By laudable custom, each time we enter a church building we take holy water from a place by the door and with it trace upon our bodies the sign of the life-giving cross. Two things are significant about this outwardly simple gesture. First, we do it to remind ourselves of the saving power of that cross; of the effects of the sacrifice of Christ on that cross which, through baptism—our own ritual cleansing with water—we have now inherited. Secondly, we make this act of reverence as we come into the church from the world. We move to the sacred from the profane, literally turning our backs on the world and orienting ourselves toward the dwelling-place of the Lord our God.
It is easy, of course, for such a custom to become a somewhat automated habit void of any cognizance of its importance. And yet the beauty of what this act represents can itself never be reduced to something formulaic or frivolous because it is, in its essence, the most important of the traits which define us, as individuals and as Christians, members of the mystical body of Christ.
By this rich sign, then, the baptismal covenant into which we have entered is presented anew each and every time we come to worship the Lord in his holy temple. Our life in Christ—our life as his missionary disciples in the world—is reemphasized to us, and the essential importance of our baptismal promises and the fidelity we owe to God is made clear, encouraging us to continue to walk the narrow way of the Lord’s commandments, that we might reach the fulfillment of our baptismal promises in the life of the beatific vision with Christ and the saints.
In the reading from gospel according to Saint Mark, the Lord speaks of the gift of grace given us in baptism as a mustard seed. He makes no distinction between the “kingdom of God” and the essence of what it given us in baptism because the grace of that sacramental cleansing is itself fundamentally intertwined with our communion with the Church; the kingdom of God in our very midst. Our grafting to the true vine of Christ in baptism makes us fully a part of his passion and, thereby, his risen life; opening to us the gift of eternity in his presence. The seed of grace which is sown in us at baptism, then, is nothing less than the life of Christ himself, who comes to us even now and feeds us with his very body and blood in the Eucharistic feast, drawing us to himself so that we may be one with him forever.
To live this gift of grace thus means to allow the seed which is given us in baptism to sprout and grow. It means that the life of Christ within us must, like that mustard seed, spring up and put forth its large branches, “so that the birds of sky can dwell in its shade” (Mk 4:32). It means that we must so nurture and cherish the gift of God’s grace that we may be united to him and his life by all our thoughts and actions, that our own person may be subsumed into his.
Two things are necessary for this to be said of us. First, that we die to our self in order that Christ alone may remain. In baptism we are taken down into the grave of the font and reborn from the womb which it represents. It is a place of death to sin and of life to Christ in God. As Saint Paul consistently reminded the early Christian communities: “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3: 1-4). In our daily life, then, reminded of the baptismal covenant by which we are bound, we must constantly and consistently strive to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to [our] former manner of life” and live in the newness of the risen life of Christ, given us by him in baptism (Eph. 4: 22).
Secondly, that being so united with Christ by lives lived in fidelity to his person and his law, we become in a tangible way his body here in earth. Saint Teresa of Avila puts it thus: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours”. Thus it is by our cooperation in the saving work of Christ—to whom we are forever united—that we extend the branches of the life of faith in him, bringing Christ to others and sharing with them the joy of knowing the Lord as both Saviour and friend.
The reading from the prophecy of Ezekiel describes this work of grace at the service of evangelization: “It shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs” (Ez. 17: 23). By our own growth in the life of Christ begun in us in those waters of rebirth, we not only become more united to Christ and his eternal life but also become more effective signs of his life in the world, inviting others to participate in the grace and peace which is ours as Christians. By our own growth in sanctification and holiness we afford others the opportunity to seek, find, and know the person of Christ.
As we come now, then, to offer ours gifts of bread and wine in the sacrificial offering of the Lord’s own self, let us ask our Almighty God for a renewed knowledge of his presence within us. As we receive his body and blood in the gift of Holy Communion, let us pray that we might be more closely united to him. And as we depart from this place filled with his very life, let us allow the fruits of his sacrificial offering, transmitted to us by the baptism in which we share, to transform us into his likeness, that we may become icons of his redeeming love, of his boundless mercy, and of the truth which leads to everlasting bliss.