St. Ambrose on the Baptism of Desire

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652)

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652) (WikiPaintings).

Here’s something I just transcribed for the sake of linking to it in a discussion. The Catholic Church has consistently taught that God in His mercy can save those who desired to be baptized but were unable, or who would have desired to be baptized had they been aware of its necessity (CCC 1257–1261). This holds particularly true for catechumens, whose explicit desire for Baptism, repentance from sins, and growth in charity and faith, have already joined them to the Church (CCC 1247–1249, 1259). The following is an excerpt from St. Ambrose of Milan’s funeral oration on the death of the emperor Valentinian II (371–392), who fell victim to the common practice of deferring Baptism until late in life or even to one’s deathbed. At the time of his death, he had requested for Ambrose himself to baptize him — but before the bishop could arrive or the emperor could travel to Italy, Valentinian was murdered. In Ambrose’s consolation, he declares the hope of Valentinian’s salvation despite his failure to be baptized, and God’s mercy upon him because of his desire for the Sacrament. This demonstrates both the Church’s firm belief in baptismal regeneration and its necessity, and in God’s mercy upon those who failed to be baptized.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II (Wikipedia).

(51) But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me: What else is in your power other than the desire, the request?* But he even had this desire for a long time, that, when he should come into Italy, he would be initiated, and recently he signified his desire to be baptized by me, and for this reason above all others he thought that I ought to be summoned. Has he not, then, the grace which he desired; has he not the grace which he requested? And because he asked, he received, and therefore it is said: ‘By whatsoever death the just man shall be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest’ (Wisdom 4:7).

(52) Grant, therefore, O holy Father, to Thy servant the gift which Moses received, because he saw in spirit; the gift which David merited, because he knew from revelation. Grant, I pray, to Thy servant Valentinian the gift which he longed for, the gift which he requested while in health, vigor, and security. If, stricken with sickness, he had deferred it, he would not be entirely without Thy mercy who has been cheated by the swiftness of time, not by his own wish. Grant, therefore, to Thy servant the gift of Thy grace which he never rejected … He who had Thy Spirit, how has he not received Thy grace?

(53) Or if the fact disturbs you that the mysteries have not been solemnly celebrated, then you should realize that not even martyrs are crowned if they are catechumens, for they are not crowned if they are not initiated. But if they are washed in their own blood, his piety and his desire have washed him, also.

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael (Wikipedia). In the Vatican Museums.

(54) Do not, I beseech, O Lord, separate him from his brother, do not break the yoke of this pious relationship. Now Gratian, already Thine, and vindicated by Thy judgment, is in further peril, if he be separated from his brother, if he deserve not to be with him through whom he has deserved to be vindicated. … (55) Your father also is present [Valentinian I], who under Julian spurned imperial service and the honors of the tribunate out of his love for the faith. Give to the father his son, to the brother his brother, both of whom he imitated, the one by his faith, the other equally by his devotion and piety …

(56) Offer the holy mysteries with your hands, with devoted love let us ask for his repose. Offer the heavenly sacraments, let us accompany the soul of our son with our oblations. ‘Lift up with me, O people, your hands to the holy place’ (Psalm 133(134):2), so that at least through this service we may repay him for his deserts. Not with flowers shall I sprinkle his grave, but I shall bedew his spirit with the odor of Christ. Let others scatter lilies in basketfuls. Christ is our lily, and with this lily I shall bless his remains, with this I shall recommend for his favor.

Source: Roy J. Deferrari, translator. “Consolation on the Death of Emperor Valerian.” Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953. 261–299, at 287–289. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 23 September 2013.

* Pardon my interruption: But I wanted to point this out. Baptism is not a human “work” as Protestants charge; it is a work of grace by the hands of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:11), and, as Ambrose says, our desire for it is the only thing within our own power (cf. “an appeal (or request) to God for a clean conscience,” 1 Peter 3:21). Does this sound like “works’ righteousness”? —JTR

Your Sacred Heart within me beating

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art (prints available).

