How Baptism Gives Life in Abundance
Why did God make you?
If you are a cradle Catholic of a certain generation, your answer may echo that found in the Baltimore Catechism: “To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” But the genesis of this answer predates our country’s first national catechism. It was born, in fact, from the baptismal font itself.
A baptismal font finds many likenesses. Since it kills the old, sinful self, it is compared to a tomb. Because it cleanses body and soul from the stain of sin, the font resembles a bath. As the sacramental entry into the Church, its structure stands as a door through which the recipient enters the Church. And as a fount of new life, baptism’s waters resemble the womb of our Mother, the Church.
A new aspect to the grace and dignity coming from baptism is here introduced: the lay faithful participate, for their part, in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King.
The Church Fathers, in fact, saw the birth of Christians much like the birth of Christ: as the Holy Spirit descended upon the Blessed Mother and conceived Christ in her womb, so now the same Spirit comes down upon the baptismal font, womb of the Mother Church, and from it are conceived Christians. Remarking on the acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”—which in its original Greek language forms the word “ichthys” (ΙΧΘΥΣ), meaning fish—Tertullian (d.220) teaches that we are “little fishes,” born in the water of the font after the image of the Big Fish, who is Christ!
Since it is in Christ’s image that we Christians are reborn, we look to Him for the reason for our being. Specifically, we are called to “know, love and serve” God because these three tasks are what Jesus Himself embodied. In his 1988 apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World), Pope St. John Paul II, explaining the role of the Christian faithful in the Church and in the world, states that a “new aspect to the grace and dignity coming from baptism is here introduced: the lay faithful participate, for their part, in the threefold mission of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King.” (CL 14)
The role of the prophet—of which Jesus is the supreme example—consists in teaching, preaching and announcing the truths of God. God exists as a Trinity; He created all things; He gives us our whole being; our lives find fulfillment by living in the truth and for Him; we are destined to live with Him forever. The prophet’s currency is knowledge. And as Jesus is prophet, so too are those remade in His image in baptism. Like Jesus, we are called to know and announce the truth.
The work of a priest—and Christ is the highest of high priests—mediates between God and man, reconciling heaven and earth. The first Adam’s sin had separated man from God; Jesus, who is the second Adam, has reunited them by His priestly sacrifice. But the sacrifice that Christ the High Priest offers is no mere gesture of good will. Indeed, the only thing that our all-powerful God is powerless to take is our own love and will. Consequently, Jesus offers, on our own behalf, His very heart, without holding anything back. Since He, our great priest, offers undivided love, then we, His little priests, also give God undivided love.
The care of the king—and Jesus Christ is our King—devotes itself to the service of his subjects. While the evil ruler tyrannically forces his people to serve his own needs, the good king comes “not to be served, but to serve.” (Mt. 20:28) Thus, Jesus heals, feeds, comforts, cures, revives, saves and leads. Ruler over His own passions, He selflessly leads others to God. Remade in His image in baptism, His kingship is ours: His mission to serve others in the Father’s name is our mandate to do likewise.
We Christians are called to “know, love and serve” God because Christ came to impart knowledge of God’s mystery as His prophet, offer Himself in sacrificial love as our priest and serve God’s people as their humble king. Following the baptism of an infant, in fact, the minister anoints the child with sacred chrism, saying: “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of His body.”
The laity’s mission in the world, then, is born in the font. From this font, as from a womb, we are reborn in the image of Christ. And as Christ saved the world in a three-fold manner, so are those called “Christians” to work in the world. Relying on the Second Vatican Council, of which he took part as a bishop, Pope St. John Paul II says again of the Christian faithful, “Through baptism the lay faithful are made one body with Christ and are established among the people of God. They are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ. They carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian people with respect to the Church and the world.” (9)
Now we know not only why God made us but why God made us to know, love and serve Him. In our next installment, we’ll see how the Mass nourishes our triple mission so that we can live it in the world. In the meantime, read how Pope St. John Paul II unfolds the mission of the lay faithful in Christifideles Laici, paragraphs 1-17.
Director of the Office for Sacred Worship
Published January/February 2020 Catholic Life issue