Today’s gospel tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert where he was tempted by the devil.
Because he was truly human, like us, Jesus was tempted; but unlike us he didn’t sin. But it is precisely because he shared in our struggle with temptations that we can share in his victory over sin, death and the devil. And this is what Baptism promises us – for if the wages of sin is death, in Baptism, we die with Christ to sin, so that freed from the snares of Satan, we can rise with him to new life.
Baptism then is a gift – the gift of life, everlasting life. But as a gift it must be accepted, it must be lived. The servant of God, Pope John Paul II, wrote in his apostolic letter at the close of the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, Novo Millenio Ineunte: “To ask catechumens: 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 you heavenly Father is perfect”.
You may remember that old New Orleans’ jazz anthem: Oh when the saints, 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.
Well, today, you are enrolled in that number, the number of the elect, those chosen to become, in Christ, saints. By your enrollment in the book of the Elect, you are saying that you want to be holy.
The word “saint” simply means a “holy one”. In Haitian Creole, the language in which I preached in every day for almost twenty years, “saint” is translated: ‘Zanmi Bondye” – a friend of God. This is a beautiful, and I might add, a most appropriate, translation for the Saints are friends of God – and only one who is holy can claim to be a friend of God.
And that is baptism makes of us: friends of God, reconciled to Him through the suffering death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, in whom we are baptized and through whom and through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit we entered into the holiness of God.
To accept a gift of friendship implies a “yes” to the friend and a “no” to all that is incompatible with this friendship, to all that is incompatible with the life of God’s family, with true life in Christ. This is what is implied in the word, “metanoia” or conversion.
Conversion means a turning to and a turning from – a turning to the Lord and a turning from sin. But this does not end with Baptism; as Catholics, we believe that conversion is our life’s work. Our earthy pilgrimage must always be lived as a continuing turning to the Lord, and therefore a continuing turning away from sin. Thus the first words of Jesus found in the gospel of St. Mark, the words that we have just heard, are these: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
At the Easter Vigil, you will make your profession of faith. And at Easter, all of us who have been baptized already will be also asked to renew that same profession of faith. That profession of faith based on the Apostles’ Creed is our “yes” to God. It is our pledge that– in spite of whatever trials and tribulations we may face – we will walk through this life as a friend of God, as a friend of Jesus and in the company of his friends that is his Catholic Church.
Now before you can say yes, you also have to say no to something. In the desert, Jesus says no to Satan and to his false promises of power, pleasure, and vain riches. And, of course, before you make that profession of faith on Holy Saturday evening, you will be asked to renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty promises.
For you, catechumens, Lent is a time of final preparations for that day, the day of your rebirth in Christ. Lent for you must resemble in some way the desert experience of Jesus. As Jesus prayed and fasted for 40 day, Lent must also be for us a time of prayer and fasting so that when Holy Saturday comes you will be ready to have your sins forgiven in the waters of Baptism. By your fasting and mortifications, you will learn – as all of us must learn – to say “no” to ourselves and to the sinful inclinations of our fallen human nature so that we might be more ready to “say yes” to God
The content of that yes to God is expressed in 10 Commandments. And it is important that we understand that the Commandments are not just a pack of prohibitions. Don’t allow yourselves to think of the obligations of you will assume as Catholics in that way. Sure, as Catholics you can’t miss Mass on Sunday nor can you dabble in any New Age superstitions, as Catholics you can’t use artificial contraceptives or support abortion or in vitro fertilization or sterilization, as Catholics you can’t have sex outside of marriage. Nor as Catholics you can cheat your employees or steal from your employers or spend your lives only chasing after material things. All this and much more is true; but, the commandments are not impositions on our lives or limitations to our freedom. The commandments actually put forth a great vision of life and show us the way to true freedom.
As Pope Benedict XVI said last January when he baptized some infants on the Feast of Our Lord’s Baptism: The 10 Commandments “are a “yes” to a God who gives meaning to life (the first three Commandments); a yes to the family (the 4th Commandment), a “yes” to life (the fifth commandment); a “yes” to responsible love (the sixth commandment); a “yes” to solidarity, to social responsibility to justice (the 7th Commandment); a “yes” to the truth, (the 8th commandment); a ”yes” to respect for others and for their belongings (9th and 10th commandments).” (Jan 8, 2006)
Again, to quote John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte, “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, 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.
Yes today you are enrolled in that number, you are chosen to be saints, to be Zanmi Bondye, friends of God. And now, of course, you begin your final preparations, now begins the desert experience, 40 more days to pray and fast, to find the strength to say “no” to whatever contradictions that remain in your lives that keep you from accepting the gift of baptism, from becoming a friend of God.
As the day of Baptism draws nearer – the day in which your conversion – your turning to God and turning away from sin – is solemnized in the Rites of Christian Initiations, remain steadfast in prayer and know that your Catholic brothers and sisters are praying for you, and awaiting with great joy your entry into the Church. Remember the words spoken over and over again in the Scriptures and repeat to us so often by Pope John Paul II: Be not afraid. Don’t be afraid to walk through life as a friend of God.
Last April, when Pope Benedict gave his first homily as Pope in St. Peter’s Square, he ended with these words, which I offer to you for your prayer and reflection as you complete your journey to Baptism. I quote: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? …No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. …Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”