Some weeks ago now, in the days following the feast of the Lord’s nativity, the Church celebrated the Baptism of the Lord in the River Jordan by Saint John the Baptist. It is a surprising event because Christ, whose divine person is possessed of no sin, has no need of the sacramental washing that results from baptism; the effect which that sacred action has on us cannot have the same effect on him. Rather, the baptism of Christ does not sanctify him, but the water which we in turn receive, and which opens for us the portal of the sacred font as the way to our salvation. As Saint Gregory Nazianzen writes that by his baptism Christ buries the whole of the old Adam in the water, thus putting to death the sin of our first parents—the original sin of the Garden of Eden—and preparing for us a new and living way to be united with Almighty God for all eternity (Or 39, 14-16.20). So through baptism in Christ nothing remains in us to impede our entry into the heavenly kingdom (CCC 1263).
The events of the Lord’s baptism certainly seem remote from this first Sunday of the season of Lent, yet it is those events which immediately precede today’s reading from the gospel according to Saint Mark; the account of the temptation in the wilderness. And just as the Lord’s baptism strikes us as surprising because he has no need of the effects of baptism, so too this episode seems at odds with his divine person because we know that, if he so chose, the Lord could easily have overcome the temptations he faced. So why, then, does he submit himself to what in human terms is such abject humiliation and torment? Just as the Lord received baptism at the hands of Saint John the Baptist to show us the way we should follow—through the font to everlasting life—so in facing and resisting the temptation of the devil in the wilderness he shows us that we, too, can and must overcome the provocations and allurements of sin and, by his grace, imitate and share with him in the victory over death itself.
In order to understand how we might attain this demanding goal of the spiritual life we must first return to the origins of our life in Christ in the sacrament of holy baptism. In the reading from the Book of Genesis we hear the familiar story of Noah and the flood. For forty days and forty nights Noah and the ark sailed through the waters until coming to rest. As a result of Noah’s fidelity and the Lord God’s cleansing of the earth a covenant is established between God and Man. In the epistle, from the first letter of Saint Peter, these events are put into their fullest context: by God’s grace Noah and his companions were preserved from the death—‘saved through water’—thus prefiguring the waters of baptism which Christ himself would sanctify for us to receive. In these days of Lent, when are tested and tried, tossed to and fro by a veritable tempest of temptation, we are called to that fidelity to the Lord shown by Noah, that being found faithful as we come to rest in the surety of the Paschal feast, we too may be ‘saved through water’; water which has been poured over us in the life-giving action of the sacred font.
Living the reality of our baptism, then, is the key to our victory in the battle waged against the devil for our immortal soul. Like Noah before us, our covenant with God is established through water, but the new covenant in which we share is not simply sealed with water, but with the precious blood of Christ. That blood, poured out for us in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, washes us clean and gives us the strength to preserve ourselves and persevere in the relationship we share with the Lord through baptism, thus winning the crown of eternal life. Certainly we know that in this life we will face temptations and anguish; Saint Paul relates this to us in his second epistle to Timothy: All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3: 12). But we also know that, by the covenant sealed in the blood of Christ’s own sacrifice, the victory over sin will be ours if we remain faithful to him; if we live in faith the relationship that exists between us and the Lord, a relationship begun in us in the waters of the font.
Of course the primary means of maintaining this life of baptismal grace is the gift of Christ himself in the Most Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharistic sacrifice (the Mass), in Eucharistic adoration, and especially in Holy Communion, we receive food to sustain us in our own exodus from slavery through the wilderness to the promised land of heaven. When we stray from that path, when we choose our own way over that of the Lord, it is only through being restored to the life of grace that we can hope to reach our longed-for goal. This is the purpose of the gift of the sacrament of penance wherein, through the mercy of God, we are brought back to the fold of the Lord’s flock and reunited with the streams of grace which flow from his Most Sacred Heart: streams of living water which first quenched our thirst in the outpouring of water and grace in baptism. Certainly we cannot be ‘rebaptized’, but in the confessional we can be restored to the purity of our baptismal life, and so return to the way of truth that leads us to eternal life in God.
The season of Lent, then, is a privileged time for this reconciliation to take place. In these days we hear again and again of the covenant with Noah and the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land. We too are called to live the covenant-relationship initiated by our baptismal promises, promises which (although we break them by our sin) are never forgotten by the Lord; the Lord who now calls us back once more to the graced life of his children, of heirs of the kingdom he has prepared for us. To take that life seriously and to live always oriented toward the inheritance of heaven we must be resolute and disciplined in our spiritual observance of this Lenten season. Let us take this time to increase our knowledge of our sins and so come with penance and tears before the throne of grace. The Lord offers us his love and his mercy and his forgiveness; he calls us to return to him with our whole heart; by a good and regular and holy life of penitence and humility let us respond to that call by confessing our sins worthily and well and, receiving the Lord’s mercy, be ever more converted from the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and turned to Christ who is unique means of our salvation: the way, the truth, and the life.