St. Peter Claver a Spanish Jesuit of the 16th century took very seriously the words of our Lord at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel. At the end of that Gospel Jesus says, “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.” As a student at the University of Barcelona, Claver was noted for his intelligence and piety, after two years of study he wrote in his notebook, “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.”
Claver joined the Jesuits and they sent him to the port city of Cartagena in Columbia. It was in that city that he completed his studies for the priesthood. Living in that city he observed and was greatly disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the slaves who were brought from Africa. Cartagena was the slave-trading hub and 10,000 slaves came into the port every year. While in seminary Claver learned all he could about the languages and customs of the slaves who entered that port city. At his solemn profession St. Peter Claver signed his document with these words, “Peter Claver, servant of the Ethiopians forever.” With his ordination Peter Claver began his work with the slaves.
When the slaves disembarked, they were unwashed, starving, and covered in sores. And so Peter met them with medicine, soap, disinfectants, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco. And with the help of interpreters and pictures he also gave basic instruction in the faith. And in the off season he would visit the slaves at the plantations, going from village to village, giving them more instruction and spiritual consolation. One of the simple prayers he taught to the slaves was this; and this one makes me smile, “Jesus, I love you very much, much, much.” During his 40 years of ministry it is estimated that St. Peter Claver personally catechized and baptized 300,000 slaves. They called him a man filled full of God.
The word baptism comes from a Greek word which means to immerse or plunge. Baptism is a sacrament, which is an outward sign instituted by Christ that gives grace. Baptism is a sign that points to a reality beyond itself. It’s a special sign that causes to happen what it signifies. The outward sign is the body being washed, while at the same time the soul is cleansed and made whole. And it is Jesus who works through the sign. Jesus is the one who baptizes. Even though I pour the water, Jesus is the one who baptizes; he’s the one who celebrates all the sacraments using me as his instrument.
So what can water do? First, it destroys; think of the devastation caused by Tsunamis and Hurricanes. St. Paul writes in Romans 6:3, “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Baptism sacramentally connects us to the Cross. Baptism destroys sin, both personal and original. And second, water gives life. Without water there is no life. St. Paul when speaking of baptism says that a new life is poured out onto and into us. The Holy Spirit begins to dwell in us, and we are reborn.
Baptism means we have access to an extraordinary power, a Divine Power. We can change. We are not stuck in our habits, and fears, and anxieties, and struggles. Living the Christian life means I can change. I can change because the One, who raised Jesus, lives in me. If I surrender to him I can be different.
Baptism gives us a new identity. You are a daughter of the King; you are a son of the King. To know this with conviction changes everything. Our God is not distant. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Fear not to cry out, here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God…like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.” Our God is not distant.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus once said this about baptism, “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift… We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; garment since it veils our shame; and bath because it washes.”
In today’s Gospel we heard God the Father say to Jesus, “You are my beloved.” Every baptized person should know and hear these words, every person made a member of the mystical body of Christ should hear these words, “You are my beloved, my beloved son, my beloved daughter.” So the next time you come into St. Joseph’s and dip your fingers into the Holy Water, remember these words, “You are my beloved.” As you make the sign of the Cross repeating the words of your own baptism, In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remember the words of God our Father, “You are my beloved.” “You are my beloved.” To which we might respond, “I love you very much, much, much!”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley