The season of Lent is to prepare our Catechumens to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, and for those already baptized to renew their baptismal commitment. This sacrament is the most fundamental of all the seven sacraments. It is considered the gateway to grace and to all the other sacraments. It opens a person to a new life of grace in the Holy Spirit by incorporating him or her into the mystical body of Christ. That is why we say that the sacrament of baptism confers a candidate a new life in Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, so efficacious is the water of this sacrament that it renews the life of everyone who is baptized. In the gospel, we see the waters at the Sheep Pool in Jerusalem where sick people would gather, the blind, lame and paralyzed, hoping that when the angel of the Lord stirs the pool, whoever entered the pool first would be healed of his or her infirmity. So, too, the waters of the Jordan flowing through the Temple of Jerusalem. We read from the book of Ezekiel that “wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live. Fish will be very plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings health, and life teems wherever the river flows. Along with the river, on either bank, will grow every kind of fruit tree with leaves that never wither and fruit that never fails; they will bear new fruit every month, because this water comes from the sanctuary. And their fruit will be good to eat and the leaves medicinal.”
This sacrament is the answer to those who are seeking fullness of life. There are many who are like the sick people at the pool, waiting for someone to lower them into the pool before others get in, even though this grace rarely came. In fact, this man had been waiting for 38 years to be rescued from his paralysis. The truth is that when one has waited for so long, it is easy to give up hope. We just learn to live with the situation. This was what happened to the paralyzed man. “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had been in this condition for a long time, he said, ‘Do you want to be well again?’ ‘Sir,’ replied the sick man. ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is disturbed; and while I am still on the way, someone else gets there before me.’” This is true for many of us who live sinful lives. We are miserable in our current state of life. We live a life of hatred, self-centeredness and pleasure. We are not happy where we are, but because no one has come to offer us a fuller life, we just remain where we are.
This Sacrament is given to us so that we can be truly life-giving. We read in the first reading, “This water flows east down to the Arabah and to the sea; and flowing into the sea it makes its waters wholesome.” The waters of Arabah refers to the Dead Sea, the Salted Sea. Nothing could live in it because the waters are stagnant, as there is no outlet. All the waters that flowed from the river Jordan are trapped in the Sea of Arabah. Nothing could survive there because of its high salt content. But the prophet is saying that even if we were in this kind of situation, self-centered, hardened and inward looking, without any life, the water that flows from under the right side of the Temple, south of the altar and then eastwards, will give life even to those who are deemed dead. This is only if we allow the water from the Temple to flow into us.
But is this promise real? Can the waters of baptism really give us new life? What is the difference between the waters of baptism and the other waters in the sea or in the rivers? This was what Naaman asked when he was told to immerse himself in the waters of the river Jordan to be healed. “’Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage.” (2 Kg 5:12) Indeed, what makes the water efficacious in giving us new life when we are baptized? It is not the waters in themselves that heal us but the water is the agent that God uses to heal.
Water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This is what the Lord said when He was at the Temple of Jerusalem. “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’” (Jn 7:37-39)
Secondly, the Spirit flowed from Jesus to the Church at His death. We read that when the hour had come, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” (Jn 19:28) This thirst was to give us His Holy Spirit. And so “when Jesus had received the wine, he said,’ It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (Jn 19:30) To illustrate that Jesus, in giving us the Spirit, is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, John’s gospel tells us that when “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” (Jn 19:34). This is the fulfillment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit from the side of our Lord’s bosom. The Church was born from the side of Christ through the sacrament of baptism and the Eucharist, both made possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.
So if the waters of baptism is effective and efficacious, it is because it is the Lord who works through the waters. Indeed, this is the case because the man was healed even without the stirring of the waters. Jesus wanted the man to know that one must not think that the healing comes from the stirring of the water but from the Lord Himself. Jesus said, “Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk.” We are told that “the man was cured at once, and he picked up his mat and walked away.” It is the power of God at work in and through Christ for those who have faith in Him.
That is why we must not limit the power of God to heal and to give us life. Water is the normal agent through which He gives us the Holy Spirit. But He works beyond the standard means. That is why the Church also speaks of baptism not only by water but also by blood and desire. This was why the Pharisees could not receive the grace of God. They were too fixed in their means of how the Lord should heal. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was breaking the laws of God. He could not be the messiah. They were totally oblivious to the fact that the man was healed. His healing was not as important to them as the observance of the meticulous laws laid down by them. His suffering for the last 38 years was not given consideration in their narrowmindedness. Instead of rejoicing with him, they were more concerned about him breaking the laws. The Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the Sabbath; you are not allowed to carry your sleeping-mat.” He replied, “But the man who cured me told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ The man went back and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had cured him. It was because he did things like this on the Sabbath that the Jews began to persecute Jesus.”
More importantly, the sacrament of baptism is efficacious only if we cooperate with the graces that we receive from this sacrament. We can be baptized, but if we see this only as a ritual, it will have no real effect on our lives. This was why the Lord reminded the man who was healed, “Now you are well again, be sure not to sin any more, or something worse may happen to you.” Having been rescued from the depth of our sins and misery, we must now walk in the way of truth and love with the grace of God given to us at baptism, the Holy Spirit in us, the Eucharist, and the community of faith, the body of Christ in which we have been inserted.
Baptism is the beginning of discipleship which is an ongoing process. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19f) As Pope Francis reminds us, we are missionary disciples. If we want to grow in our faith, we must be disciples who go out on a mission. For it is when we are on a mission that our faith will be purified and deepened.