Sunday, 12 January 2014
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year A, Shaftesbury
There are certain things that a Catholic can be seen to do every time he or she enters a church. Today I'd like to speak about the significance of one of those things:
Dipping your fingers into the holy water stoup by the front door, and making a sign of the cross. There are two aspects of this: the holy water, and the sign of the cross.
The sign of the cross as been used by the Church from our earliest beginnings. Even when the early Church was persecuted and little was written down, we find Tertullian, in the second century, writing about how it was standard for all prayers to be started and concluded by making a sign of the cross.
The combining of this with water is not something random:
The words of the sign of the cross are said over us in our baptism ("I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit"). And that baptism, as St. Paul puts it (Rom 6:3), immerses us into the cross, into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We dip our fingers into the stoup by the door, the entrance of the church, as a reminder of the water of baptism, as a reminder of our spiritual beginnings.
The ritual of the baptism ceremony starts at the door. It is there that the priest greets the family, because the doorway is itself a symbol of baptism: the door enters us into the physical building; while baptism, as the first of the sacraments, baptism enters us into the spiritual life of the Church, enters us into our new life with God.
A few simple points about the new beginning that is involved:
First, Water and washing: baptism is about being made clean, and with that it is about the new start that comes from being clean.
Second, Sin and forgiveness: baptism is not about physical cleaning but about the spiritual. The cleaning it achieves is from sin. It washes away “the stain of original sin”, and when adults are baptised it washes away their personal sins too.
And that is a new beginning that we re-start in every confession, and we symbolise our need for our re-start in dipping our waters in the holy water stoup.
Third, the Holy Spirit. The new birth that is worked in us is not by our own power, but by the Holy Spirit, who appeared at Christ’s baptism. And every re-start in us is likewise by His power.
Fourth, Jesus Christ. He didn’t need to be baptised: He was already sinless, already in union with the Holy Spirit. He was baptized that we might be united to Him in our baptism, baptised into His death and resurrection.
Finally, this new start is symbolised as we enter the church by our dipping our fingers in the holy water, but let us note, too, that it is symbolized at the end also: we are sent out of Mass with the words, “Go forth, the Mass is ended” –we are sent forth in another new beginning, sent forth to bring others into this new start too. We leave to extend it to others, to invite others into the family of God.
So, to sum that up. We dip our fingers into the Holy water stoup as a reminder of our baptism, and a reminder of our new beginning.
We remind ourselves of that, on entering church, at the beginning of Mass.
We remind ourselves of that at the end of Mass, as we are sent forth in another beginning of our daily lives. As the priest or deacon says, “Go forth, the Mass is ended”.
And as we have started the New Year now in January, let us recall with that our new beginning in baptism, in union with Christ in the His baptism, in the power of the Holy Spirit.