I have other things to do today [insert other usual disclaimers which I then go on to ignore], but my dear friend Laura of Catholic Cravings and my new friend Ryan of the Back of the World are inaugurating their splendid new effort, O Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and tomorrow, by my reckoning, being the First Friday of September, I wanted to be a part of their first First Friday Linkup, in which we all blog about the same thing, our Lord’s most Sacred Heart. Since Laura lives on the other side of the world (I’m not sure which side is the rear end?), and we are going by her clock, it will be First Friday by the time I finish writing this post.

First Friday Linkup (OMostSacredHeart.com)

The suggested topic for this month is “How did [I] first learn about the Sacred Heart?” In order to be brief, for the sake of their readers as well as my other-things-to-do, I will do my best to constrain myself to that. This will be a little of a rambling journey, I’m afraid, and as a further word of warning, I almost always have more to say than I mean to, or than anybody wants to read!

Growing up in evangelical circles, having little knowledge of the Catholic Church but having occasional, cultural brushes with it, I had heard of this “Sacred Heart” thing. Churches were named after it, and I had encountered the artwork of Jesus revealing His heart, especially in an area with a growing Hispanic population — but I never had any idea what any of that meant. And then one day — perhaps as one of the last important signposts to my Catholic journey, when I still had no idea I was on a Catholic journey, no intention at all of becoming Catholic — it gripped me.

audrey-assad-this-house-you're-building

It was the very first week of grad school, in my new apartment in a new place. I was feeling the stirrings of a new call to faith, and was wrapped up in searching for churches to visit, to finally find where I belonged. I did visit the Catholic Church during that time, but had found it offputting and dismissed it; I’ll tell that story before too long. Browsing around on the website of a Christian book and music seller, a new artist jumped out at me: Audrey Assad. I’m not even positive that I knew she was Catholic before I bought her CD. She was nerdy-cute, and a singer-songwriter, and I had a new friend named Audrey (who is Catholic), and that was probably enough to reel me in.

And in the very first track on the CD, it took me aback:

And for Love of You, I’m a sky on fire
And because of You, I come alive
And it’s Your Sacred Heart within me beating
Your voice within me singing out,
For Love of You,
O for Love of You.

I froze in what I was doing. I literally heard it in capital letters: Your Sacred Heart within me beating. That’s something Catholic, I thought. And I felt my own heart beating; my hand on my chest; the blood rushing to my head. Is Your Sacred Heart beating within me, Jesus?

I had never thought of the Heart of Jesus that way before. Sure, of course, Jesus had come to live in my heart. But was His Heart beating within me? — His love for all the world? Did I have the Heart of Jesus?

(If I hadn’t already known it, I quickly confirmed in the liner notes of the CD: the lyric printed as Your Sacred Heart. Audrey Assad is a Catholic convert, raised in a Protestant household and coming to the Church at age 19. And please, my brothers and sisters, pray with Audrey — who is of Syrian descent — and with Pope Francis, and with the whole Church, for peace in Syria and in the Middle East.)

O'Donnell, Heart of the Redeemer

It would still be another six months before I would be drawn back to the Catholic Church, nudged by the local Audrey. But that moment would always stay with me. On one of my thrifting adventures within the next year or so, I ran across a wonderful book on the theological and scriptural and mystical foundations of devotion to the Sacred Heart: Heart of the Redeemer by Timothy T. O’Donnell, through Ignatius Press — so I had no doubt that it would be good. Contrary to what some have asserted, devotion to the Heart of Jesus has a firm and deep grounding in Scripture itself, which, upon learning and studying it, captured my whole mind and heart, and brought me to fall in love with Jesus all over again, with His Heart — which, I pray, may ever beat within me.

I have so much more to share about my Lord and His Sacred Heart! Thank you, Laura and Ryan, for the opportunity!

