John 3: 14–21
In today’s gospel selection, Jesus continues his discussion with Nicodemus on the subject of baptism. It is important to note this because there is no explicit mention of baptism in this passage. This does not mean that the author has somehow lost his train of thought. What it does mean is that, though the water ritual of baptism is important, what really matters is the quality of faith on the part of the one who is being baptized.
Jesus gives us the wonderful good news that “… God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” We are included in that world, and it should be most comforting to hear that we are loved by the One who is most capable of loving. But we must also notice that the liberating effect of that divine love will be available to us only to the degree that we believe. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” It is of the greatest importance, therefore, that we understand what this believing means in our daily lives.
It is tempting to think that believing in Christ means simply that we affirm the creed, or that we agree that Jesus existed and worked miracles and died and rose from the dead. To accept these truths is important but this is not what is meant by “believing” in this passage. In fact, one can sincerely affirm all these facts theoretically and still live very selfishly. To believe in the One who was “lifted up” means nothing less than to make his self-offering part of our own lives through daily concern for others; it means to live unselfishly. This is the only kind of faith that will give us eternal life.
Most of us were baptized as infants with no conscious awareness of what was happening. Our sponsors promised, in our names, that we renounced Satan and affirmed Christ. It was hoped that our sponsors and others will explain all that to us when we became old enough to understand the very serious commitment made for us. Unfortunately, we usually expect our sponsors to do little more than to remember our birthdays … and often less than that.
The simple fact is that those baptized as infants must “claim” their own baptisms, as it were, as soon as they are old enough to do so, which usually means in early adulthood. The sacrament of baptism is not magic, and its graces become fully operative in our lives only to the extent that we accept and live the promises made years ago in our names.
When we promise to renounce Satan, we are declaring our firm resolution to eliminate from our lives the “big lie” of Satan, namely, that we can achieve happiness by thinking only of ourselves. And when we commit ourselves to Christ, we firmly resolve to follow his example of unselfish, thoughtful concern for others. When we are thus “lifted up” like Jesus on the cross of love, we can be sure that we will also be “raised up” with him in the victory of resurrection. Some may think that this takes all the fun out of life, but in reality the people who love in this way are the only truly happy people in the world.
But we won’t know that until we try it!
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.