Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 22:1-14 describing a king that is hosting a wedding banquet for his son. The initial guests do not respond positively and so servants are sent out to the all the edges of the kingdom to invite everyone they find. The feast is filled with people, but there is one more step in the parable. The king encounters one guest without a wedding garment. The guest cannot explain why he is lacking one, and so is removed from the party. This parable can actually give us some powerful insights into our baptism! (This is a longer post, so if you just want the summary, jump to the bottom…)
Baptism is the first sacrament one receives in the Catholic Church, and is the gateway to all of the others. It restores the wound of original sin, forgives personal sin, and elevates us to supernatural life. We speak of ourselves as a child of God the Father, a brother or sister of Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. However, over the years some have raised objections to our practice of baptism, so let’s look at how we might use this parable to clear up confusion.
First, some have objected to the idea of baptism as emphasizing human action in salvation—in other words, that *we* save them by baptism rather than God. Instead, they would argue we are saved by faith alone. Giving this much importance to baptism was a later corruption from the Gospel teaching. It would be like inviting ourselves to the king’s banquet.
In contrast, we believe that God’s action is actually primary in baptism. God freely sends forth the invitation, and baptism is our response. What’s more, baptism isn’t a response that we created. It is the covenant sign that God has instituted to give this grace. Christ clearly teaches it before the Ascension (Matthew 28:19), and it is the instruction that Peter gives on Pentecost when the people ask what they should do: “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:37-38). Likewise, after hearing Philip explain the Gospel, the Ethiopian’s first response is to ask if he can be baptized (Acts 8:35-36). Baptism was included as part of the essential preaching in this first generation of the Church. Additionally, they speak of baptism as more than just a sign. It contains power to save: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Again, the importance we give to baptism flows from the Gospel, not just human custom. It is by baptism that God gives us the “wedding garment” (to use the image of the parable). It isn’t based on superstition (saying certain actions will force God to do something), but based on God’s covenantal promise (in which he has said he will be faithful to this sacrament). The grace of the sacrament comes from God, not the human minister.
Another question that often comes up is about infant baptism. Why do we baptize those who cannot understand the meaning or assent? Here is another place that we can see the Catholic emphasis on the divine initiative. The grace God sends is his free gift, and Scripture gives us evidence of his willingness to even bless little children. Jesus rebukes his disciples from preventing little children from coming to him for a blessing (Mark 10:13). Scripture witnesses to entire families being baptized (e.g., Acts 16:33, Acts 18:8). Paul also draws a parallel with circumcision (cf. Colossians 2:11-12), which was celebrated on the eighth day after birth. Last, we can also look at the witness of the early Church, where infant baptism was clearly practiced without raising the objection that this was contrary to the teaching of the apostles.
A final objection may flow from this: what about the freedom of the child? Or, similarly, the freedom of an adult that has been baptized? If it is a gift that God freely gives, is it possible for us to lose it? This claim is often described as holding “once saved, always saved.”
Here the final section of our wedding banquet parable comes into play—in which the king removes a guest for lacking a wedding garment. The king approaches the guest and gives him an honest chance to explain himself, but the guest is reduced to silence. It is not that he has been unable to purchase a garment because of need (the king gave it to him), or that it was stolen by another against his will (true sin requires freedom). The guest is reduced to silence because the truth is that he has consented to its loss. He did not value it highly enough among his other concerns. Likewise, the grace of baptism is a relationship that is entrusted to us. It is represented in the baptism ceremony by the white garment the person wears—a direct connection with the “wedding garment.” We do not baptize those without a hope that they will be brought up in an environment to foster this relationship. A child is free to consent to this grace or reject it later in life. An analogy would be that we do not fault parents for seeking to start an infant on a healthy diet, even if that child might later reject it and choose junk food. A parent can’t choose to raise a child in an empty context, and so baptism provides a context of grace and blessing that can later be embraced or not by the individual.
We also do not re-baptize someone that has “lost” this garment. Rather, we believe that it is restored through repentance—especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession, which was sometimes called the “baptism of tears.” This emphasis on a single baptism was even included in the Creed written by the early Church. Like marriage, baptism begins a relationship that must be continued. A couple is going to have trouble if they think the relationship won’t require more work after the wedding! They renew their promises day after day, but don’t need to re-marry each other after a fight. Baptism establishes a permanent relationship, but one that still respects our freedom and calls for a response.
To summarize, the parable of the wedding banquet gives a great analogy for our understanding of baptism. God has freely invited us to partake of his life (invited us to the feast). He has instituted this sacred sign (sacrament) to give us this life (the wedding garment). This is not a gift to neglect or forget, but a relationship to be lived and nourished (a garment to be worn, not to be lost). May God renew us in this grace daily!