Like the Dewfall

My reckless path over the past months had left my way littered with a lot of brokenness — not least of all my own. The most gracious Healer had been to my bedside — but still I shut Him out of my heart, the most wounded part of all.

Though I’d made a miraculous recovery from my accident, I was still, for the first few months after coming home from Ohio, in need of a lot of attention. I relied on my parents, especially my mother, to get myself to class every day (that one class I insisted on taking), and to doctor’s appointments, and to social gatherings, and for anything else I needed or thought I needed. I wish I could say that I was a grateful and cooperative patient, but the truth is that I wasn’t — especially the more she and I came to talk about God and religion.

To my friends, too, I was becoming intolerable. I felt the need to talk about my accident ad nauseam, to tell everyone I spoke to about it. I appreciated the loving concern that so many people had shown me, so much that I thought I deserved it and could selfishly demand it. What is worse, I began to grow angry: angry at the truck driver, and at the circumstances, and at God, for taking away my car and my freedom; angry at my parents for not bowing to my every whim and demand; angry at my friends for not making me the center of their universe.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Anger

Mouths swell with anger, veins grow black with blood (Ora tument ira, nigrescunt sanguine venae) (Anger from the Seven Deadly Vices), by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1558).

One friend in particular came to bear the brunt of my anger. The harder I pushed and the more attention I demanded, the further she drifted. I do not blame her at all, in retrospect, for what happened: she, too, broke off contact with me. I was infuriated. Never before in my life have I been, and I pray I never will be again, so filled with rage. It is true — I learned firsthand — that Wrath is a Deadly Sin — because as the days and weeks wore on, this blaze grew higher and higher, and consumed more and more of me. My mind was filled with horrifying, violent thoughts to the point of hatred. And it was killing me. My performance at school, my relationships with family and friends, even my health, was becoming unhinged. I was self-destructing.

And then, everything changed.


Praying girl

This isn’t her. It’s a stock photo.

It started with a phone call. Halloween night, a caring, Christian friend called to check on me, to see how I was recovering since the accident. But she wasn’t doing so well herself, struggling with health issues of her own. She said that she was praying for me. I said, reflexively, as my twenty-five years of Christian upbringing had taught me, that I would pray for her, too.

But as I hung up the phone, I realized that I was lying. I wouldn’t pray for her; I didn’t pray at all, and hadn’t in many months. Going to sleep that night, I resolved to do something about that, for my friend.

The next day, remembering my resolution of the night before, I unceremoniously knelt down in my bedroom to pray. And suddenly I found myself face to face with the Most High, the God I had been actively avoiding and running from and pushing away for the past six months. I stammered. What could I say for myself? Here I was to make a request of Him, and I had hardly spoken to Him or acknowledged the priceless gift of life He had already bestowed. Feebly, I fumbled, “I know I should probably get back into a church one of these days…”

Rain

My friend’s simple act of charity, her kind words and her concern, had been but a drop of moisture; but it reminded me in a distant way of the Font from which all mercies flow. My own simple gesture, reaching out to pray for her, was, however small, an acceptance of His grace and an act of His love. And with this drop of water on the parched soil of my soul, the rain gently began to fall. It came as soothing droplets to my burning heart; like the first trickle from the floodgates into a scorched riverbed.

There have only been one or two times in my life when I have heard God’s voice clearly and absolutely. This was one of those times. It came like a thunderclap that knocked me to the floor. The words were almost audible as they formed in my mind, in answer to my halfhearted offering: “Go back to Calvary. This Sunday.”

