The greater baptism: sermon on Gaudete Sunday

“I baptise with water: but there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.”

St John the Baptist, by giving this answer to the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to ask him about his mission, implies that he is the precursor of another and greater baptism. This other, greater baptism would also involve water, since otherwise it couldn’t be a baptism at all, but unlike his own, it would have a power to transform the souls of those who received it. Elsewhere, St John says this more plainly when he declares, of the One who is coming after him, “He shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” And this is what Christian baptism is: baptism with the Holy Ghost and with fire. Christian baptism is with the Holy Ghost, since the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us when we are baptised; and it is with the fire of which our Lord says elsewhere, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth”, that is, the fire of divine love.

What happens to a person when he or she is baptised? It would take me too long to list all the effects, so I shall limit myself to mentioning three. First of all, a baptised person becomes a child of God. You sometimes hear well-meaning people who are a bit vague about religion say, “We are all children of God”, meaning all human beings. But that way of speaking is hardly what we find in the New Testament. After all, a child by definition shares the same nature as his father. And human beings don’t share God’s nature simply by being human. We come into the world not as children of God, but as children of Adam and Eve. In fact, St Paul says that we are by nature “children of wrath”, on account of original sin. No, it’s when we’re baptised that God adopts us; that’s when He gives us a participation in His own nature. This is why we are so bold as to call God, the Creator of heaven and earth, our Father. In fact, it was to signify all this that at Christ’s own baptism the heavens were opened, and He heard the Father’s voice, saying, “This is my beloved Son.”So this is the first benefit of baptism; from being simply the children of our parents, we come to be God’s children, in whom He is well pleased.

The second benefit of baptism is that the Blessed Trinity comes to dwell within us. This is why Christian prayer is unique. After all, to pray is, in itself, a natural human instinct. Even people who normally never think about God at all will often spontaneously utter a prayer in some desperate situation, for example if their loved one is sick or away fighting in a war. But those merely natural, human prayers are like the cries of a man trapped underground, calling for help in the darkness. Christian prayer is very different: a baptised person has the three divine Persons dwelling within him, provided that he does not commit any deadly sin. His soul isn’t like a dark underground cave, but more like a cathedral full of light. He can enter his own soul whenever he wants, and find the Blessed Trinity there. That is what we call mental prayer. Mental prayer means speaking to the three divine Persons and enjoying Their company within our soul, and it is a privilege of the Christian.

And the final blessing that comes to us through baptism is the power to merit. What does this mean, to merit? It means performing actions that will deserve a reward from God; and not just any reward, but a reward in heaven. Can we really do this? Can we deserve a reward from God? Yes, says the Church: not in virtue of our own human powers, but in virtue of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We cannot merit baptism; we cannot deserve to have the Holy Trinity come to dwell in our souls. But once God has taken up His abode within us, we can perform good works that He will reward — if we persevere — with an eternal reward. This is why our Lord says in the gospel, “If anyone shall drink of the water that I will give him … it shall become in him a fountain of water springing up unto life everlasting.”

These, then, are just three of the blessings of our baptism: to be made a child of God; to have the Blessed Trinity dwell within us; and to receive the power to merit a heavenly reward. By His coming as man, may the Son of God grant these blessings to many who do not yet know Him.