Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Mass for Babies who Died before Baptism

October 9, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 25:6-10a
Psalm 23
Mark 10:13-16

The Rite for Baptism of Infants calls for two anointings. The first anointing is to be administered by the priest and deacon with the Oil of Catechumens applied to the chest of the infant. This anointing is to take place before the Baptism is administered with the pouring of water. Then Baptism is administered by the priest or deacon by pouring the water over the head of the infant while saying simultaneously the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” There soon follows the second anointing with the Holy Chrism applied by the priest or deacon on the crown or forehead of the infant which signifies the newly baptized infant’s being anointed into the common priesthood, the prophetic office, and the kingship of Christ. Two anointings. One takes place before Baptism and the second one takes place after Baptism. Why?

In a way, the Oil of the Catechumens conveys the glad tidings to the poor who have yet to be made rich in Baptism. The Oil of the Catechumens reminds each of us that God is active in the salvation of human beings even before their Baptism, Confirmation, and full initiation in the Eucharist. The Oil of the Catechumens is symbolic of the preparation of a warrior before going into battle, the battle of Christ against evil. Christ prepares the catechumen, in this case the infant, to receive the grace of Baptism and that preparation is itself a grace of the Holy Spirit. It is the fruit of baptismal grace even as it anticipates baptismal grace.

The anointing with the Oil of the Catechumen is the Church’s way of reminding us that we should not take this grace for granted. Sacraments have been instituted by Christ for our sake and not for His sake. They are the ordinary means by which Christ offers us His grace through our membership in His Church. Yet, the saving power of Christ is not restricted to the administration of these sacraments by the Church, for Christ can and does work through extraordinary means for our salvation. We can have confidence of this in the matter of those infants who die either before birth or after birth but before being able to receive the sacrament of Baptism. This is most appropriately a confidence born more directly of hope having followed upon faith and leading us to charity — the theological virtues that are the heart of the grace of the Holy Spirit given us ordinarily through Baptism. If we do not rely on this confidence in God, our focus soon turns inward on ourselves and away from God and we can soon misunderstand the sacrament of Baptism as something we ourselves offer and give as an initiation into our own club thereby reducing the sacraments to a type of talisman or good luck charm.

We are rightly reminded of what Isaiah prophesied and what Christ alone has fulfilled in our reading from today’s Mass: “On this mountain He will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations. He will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; the reproach of His people He will remove from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken.”

This veil and this web have many strands that enshroud and ensnare us in estrangement from and enmity with ourselves, with others, and with God. The strand I would like to focus upon is that which is very frequently experienced by mothers and fathers whose child has died before Baptism is that of regret. Regret is not born of God but is an effect of sin. Regret draws us back into ourselves with an attentiveness that should rightly be directed towards God and His mercy and towards the children whom we commend to His care. Regret takes the form of “If only I had done this and not done that this death would not have happened.” We can too easily confuse regret with grief and repentance.

Our grief and repentance are holy because they have God as their focus and not ourselves or our sins as regret does. They are stones on the path of recognition and acceptance that God redeems all people at every point in life, not only the future and the present but also the past. As we the Church pray at the blessing of the new Easter candle at every Easter Vigil, “Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega, His are the times and ages. To Him be glory and dominion. Through all ages of eternity. By His Holy and glorious wounds, may He guard and preserve us Christ the Lord. May the light of Christ in glory rising again, dispel the darkness of heart and mind.” This is not simply a matter of our optimistic interpretation of the past. It is truly the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection that has changed the past in redemption.

Today we pray for all infants who have died before Baptism and in so doing we entrust them to God. His mercy is more powerful than sin and death. His mercy and His Grace lift the veil and unweave the web on no other terms but the terms of His unconditional love made real in Christ. He has set the terms and we do not and cannot. It is with confidence that we begin to sing now and will sing most joyfully in eternity: “Indeed, this is our God; we looked to Him, and He saved us! This is the LORD to whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that He has saved us!”

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