Calvary

Calvary: the church I grew up in, towards which I’d held so much anger and bitterness for years; the place I blamed for failing me in my time of need and leading me down a dead-end path. If there was anything I would have expected God to say, anywhere I would have expected Him to send me — that would have been the very last place. When I’d suggested going back to church, it was more an excuse than an intention: I didn’t have the slightest idea when or where I would ever go back to church, or much of a motivation to do so — but I absolutely had no thought of going back there. But suddenly, out of the ether, I had an answer, the last one I would have ever chosen for myself. It hit me not as a passing thought; not as an idea desperate or compromising that I struggled against or had to wrestle with to accept; but as an unambiguous, authoritative command that it never even occurred to me to question. “Yes, Lord; I will obey,” is all I could answer.

It was November 1, All Saints’ Day. I did not celebrate it then, but I was aware of the fact.

Murillo, Return of the Prodigal Son 1670

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

The last time I’d been made to go to church with my parents, I’d scowled and grumped through the whole service. That Sunday morning, to their surprise, I volunteered. This time, my attitude was entirely different: I was hurting; I was starving. From the moment I entered, I had the feeling of coming home; of comfort and security. As the call was given to come down to the altar, I all but ran. As I knelt there, and one of the pastors, and my parents, laid their hands on me and prayed for me, the tears began to flow. A sense of peace came over my restless heart. The thorns of anger and pain and hate I’d allowed to dig into my heart, the barbs of hurt and bitterness and unforgiveness that had bound me for so long — began to slip away.

Sunrise by Albert Bierstadt

Sunrise, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

It was a night and day difference — the night of my darkness and waywardness and confusion, and the day of His light and warmth and guidance. The shadows lifted, and I began to see the road again, the way out of my ravine. The next days or weeks or months were not easy — there was so much I’d allowed to take over my life that needed to be rooted out, and it was painful going — but I continued to pray and seek God’s face. I continued going to church at Calvary with my parents. But about a week after that first time, I drove out to the country to be alone with my Bible and Every Man’s Battle. There, tearfully, I finally laid down my fight, humbled myself, and surrendered my life wholly to God, for probably the first time ever.


Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630)

Rembrandt, The Raising of Lazarus (1630).

I believe that my accident was a kind of baptism by fire; that my restoration mirrors the new birth in Christ that a Christian experiences at his baptismal regeneration. I believe in some small measure, I tasted Christ’s Resurrection power — that on that day I stood at the threshold of death’s door, and was brought back. I believe that every Christian does: this is Christ’s power over Death and the Grave that every Christian receives at baptism as the old man is buried and the new man is raised up in new life. I believe I was given a tangible sign, a sacramental experience, by which the invisible, spiritual transformation was writ large in visible, physical actions.

I still don’t know why God spared me that day, but I am grateful every day for the opportunity to find out and for the life I’ve been given. I live every day in the faith that God has some purpose and calling for my life, some reason for keeping me here. The road ahead wasn’t always smooth. I made a good many wrong turns, and had a few more minor collisions (spiritually speaking). But I was on the road again.

The Damascus Road

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

My wandering had come to running and rebellion. My soul was crying out — I was lost, and could not find my way — but I was hurt, angry, fighting, and unwilling to humble myself before God, to lay down myself and seek in Him the guidance I needed.

Thank God for a praying mother — God’s messenger in my life, who would not let me go. She harped on (so I called it then) my need to get back in church and to get right with God — and I resisted. I said some cruel and terrible things to my dear mother during this time. But I remember one moment in particular when I retorted, not so much in annoyance as in desperation, “If God wants me to turn my life around, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul.” If only I had the certainty of such a direct encounter, I thought.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:1-8
Accident scene overhead

A satellite view of the accident scene. (Google Maps)

In August 2006, I set out on a misguided errand of mercy, one with good intentions but ultimately selfish, sinful motives. The insane plan was to involve a major road trip and multiple hops by plane, flying out of Cleveland, Ohio — only I never made it to Cleveland. A few miles north of Columbus, while attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a two-lane highway, my car was broadsided on the driver’s side by a dump truck loaded with concrete going some 50 miles per hour.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

The damage area diagram from the accident report. My car (bottom) versus the dump truck.

