I believe it was the English man of letters, G.K. Chesterton who when asked why he was going to become a Catholic answered: To have my sins forgiven. That’s almost the best answer anyone can give. Maybe it is the second to best answer. The best answer perhaps is found in answering the question Pope John Paul II posed in his apostolic letter at the close of the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, Novo Milenio Ineunte. “To ask catechumens” he said, “’Do you wish to receive Baptism?’ means at the same time to ask them: ‘do you wish to become holy?’ It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” ”
You remember that old New Orleans’ jazz anthem: Oh when, Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in, Oh I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.
Today you are enrolled in that number, the number of the elect, chosen to become, in Christ, saints. By your enrollment in the Book of the Elect, you are saying that you want to be holy.
Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit. The gift of holiness which of course implies the forgiveness of all sins committed before baptism is offered to all the baptized.
For you, catechumens, Lent is a time of final preparations for that day, the day of your rebirth in Christ. Lent for you in some ways must resemble Jesus’ time in the desert. There, in the desert, through prayer and fasting, Jesus did battle with Satan who tempted him.
Satan has been the human race’s adversary since the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They were seduced by him and sinned. He lied to them and told them they could be like God on their terms, not on God’s terms. Jesus in the desert does not sin. He refused to accept the terms lay out by Satan: that we can become like gods unto ourselves through the pursuit of power, pleasure or riches. Jesus, the Son of God, shows how to become God-like: it is through obedience to his Father’s will. In seeking Baptism, you promise to live your lives – not on Satan’s terms, not on your terms, not even on the world’s terms, but on Christ terms. Those terms are revealed to us in the mystery of the cross – as Catholic Christians you are called to celebrate that mystery every Sunday in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and you are called to live that mystery everyday by taking up the cross in your life through loving imitation of Jesus Christ.
And so, since Lenten is this time of final preparation, it must also be a time of prayer and fasting for you so that when Holy Saturday comes you will be ready to have your sins forgiven. By your fasting and mortifications you will learn to say “no” to yourself and to the sinful inclinations of your fallen human nature; you will be more ready to say “yes” to God. As you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his false allurements, on Holy Saturday night you will be ready to turn away from sin and go down into the cleansing waters of Baptism.
The gift of holiness received in Baptism is also a task. It is a task that must shape all our Christian life, one that is not finished this side of heaven. St. Augustine once said: “Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations”. (Office of Readings, First Sunday of Lent)
For this reason, we who are baptized already still make our Lent. We too must fast and pray. We too must do battle with Satan, resisting his temptations to impose his terms on us rather than God’s. For this reason, during Lent, we the baptized also seek to have our sins forgiven – the sins that we have committed after baptism. For, on Easter Sunday, we will join you in professing our Baptismal Faith and renewing our Baptismal Promises. For this reason, even as you prepare to have your sins forgiven in the waters of Baptism, we too prepare to have our sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, which restores us to our baptismal innocence.
The holiness to which we are called is not to be misunderstood as some kind of extraordinary existence, possible for only a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. Too often, much is made of the fact that there are a lot of sinners in the Church. And it is a fact; but, I don’t know why we are so surprised – since the Church was made by Christ for sinners. Perhaps this is how Chesterton knew that the only place where he could have his sins forgiven was in the Catholic Church.
However, we must no forget that the Church is also filled with saints – both living and dead. Some of you, perhaps, began this journey of yours to Baptism because of the inspiration, because of the witness of one of these living saints, ordinary Christians who hold themselves to the high standard of the gospel. The saints of the Church, especially those recognized as such by canonization, as well as “those saints in the making”, (your sponsors and godparents), can help “school” you in the ways of holiness. Their lives can encourage you; for, if it is true that because of our fallen nature there is no saint that does not have a past, it also true that, in Christ, there is no sinner that does not have a future.
As you go forth today and continue that journey of faith that will lead you to the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist, prepare well to embrace the gift of holiness and to accept the task of holiness. Again, as Pope John Paul II teaches: “since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God…..it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.”
Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in, O I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.