Why be a Catholic?

Why be a Catholic? Why bother? Is it about being a good person? Or fitting into a family, a culture or a group of people? What exactly is the point of practicing the Catholic faith?

It might not be obvious at first, but these basic questions are addressed in today's Gospel reading and in this celebration of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. They are answered, in part, when we consider a question posed by this feast: Why was Jesus baptized? If, after all, baptism is for the remission of sins, why would the sinless, holy Son of God insist he go under the waters of baptism?

Not surprisingly, many of the Church Fathers contemplated this question. They recognized that God, in becoming man, had made a startling, transforming statement about the material world. All that has been created is good, and good things such as water, oil, bread and wine will be used by God to bring grace and impart divine life.

The baptism of Christ was a cosmic blessing; it expressed the profound gift of God's divine life. "Do you see, beloved," wrote Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236), "how many great blessings we would have lost if the Lord had yielded to the exhortation of John and declined baptism? For the heavens had been shut before this." By being baptized, Hippolytus explained, the Creator was creating anew: "So it happened not only that the Lord was being baptized -- he also was making new the old creation. He was bringing the alienated under the scepter of adoption."

God did not become man, in other words, merely to make man more moral, or to help people get along better. "In his Son and through him," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, God "invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life" (No. 1). This is the message of Christmas, as described by St. Paul: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Gal 4:4-5).

The Holy Spirit descended at the baptism of Christ and revealed the Trinity; he also disclosed the sanctifying work brought to man by the Incarnation, and by the death and resurrection of the Son. "The Spirit is the one who testifies," St. John writes in today's epistle, "and the Spirit is truth." There are, he noted, three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood. These three "are of one accord," for they testify to the truth and to the One who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. All three are necessary for true baptism: the Holy Spirit fills man with new life, the water signifies the destruction of original sin and the infusion of divine life, and the blood of Christ regenerates man and restores his communion with God.

Later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus identified his baptism with his approaching death: "You do not know what you are asking," he said to James and John. "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" When they insisted on being able, he replied, "The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized" (Mk 10:38-39). Only through the death of Christ can we be baptized; only by baptism can we share in his life (see Rom 6:1-11).

John's baptism of water brought repentance, but more was needed. "So then John," explained St. Ambrose, "who was a type of the law, came baptizing for repentance, while Christ came to offer grace." That grace, which is the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, makes man holy. It makes man a son of God. That's why we are Catholic.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.