I have no memory of the accident. I don’t know by what mercy — whether angels, or saints, or gifted safety engineers — my body was spared being crushed with the rest of the driver’s side of my car. I was airlifted from the scene to Ohio State University Medical Center with severe head trauma. Arriving in the emergency room, I was completely unresponsive — I bottomed out with a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep coma or death. “A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It’s dead,” says a recent report.

It was August 15 — the feast of the Assumption.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8:5–9
Accident report: Crash diagram

From the accident report, the accident reconstruction.

I know that there were dozens if not hundreds of dear people praying for me from the moment of the crash — many even whom I did not know, thanks to prayer chains in half a dozen different churches. But most of all my beloved family — my parents and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — were standing with me in prayer. And I have no doubt that my family in heaven, all my dearest saints, were praying for me, too. My parents came to my side as quickly as they could, and didn’t leave until I was home.

Wrecked Honda Civic

The remains of my car.

Somehow, I was still alive, but I remained insensible. The doctors offered no immediate prognosis. Given the elasticity and unpredictability of the brain, the best they could offer was “wait and see.” The only other injuries I suffered, incredibly, were a few broken ribs; a cracked sacrum; a nasty, black-and-blue bruise on my left hip, where the imploding car door had hit me; a sprained left wrist, which I tend by habit to thread through the handle of the steering wheel; and just a few deep cuts on my forearms and the left side of my face where I had been struck by flying window glass. My car, a 1998 Honda Civic (may she rest in pieces), had no side curtain airbag, but the driver’s side frontal airbag did deploy.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Matthew 8:10, 13
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (1578)

Christ Healing the Blind (1578), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

I remained out of my senses for about a week. Then, gradually, I began to return. My memories from this time are very foggy, like a half-remembered dream fading in the light, or like my earliest memories of childhood. Just as my brain was still forming as a child, my brain then was snapping back from a major traumatic injury. The world seemed so unreal; it was another few days before I could admit that this had really happened.

Even after I regained consciousness, my prognosis remained doubtful. It would be a long road to recovery, the doctors said. I would most likely suffer long-term deficits. I was little aware of this at the time. I have little memory of my time in the hospital now at all.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4–6
The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Some week and a half after the accident, I was released from the main hospital, but was still in no shape for travel. I was moved to the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital on the OSU campus. After a week and a half there — with time spent with physical, occupational, and speech therapists — I was released to go home. Against medical advice, I returned to school, to the semester whose start I’d just missed, to hobble through a course I wanted to take, whose professor was about to retire. Within three months, I was back to driving and getting around on my own. The only lingering effects of the accident were a slight and occasional stutter or slurring of words, a minor impairment of my short-term memory, and an inability to process alcohol.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13–16
Brain scan MRI

An MRI scan of the brain (not mine).

Medical professionals are reluctant to label miracles; the most anyone would say was that I made a remarkable recovery. But over the next months, seeing rehab doctors for periodic checkups and reading literature online, it dawned on me just how remarkable it was. Only some 20 percent of patients with initial scores of 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale survive. Of these, less than half have what is termed a “good outcome” (a 4 or 5 on the Glasgow Outcome Scale); the gross majority remain in a persistent vegetative state or have permanent, severe disabilities. Even of those who do well, most face years of painful and difficult recovery, and never regain full function. A recovery as complete as mine, in the brief time in which I made it, is virtually unheard of.

As I was leaving the hospital, I signed up for a long-term medical study of traumatic brain injury outcomes. Every year or two, someone from Dodd calls me to ask how many hours a day I’m able to be out of the house, how much assistance I require getting dressed or using the bathroom or walking, if I’m able to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, etc. I think my answers — that I suffer no functional impairment at all — are entirely anomalous to their expectations and probably skewing their results. And I’m reminded just how blessed I have been.

