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When I baptized a baby recently, one of the folks in attendance felt that she had missed something.
Approaching me afterwards in the narthex, she asked, “Didn’t we used to put salt in the baby’s mouth?”
Yes, the hypothetical “we” did do that before the ritual commonly used now was adopted. I guess it had been five decades or more since our visitor had witnessed a baptism.
The salt in question symbolized wisdom, which is one of the gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit—in fact, it’s usually the first gift mentioned.
The salt was left out of the ritual that was promulgated after the Second Vatican Council, but the Holy Spirit was not.
The salt—like the holy oil, the chrism, the white garment, and the candle—was a symbol of the grace we receive in baptism, but the grace comes from the Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus, not from the signs and symbols.
Still, the material things we use in our rituals are important, because they emphasize the connection between the physical world and its Creator, between the realities of our daily lives and the reality of God.
This is a critical point. I believe that many people become disillusioned with religious faith because they have been conditioned to think of God as existing in a reality other than the one we experience every day. God is always “there,” not “here.”
At a certain point in the intellectual growth of many people, I believe, they find this concept—quite reasonably—untenable.
But those who studied under the old Baltimore Catechism will remember the answer to the question, “Who is God?” The answer was: “God is the Supreme Being who made all things and keeps them in existence.”
Each of us and everything that we can perceive with our senses at this moment exist only because God is willing it—now. God doesn’t exist in another reality; he exists in this reality.
In the symbols and gestures of baptism, God is so present in our reality that he touches us repeatedly.
Yes, there’s a minister there, and he has oil and chrism and white linen and flame at his disposal, but it is God, using the minister and the material signs to touch us.
And he touches us, perhaps most significantly, in an audible sign, in the first words of the ritual, when the minister asks the parents, “What name do you give your child?”
Before I ask this question, I always explain that it is a sign that God calls each of us by name—meaning that each of us has a unique relationship with God in which God both cares for us as his children and calls on us to be—through our particular vocations—the ministers of his compassion and generosity and justice.
The child, of course, knows none of this, which is why its parents and godparents are asked if they accept the responsibility of raising the child in the practice of the faith.
Today’s new parents are unlikely to have tasted salt at their baptism, but they were visited by the Holy Spirit nonetheless, and they were offered the divine gifts, including wisdom.
We can do nothing more important in the Church than to accompany parents in a way that ignites that wisdom, reminds them of the grace of their own baptism, and inspires them to raise their children to live as God’s missionaries wherever life takes them.
RENEW International is developing Baptism Matters, a program that will reinforce for new parents, godparents, and parish staff the importance of baptism as initiation into a life of Christian discipleship.
This post was initially published in
The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese.

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Be with us, Jesus,
as we go about our lives this week.
Watch over our days and nights.
Help us be aware
that the lives we lead each day
are our response
to the great love shown to us
in your coming into this world.
We pray in the name of the Father,
you, the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, Cycle C, © RENEW International

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“And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way (Matthew 2:9-12).

The Epiphany commemorates the coming of the Savior to all people, not only the Jewish people. God’s love leaves no one untouched.

God revealed himself to the magi in signs in the stars. As Christians, we must be guided in our search not by the stars but by Scripture.

Signs come in all forms: they may include the love we receive from someone, a good example someone sets by trying to live by the Gospel, an insight that comes in our prayer and reflection, or even a sickness or tragedy in our lives. It is up to us to pay attention and read the signs around us. If we look with openness and with the eyes of faith, these signs will lead us to God.

This feast is also a feast of unity. Jesus came to all, and we are all one under God’s love. As we reach out to those who are looked down upon or those who are considered outsiders, we do our part to bring about the unity for which God sent his Son to us.

In what ways can you reach out to those who might feel excluded?

Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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Heavenly Father,
we ask you to keep us from taking the ordinary
so much for granted.
Help us be patient with each other.
Help us appreciate all people and
see anew the mystery of godliness within them.
Give us the humility to ask for the forgiveness we need
and the generosity to offer our own forgiveness
to others in return.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ,
in union with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, Cycle C, © RENEW International

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familyA reading from the Book of the First Book of Samuel
(Chapter 3:20-22, 24-28)
This is a heart-warming and heartbreaking story, especially for those of us who are parents. Many of us have prayed for a child as Hannah did and were overjoyed when that child was born. I suspect that none of us would do what Hannah did nor would we ever be asked to do so. This story, however, took place thousands of years ago in a different culture. Hannah did what she thought was right and, in a sense, sacrificed the life of her child to God’s service. He did indeed perform great service to God and to God’s people.
Sometimes, we make sacrifices for our children and for others, and make do them with some pain but also with the joy of giving from deep in our hearts.
Responsorial Psalm
(Psalm 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5)
“Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.” The expression “fear the Lord” has been misunderstood for centuries and has been used to frighten and mislead people into both spiritual and emotional illness. The fear of the Lord that the Psalmist is talking about is not the cringing, debilitating fear that drains the joy from people and keeps them from the all-powerful and all-forgiving love of God. The real meaning of the word “fear” in Hebrew is awe and wonder at God’s great power and might.
Are you truly in awe of God, enthralled with his goodness, in wonder of his great creation? Or are you still caught up in the words you may have heard in your childhood: “You better be good, or God will punish you.” How you answer that question may either bring you a powerful sense of God’s peace and protection or encourage that little voice that sometimes in your head that says, “You’re not good enough.”
A reading from the first Letter of Saint John
(Chapter 3:1-2, 21-24)
Saint John is writing to people who have been shunned by their fellow Jews and persecuted by the ruling Roman Empire. These Christians risk their lives every day. What do they have to show for it? First, they are the “children of God.” “They shall be like him.” They “shall see him as he is.” And, “the way that we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” That’s not bad for anyone but especially for people who were on the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Imagine that you are being told that you are like God, that you will see him face to face, and that his very Spirit lives in you right now. That was John’s great message then, and it is ours now. This is what we have been told. This is who we are. God’s Spirit lives in us, now and always.
As we celebrate this feast of the Holy Family, we need not only to look into the past at the family of Jesus but also to look into our own families. We can rediscover the Spirit that can help us heal all our wounds, including those that we inflict on one another. We can celebrate the Spirit-filled family that we are, despite our faults and insufficiencies, and forgive each other as the Father forgives us.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
(Chapter 2:41-52)
Some years ago, I read a novel about a man who takes his daughter, his only child, to the supermarket and has her sitting in the shopping cart as they reach the checkout. She asks him to take her down and let her stand behind him as he puts the items on the counter. Against his better judgement, he agrees, and when he is finished and turns around, she is gone. He never sees her again even though he spends the rest of his life looking for her.
Losing a child, even for a while, is a horrifying experience. Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt. They knew how special Jesus was, and now he was nowhere to be found. How distraught they must have been until they found him in the temple conversing with the teachers.
Mary “kept all these things in her heart” until one day when she lost her son for what may have seemed to her forever. But a short time later she had him back in a new life that he shares with her and offers to share with all of us—life in his presence forever.
Excerpts from the English translation of the Lectionary for Mass © 1969, 1981, 1997, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation (ICEL). All rights reserved.
Bill Ayres was a founder, with the late singer Harry Chapin, of WhyHunger. He has been a radio and TV broadcaster for 40 years and has two weekly Sunday-night shows on WPLJ, 95.5 FM in New York. He is a member of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Centerport, New York.

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