“A Visible Sign of an Invisible Reality” By Brian Flanagan, Fiat Ventures

The Baptism of the Lord

Have you ever been to a Baptism? Actually, that was a trick question – even if you have no memory of going to a little brother or cousin’s Baptism, you probably have been to one – your own! How about a First Communion? A Confirmation? These Sacraments are big-deal moments in our lives and the lives of our families.  Recently my family and I were looking back at some old videos of when my siblings and I were growing up, and we came across a video of a First Communion party for my brother – we were rather amused by the hair styles and fashion too.

I’ve been to many of these Sacraments for family members over the years, and I’ve worked for the Church for a long time as well, so let’s just say I’ve been to a Confirmation or two. Or two hundred it feels like! Especially when I’ve had a hand in coordinating some aspect of the Mass, whether the music, or the programs, or lining the candidates up in the right order, people always come up to me after the Mass and say things like, “Thank you so much, that was such a beautiful ceremony!” Or “Wow the music was great and everything was so well organized!” I’m grateful for that sort of feedback, but sometimes internally after the person turns away, I sigh and think to myself, “Is that all they got out of what just happened here?”

It’s not about whether the florist did a great job in the Church. It’s not about how well the altar servers did with all the moving pieces of these special liturgies. It’s about the Sacraments themselves! If these Sacraments were received in a remote village somewhere in the world without any of those things, they’d be no less significant. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the visuals, that we miss the reality going on underneath them – and that brings us to what a Sacrament really is.

A Sacrament is an “outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” – or another definition I like is a “visible sign of an invisible reality of God’s divine life coming to us.” So, what’s the visible sign at Baptism? The priest or deacon pouring the water over the baby’s (or adult’s) head and saying the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And what’s the invisible reality here? Original sin (and any personal sin for those older than babies) is washed away, we become adopted sons and daughters of God, and the Holy Spirit begins to dwell within us. Whoa! Something is happening on a much deeper level than people realize at these things! It’s not just a symbol or a fancy ritual. It’s a reality!

John the Baptist describes the difference between a symbol and a Sacrament for us in the Gospel today. He speaks to the people around him whose hearts have been “filled with expectation,” who are really moved by what they’ve seen happening. He says to them, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In other words, John is saying, “Hey everyone, what we’ve been doing here has been a nice symbol, a “visible sign”, of our repentance and turning back to God, but when Jesus brings us into the Sacramental life, that “visible sign” will be accompanied by a spiritual, invisible reality that goes much deeper than what we’re doing here.

So next time you receive or are present for one of the Seven Sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, or Holy Orders), ask yourself what is the visible sign, and what is the invisible reality? And how great it is that unlike the people John is talking to in the Gospel, we can not only be “filled with expectation”, but can actually receive the real thing!

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