Saints Damian and Cosmas, icon

Icon of Saints Damian and Cosmas, physicians used by God and martyrs to the Christian faith. (Wikipedia)

The fact that I even survived the impact of the accident; the fact that I sustained such a severe injury to my brain and lived; the fact that I recovered as completely as I have, in such a time as I did — convinces me with certainty that my survival was a divine miracle. I believe that God, more often than through extravagant or ostentatious wonders, works His healing and mercy through the mundane, through natural processes, through the hands of physicians and through medicine (Sirach 38:1–15). I know that my healing was for me, and that my testimony will not convince anyone else; but as a pivotal juncture in my road to Rome — as the turning point of my life — I am compelled to share it.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
Psalm 6:1–5
1998 Ford Louisville dump truck

A 1998 Ford Louisville (L-Series) dump truck, the make and model of my fateful messenger.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt a close affinity with the Apostle Paul. I asked for his lot — and that, I believe, is what I got. I don’t know what I saw in the road that day — whether there was a literal flash of light, or whether a big blue dump truck was the message meant for me — but I was halted in my reckless path. I believe St. Paul was interceding for me even then.

Looking back today, I can only give all the glory to God. I have no doubt that I am here today as a testimony to His overpowering mercy and healing. I did not deserve this, by any merit of my own or due to any faith of my own. I am not even sure that if I’d died that day, I could have been saved. But the Catechism teaches that God heals the body when it is conducive to the healing and salvation of the soul: I was certainly in need of such healing. I can only credit the faith of the many who prayed for me — my parents who would not let me go — and the overabundant mercy of my God.

In the days and months that followed, as I fully grasped what had happened, the question began to eat at me: Why? Why had I survived when so many people die? Why had I been healed, when so many others are not? Why should God be so faithful to me, when I had all but abandoned Him? Who was I to deserve such a gift? My parents insisted that I owed my life to God — but rather than grateful, I was confused, even troubled. I did not have a true grasp of His grace and love and mercy. As I recovered, and yet continued my stubborn refusal to turn my life to God, my mother grew frustrated — and I grew angry. The accident had brought me to my knees, but I had not yet laid down the fight. There was yet one more showdown.

Baptism: A Sacrament for All Christians

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

I’ve given a (very basic) scriptural explication of the Sacrament of Baptism; I’ve asked the question of why many Protestant Christians reject the sacramentality and efficacy of Baptism, if not the importance and necessity of Baptism altogether; and all the while I’ve been promising that there’s a message of love and hope buried somewhere in what seems so far to be mostly grousing. This is it. I have a lot I want to cover here — I hope I actually get to the hope this time, while maintaining a reasonable length — but I will certainly do my best.

One Baptism: An Enduring Mark of Christian Unity

St. Paul asserted firmly that we are are “one body” in Christ, baptized together into His Body by “one baptism.” He was writing in the context of division and infighting within the Church of his time, especially the Church at Corinth; he wrote to remind the believers there that they were all One in Christ through their Baptism into Him, each a part of His Body with his or her own vocation to fulfill. Although Paul could not have foreseen the sad state of our schism today, the Spirit certainly did: Paul’s words are perhaps more piercingly relevant today than they were then (1 Corinthians 12:12-13):

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

He might as well have been addressing directly, I think, today’s Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox. Paul again wrote (Ephesians 4:5):

I therefore . . . urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, . . . eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

El Greco, Baptism of Christ (c. 1608)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1608), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Roman Catholic Church teaches, in accordance with this scriptural teaching and with the Nicene Creed, that there is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” She accepts baptisms given by even Protestant communities as valid sacraments — even if the Protestants reject Baptism’s sacramentality. I, having been baptized as a Protestant, didn’t have to be baptized again when I entered the Church.

The thrust of that is this: In the Church’s eyes, I had already been baptized into the Body of Christ. The Church believes that all Christians who are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) are truly baptized into the One Body of Christ — that even through our schism, the unity of His Body persists. Baptism is the “sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn.” It is the “foundation of communion among all Christians” (CCC 1271; Second Vatican Council, 1964, Unitatis redintegratio §§2, 3).

