The Baptism of the Lord


A Child's Baptism on Flickr by Joe Green
A Child's Baptism on Flickr by Joe Green

'Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.'

What does it mean to be “baptised in the Holy Spirit”?

Well, if you ask a theologian, they’ll tell you that it is just simply what it is to be a Christian – to have one’s entire life imbued with the Holy Spirit not just in the next Life, but in this one – to have the Holy Spirit live within you and work through you throughout your life to build God’s Kingdom in this world. That is what makes you God’s person in the world. That is what makes you a Christian. Well, that's all very fine, but to be honest, I would have to admit that sometimes I find it quite difficult to see how all of that actually happens just as a result of pouring a little water on a baby’s head.

A few years ago, on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, I was just settling down to watch the cricket on the television – and I have to tell you I am a serious, serious, SERIOUS cricket fan -  nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in front of the cricket. And I had just got properly comfortable in front of the telly, the first ball was about to be bowled, and in honour of our opponents, a bottle of Red Stripe was open. (And if you don't know what that is, it's not for me to corrupt you.)  When there came a knock on the door. The postman, they say, always rings twice; well, desperate people always knock three times.

To tell you the God’s honest truth, I wasn’t immediately sure I wanted to answer it, but I did. It was a man who wanted to see a priest and, well… No, it couldn’t wait, it really did have to be right now. So I brought him in, sat him down, reluctantly turned the television off, and listened to him. And this is what he told me:
                “It’s my sister. She’s in hospital. She’s really sick. We think she is dying. The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with her but they think it’s cancer. To be honest, Father, she’s not actually a Catholic and she isn’t normally very religious. In fact, none of the family is really. She was baptised as a child and she’s always been a good woman, but she’s never really been involved in any church. But she never forgot that she had been baptised and that she was a Christian.
                And now, she thinks she’s dying. So she asked us to find a priest or a minister – or someone – to come and pray with her. I’ve been round all the churches in the city, but it’s New Year’s Day and they’re all shut up – this is the first place I’ve got an answer at the door. Will you come?”

Well, I wouldn’t want you to go doubting my commitment to the Sacred Game, but when a man puts it like that, I have to admit that, even the Cricket doesn’t seem quite as important. So, we went together and found her – in the intensive care unit, very sick, but still just about able to respond. I anointed her – you don’t have to be a Catholic to be anointed (as Michael Caine used to say, not a lot of people know that) – and said the Rosary with her and her family. And after that, she fell asleep.

And then her friends and family started to tell me about her
- about all the good things she had done in her life;
- about all the people that she had helped;
- all the people whose lives she had touched;
- all the people who would miss her and remember her with love.

And it occurred to me that this was someone who had indeed been baptised - someone in whom the grace of baptism had very clearly been at work throughout her life. Even in a very hidden and unrecognised way, the Holy Spirit had been at work in her throughout her life, building her faith, her relationships, her family, her love – making her God’s person in the world – making her a Christian.
And at the end of her life – when she needed it the most– she had been blessed with the Holy Spirit:
she had found her peace with her family
with her friends
with the Church
and with God.
That’s about the best any of us can hope for in this world.

And I came away from her bedside with a solemn promise to myself that I would never – ever – ever again - underestimate the power, the gift, the grace of baptism.

That is the grace that we have all received.
That is the responsibility that we have all undertaken.
That is the baptism with which we have all been reborn.
Let us pray that we too may live up to the promises of our baptism;
that we too may be God’s people in the world;
and that we too may be Christians worthy of the name.


Paul O'Reilly SJ