Not long ago a classmate of mine introduced the Greek Orthodox celebration of Theophany in a doctoral seminar we shared. He presented it as an equivalent to the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration with which the majority of the class was more familiar. Here in Boston, his community begins their celebration of Theophany with a blessing of the water in the church. This provides the holy water for the rest of the year. Next, the priest and congregation move down to the Charles River. There, the priest blesses the river—the water that winds through our city.
I grinned when I heard this. I walk along that river nearly every day, and I knew I could never look at it the same way again.
It wasn’t until recently that I dug deep into the history and theology of baptism in the Catholic Church. For days, weeks even, I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around the struggles that have constituted this defining practice in my church: What is the central aim of baptism? What does baptism do? How do we understand grace to work in this sacrament? Somewhere between theologians Karl Rahner and Aidan Kavanagh, I was captured by a moment of clarity. An epiphany, even. Contrary to what many assume, baptism is not a moment in which the baptized suddenly attains grace she or he had previously been without, like a once-empty vessel suddenly filled to the brim. Baptism is the special signification and realization of the grace that one already possesses—the grace every creature possesses as a creature of God. Baptism makes real, in a new way, the grace that was always already there. Once I thought about baptism like that, I wondered how I could have thought about it any other way.
Later in the afternoon after that doctoral seminar–under the first 70 degree sunshine we’d had in Boston this year–I sat on a bench near the river bank. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “All this time it was holy water. All this time it was holy and I never knew it.”
When we think about baptism’s connection to the grace that is already operative in our lives, knowingly and unknowingly, it brings new perspective to the renewal of our baptisms, a practice we carry out throughout the liturgical year and especially during this Easter season. Karl Rahner explained, “When we work hard and unselfishly in the service of our neighbor, when we are courageous and control our moods, when we remain cheerful, even when it is far from easy, but especially when we make the great and heavy decisions of life in a Christian way, we also come nearer to God (even though we do not always explicitly think of God), and the grace of our baptism keeps growing….All of this is properly already a renewal of baptism.” We’re exercising the grace of baptism all the time.
I can’t stop thinking about this lately–when I’m walking along the river, when I dip my fingers in the holy water at Church–I can’t stop thinking to myself, “All of it is holy—the river, baptism, all of this is holy.”