The Unbaptized?

So what about people who aren’t baptized? Are they condemned?

Not necessarily. As the Catechism puts succinctly, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by His sacraments” (CCC 1257).

The Church recognizes a few exceptions in particular: First, what it calls the Baptism of blood: The Church believes that those believers who suffer death for the sake of the faith are baptized by blood and by their death for and with Christ (CCC 1258).

The desire or intention for Baptism can also bring the fruits of Baptism without actually receiving the Sacrament, if one meets death before one can. Catechumens especially who die before their Baptism, repentant for their sins and fully intending to receive the Sacrament, can be assured of their salvation, the Church believes (CCC 1259).

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

The Church also holds out hope for those who die never knowing the Gospel or the necessity of Baptism, but who strove for God’s truth to the best of their knowledge, ability, and opportunity, and who lived their lives in pursuit of charity and righteousness — that they can be saved, too (CCC 1260).

And most of all, in the hope of which I’ve been speaking, I firmly believe that those Christians of our separated brethren whose communities have wandered from apostolic teaching, who neglect the Sacrament of Baptism and never emphasize its necessity as Christ taught, still have the opportunity to be saved, in God’s infinite mercy. For those who love the Lord, who strive to embrace and live the Gospel, who bear the Spirit’s fruit, but through no fault of their own, are not led to Baptism — I believe and hope in their salvation. If they had but known their need for Baptism, they certainly would have sought it, and God embraces that, the Church believes.

In the end, the core truth of Catholic teaching about the Sacrament of Baptism is that it is not a legalistic requirement, a “work” that one has to do to win favor with God, but the means for our salvation provided by the Lord, a gift given by a merciful God who loves us infinitely. The Church is the “vessel of salvation,” but to be saved, one has to first get on the boat. Just so, Baptism is the door to our death and rebirth in Christ; the sharing in His Death and Resurrection, by which He washes away our sins; the way we receive His grace and salvation. And it is offered and extended to all who seek Him. But first one has to get in the water.

The Outpouring of Divine Mercy: A thought on the Work of God among all Christians

The Works of Mercy, by David Teniers the Younger

The Works of Mercy (c.1645), by David Teniers the Younger. (Wikipaintings.org)

Hello, dear friends. I’m still around. I’m continuing to struggle with some things — not least of all a real terror of a paper — but I think the sun is beginning to shine through the clouds, and I hope, I pray, that I’ll soon be able to return to you on a more regular basis.

I have been thinking about a lot of things lately — the direction this blog has been taking, the direction my heart has been taking, and the way my heart needs to lead this blog. For one thing, I need and deeply long to return to this blog’s original mission, to extol all the beauties and graces of the Catholic Church, and to ponder the lamentable divide between Catholics and Protestants, and to work in my own way to bring us closer together. I have been lashing out defensively, even aggressively, against Protestants who reject communion with the Catholic Church, against their arguments and even against their beliefs. But the truth is that this all breaks my heart grievously, in being hurt and even more in that my words might hurt others.

I have been spending a lot of time with my Protestant brethren lately, most of all my dear Baptist friends. And I find that the passion, the mercy, and the love of their worship and ministry is true and genuine and full of God’s grace and healing. And that begs the question, as my wandering road as a Protestant always begged — how can more than one thing be true? If the Catholic Church is Christ’s True Church, founded by Him and His Apostles, bearer of Apostolic Tradition, the fullness of God’s plan of salvation for us — and this I firmly and thoroughly believe — what are our separated brethren? And if I see God’s grace and love alive and active in them, as witnessed by the transformation of lives — what does that mean for the Truth? It means, I suppose, that God is so much bigger than us and our petty disputes, than any division we can create; that His mercy is infinitely greater and overflowing to all who love Him.

