When I conducted baptism prep some years back, I would begin with a question. “Why do you want your child baptized?” At first I would get blank uncomprehending stares. So I would ask again, “Why do you want your child baptized?” Eventually some brave soul would get the ball rolling. “We’re Catholics. It’s what we do.” I’d nod. Okay. Valid answer. But let me rephrase. I want you to look deep within and point to an even more personal reason that best supports your choice to ask baptism for your child. A longer pause. “Well, we didn’t think of it at first, but after some discussion and arm-twisting mom or grandma told us we had to do it.” I have no beef with mom or grandma. I get it. But seriously, you’re making a decision for someone else. What does your child stand to gain from your choice to have him/her baptized? For the purpose of market research, what is most important to you about doing this?
Full disclosure. I was baptized as an infant like most Catholics, at 3 months old. And my parents made the choice, probably for the very reasons I’ve mentioned before. This is unfamiliar ground for many Catholics. “I want my child to get to heaven.” A good first step, but there is definitely more to it than that. “I want my child to have faith and a foundation in Catholic belief.” Which, I should add, must continue to be formed and nurtured through prayer, study, and reflection, most effectively with others who know and love their Catholic faith. “I want my child to have a meaningful relationship with God.” Also an excellent answer, knowing that your child will eventually need to learn from you what a meaningful relationship with God looks like. “I want my child to belong to the family of God’s children.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that baptism purifies us of all sin and makes us a new creation in the Holy Spirit. We receive the status of adopted daughters and sons of God, are made members of Christ and co-heirs with him, and temples of the Holy Spirit. As members of the body of Christ, we are members one of another, and members of the community of the church.
Every child born into a family, and every child fostered or adopted by a family would not grasp what family means. It is up to those already members to teach them by word and example. And if you have younger siblings or cousins or neighbors, you would have played a significant role in teaching and showing them what family means. Having good teachers always helps, and we can become excellent teachers in turn. It works the very same way in the family of the church. We can teach well what we have learned well. And it shows in how we speak and how we live what we believe.
Today we recall the Presentation of the child Jesus in the temple, 40 days after Christmas. We mark three things that take place this day: the ritual purification of the child’s mother, the presentation of a first-born son to God in the temple, and the mildly unsettling encounter between the child Jesus and his parents with Simeon and Anna.
The rite of purification of a mother is stipulated in the law of Moses. It marks her ritual return to the community in worship. But the holy child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, so no purification would have been necessary. Nonetheless, the Mother of God consented to abide by the law. Furthermore the law required that a first-born son should be offered to God and then ransomed back. Mary offered her son to God and with a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two young pigeons received him back. The law said they had to redeem their first-born sons because God exacted vengeance on Egypt when the angel of death came upon the land the night of the first Passover, while the first born of Israel were spared. By subjecting himself to the law, Jesus set an example of humility and obedience for us. He did not exempt himself; nor should we.
And then out of nowhere two strangers speak aloud about God’s saving deeds. Simeon took the child and gave thanks to God for his faithfulness upon setting eyes on the longed-for fulfillment of God’s promise. But then he spoke of a time of deep sorrow for Mary, which she may have found a little troubling. Then the prophetess Anna also recognized and worshiped the child. Suddenly they saw how their child now belonged to all Israel, and possibly all humanity. It was truly both awesome and terrifying.
In each of these events today, Israel makes official her claim on a new member. By willingly embracing their role as guardians and teachers of Israel’s heritage of covenant and community, Mary and Joseph understood that they were providing him not only a cultural perspective or a unique set of rules, but also a way of holiness. And Jesus would grow up to hear the stories of his ancestors and the mighty deeds of God. So years later when he challenged the religious leaders, he was in fact inviting them to dig deeper and embrace a more deeply fulfilling relationship with God and with one another. He truly grasped the awesome beauty and wonder of God’s offer of intimacy to Israel as well as their tragic rejection of that gift. Imagine the gifted Dr. Sheldon Cooper explaining string theory to toddlers in a playpen, and the toddlers had control of the executive branch, the legislature, the courts, and the military. Never mind.
Some of us can be shamelessly unapologetic about our total embrace of some sports team or political party. We will proudly proclaim our unwavering loyalty and love for some flavor-of-the-month celebrity or some mega-rich consumer brand. But what exactly do they offer us, beyond momentary bragging rights and self-important gloating? Do we even gain any lasting benefit for our undying devotion? Instead it is they, these sports franchises and politicians, these self-serving egotists and ruthless mega corporations, who get all the enviable attention and influential power and financial profit. And it appears we need very little convincing to pass on to our children a way of life built on the worship of these false and empty gods. Meanwhile our God’s invitation to a fuller and more fulfilling life goes ignored and misunderstood.
We belong to Jesus Christ. He tells us it is he who chose us that we might possess life in its fullness. It doesn’t matter who the pope or bishop or pastor is at the moment, where we sit in church, when we arrive or leave, or whether or not we sing all the verses. It matters that God has claimed us for his own. And when we grasp the full meaning of that truth, it will show in the way we speak, how we welcome one another and treat each other with compassion and respect, and how we live what we believe. And not just the easy parts, because that is exactly what we show others is important when even we are not paying attention, and because we are most truly ourselves when we don’t think anyone may be watching. What does it mean for you to belong to him?
Rolo B Castillo © 2020