family from the waters of the flood, so we are saved through the waters of baptism. At our baptism, the death and resurrection of Jesus was applied to us. Our sins were forgiven and we were given faith through the Holy Spirit which makes us children of God and empowers us to live good and holy lives. The new creation and new life of the cross and resurrection of Jesus flow to us through the waters of baptism.

However, baptism is not magic. We have to live out the victory of Jesus over sin and death in our everyday choices. We have to reflect in our character and in our actions the goodness and holiness which is fitting of a child of God. Like Jesus, we have to struggle against temptation. In the face of injustice, we have to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable. We have to serve others with the power that God gives us. Ultimately, baptism is not a one-time event but a lifestyle in which we place ourselves in God’s hands and commit to doing His will.

We no longer have to fear punishment. We do not have to be defeated by sin. We do not have to despair because of the shortness of our lives on earth. Sin and death have been defeated on the cross. Everlasting life is offered to us through the resurrection of Jesus. This everlasting life which is ours through baptism is not something we will reach only at the end of our lives. It is a power which is at our disposal even now to defeat temptation, to fight injustice and to do good. It is simply a matter of drawing on it when we need it. Then we will be truly living out our baptism and experiencing the victory of Jesus every day.  

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