We of the Catholic faith practice the Christian life as it has been handed down to us. Catholic tradition is just that — that which has been handed down — and it has been handed down from the ages because it is what works, what time has proven to bear fruit, and what Christ and the Apostles commanded us to do. So what about all the other Christians who do differently, who believe differently? The Catholic Church is not in the business of pronouncing judgment on them, on deeming whether they or anyone is “saved.” What the Church teaches is what she knows; what she has received; what has proven to be true. How God moves and saves with other Christians is His business, the outpouring of His Divine Mercy. It is our job to seek His Truth, and to be faithful and obey.

New Every Morning

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
Lamentations 3:19-24 ESV

Robin on branch

I woke up bright and early this morning after an early and melancholy night last night — feeling a world better, as the dawn light streamed in through my window, and the waking birds sang in the trees around me. And this verse echoed in my head. “His mercies are new every morning.”

This is an easy passage of Scripture to take out of context. I’ve so often heard it repeated in saccharine sentiment as a “feel good” message — but read the entire chapter from Lamentations, and you will find a graphic, painful, heart-wrenching description of God’s judgment on a sinner; on sinful, apostate Jerusalem. But even in the face of this suffering, this wasting away, the speaker turns to God in hope; and God gives His mercy to the sinner.

The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
Let him sit alone in silence
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
Lamentations 3:25-33 ESV

God’s mercies are new every morning, for His children who turn away from their sin. God is not the “happy, feel-good” God portrayed by so much of evangelical Christian media. Neither is He the God of wrath anticipated by secular society. He is a God of just judgment; but above all He is a God of abundant love. Just as Jesus offered forgiveness “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), God’s mercies are new every morning, for every morning that we turn from our sin and toward Him.

Kyrie, eleison

Kyrie, eleison.
Christe, eleison.
Kyrie, eleison.

The Kyrie is an early Christian prayer, with antecedents even before Christianity, with which we open our daily Mass most days at our parish church (we sing it after the Confiteor, “I confess,” in our Sunday Mass). It’s transliterated from the Greek, Κύριε, ἐλέησον — “Lord, have mercy” — and borrowed directly from the litanies of Eastern Christianity. It’s simultaneously a prayer of petition and thanksgiving, asking God to have mercy on our sins, as part of our penitential rite, and thanking Him for his great mercy and grace in our lives.

Last night I had an argument with a girl on the Internet, and reacted defensively and with anger and pride. I woke up this morning under a burden of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, not just for my ungraciousness in dealing with that situation, but for my whole demeanor yesterday. What kind of arrogant fool goes into a church meeting and signs documents in Latin? And then goes home, full of pride and self-importance, to write about his own personal transformation? As if his life and his experience were worth reading about?

I have always struggled with pride in blogging. How can one have a positive enough attitude about oneself and one’s life that one would write about it publicly, sharing oneself with the world, and yet not become so puffed up about it that one is consumed with pride? How can I blog humbly?

I was beating myself up so badly all this morning that I figured I would come home and delete this blog. But then I went to noon Mass, and with the Kyrie, threw myself upon the mercy of my Father…

At Mass Sunday, Ms. Betty, our organist and pianist, who’s not Catholic but Baptist, and who plays a rich and diverse repertoire of Christian music, stunned me all of a sudden with a song from my early childhood, that went straight to the tenderest part of my heart. I was taught it as a child at a Christian conference in Richmond we used to go to, and though I hadn’t heard it since, its simple words have never left me:

I cast all my cares upon You;
I lay all of my burdens down at Your feet.
And any time I don’t know what to do,
I will cast all my cares upon You.

And that’s who my Father is. His mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22-23). Today when I laid down my burdens at His feet, I immediately found His peace. And throughout the rest of my day, was filled with love for Him and for others.

(I google and find, to my delight, that the song is “Cares Chorus” by Kelly Willard, first recorded back in 1978. And it’s a wonderful recording. And a new addition to my collection.)