Water rituals like baptism remind us of our constant need of cleansing and conversion.
Christians celebrate the baptism of Lord Jesus in the first fortnight of the year. Baptism — from Greek, baptiso — means “dyeing” or “washing”. Christians disagree about the when and how of baptism. Catholics perform “infant baptism” by affusion (pouring of water) and some Christian denominations baptise by aspersion (sprinkling of water), while Baptists practise “believer’s baptism” whereby adults are baptised by full immersion in water after professing personal belief in Christ. Differences notwithstanding, Jesus’ baptism is significant in many ways.
The gospel narratives portray Jesus, though sinless, standing in line with sinners, waiting to be baptised by John the Baptist. Knowing who Jesus is, John protests: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replies that he has come to save sinners. Indeed, when Christ’s birth is announced, his mother, Mary, is told: “You shall name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins.” In Aramaic, “Jesus” means “God saves”. Baptism, then, signifies salvation — a dying to sin and rising to new life.
Second, at Jesus’ baptism God’s voice is heard, saying, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Christians believe that baptism initiates one into God’s family, entrusted with the task of becoming an exemplary child of God by emulating the life of Christ.
Third, after his baptism, Jesus embarks upon his mission to proclaim the “good news” (gospel) of God being father-mother of all peoples, thereby stressing the need to inculcate virtues like love, joy, peace, justice, equality, fellowship and care for the earth.
This weekend, we remember an exemplary Indian Christian, Devasahayam Pillai (1712-1752), who belonged to an influential family and was put in charge of state affairs under the then Diwan of Travancore, Ramayyan Dalawa.
Upon learning about Jesus from his friend, Eustachius de Lannoy, Devasahayam opted for baptism as an adult in 1745. Truly, he seemed “dyed” in Christ-colour, for his life mirrored Christ-like love, joy, serenity, service and self-sacrifice.
After suffering many tortures, punishment and imprisonment on account of his faith, Pillai was shot dead on January 14, 1752. On December 2, 2012, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI declared him as “Blessed” — one step away from being declared “Saint”. His tomb is venerated at the St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu.
Water rituals like baptism remind us of our constant need of cleansing and conversion. Sacred rivers like the Ganga and Jordan challenge us to respond to the ebbs and flows of the lives of all God’s children. Martyrs like Pillai — dyed with godliness and ready to die for others — inspire us to so live that we’ll probably hear God whisper: “You are my beloved child. I am proud of you.”