When we think of imitating Jesus, we think of becoming more compassionate and more forgiving. This is absolutely true. Yet, St. Paul understands that beneath our imitation of Jesus in our behavior is a more fundamental imitation of actually dying with Jesus by entering into His death, and rising with Him by entering into His Resurrection.
In today’s second reading, Paul asks: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).
What connection is there between baptism and the death of Jesus? St. Thomas Aquinas observes that Baptism gives us “some likeness of Christ Jesus” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Romans, 473). Paul says, “For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).
How does Baptism allow us to “put on Christ,” specifically “His death”? According to Thomas, Baptism allows us to enter “into a likeness of His death as re-presenting in ourselves the very death of Christ” (Commentary on Romans, 473). Paul talks of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus (2 Cor 4:10) and declares, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (Gal 6:17).
The Book of Revelation reminds us that Jesus frees us from sin by His blood: “He freed us from our sins by His blood” (Rev 1:5). This freedom from sin comes us through Baptism as Thomas relates the Sacrament of Baptism with the “blood and water” that flowed from Jesus’ side after His death (John 19:34).
Thomas compares Jesus’ physical dying with our dying to sin: “Just as we are configured to His death, inasmuch as we have died to sin, so He has died to His mortal life, in which there was the likeness of sin, although no sin was there. Therefore all we who are baptized are dead to sin” (Commentary on Romans, 473).
Paul’s affirmation that we are “buried with Him” is brought out more clearly by the traditional form of Baptism by immersion in which the person being baptized actually goes into the water. Thomas notes: “By baptism, we are buried with Christ, i.e., conformed to His burial. For just as a buried person is put under the earth, so one being baptized is submerged under water” (Commentary on Romans, 474).
In the Catholic Rite of Baptism, there are three immersions or three pouring of water connected with the names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, (the priest or deacon immerses the child/adult or pours water upon the child’s/adult’s head), and of the Son, (he immerses the child/adult or pours water upon him/her a second time), and of the Holy Spirit (he immerses the child or pours water upon him/her a third time).”
Thomas understands that the three immersions are not only Trinitarian but relate to Jesus’ burial: “There are three immersions in baptism not only to indicate belief in the Trinity but also to represent the three days of Christ’s burial” (Commentary on Romans, 474).
Thomas acknowledges that usually a person dies before he or she is buried, “But in the spiritual order the burial of baptism causes the death of sin, because the Sacraments of the new law bring about what they signify” (Commentary on Romans, 475).
Thomas makes an important point. The sacraments are signs that bring about what the sign indicates: “Since the burial that occurs through baptism is a sign of the death of sin it produces such a death in the baptized… Paul says, ‘we are buried… into death,’ so that in receiving in ourselves the sign of Christ’s burial we might obtain death to sin” (Commentary on Romans, 475).
In recognizing that the early Church celebrated Baptism on Holy Saturday, Thomas connects baptism with Christ’s burial. In affirming that Baptism was also celebrated on the Vigil of Pentecost, Thomas calls attention to the role of the Spirit: “… in honor of the Holy Spirit, from whom the water of baptism derives its power to cleanse: ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jn 3:5)’” (Commentary on Romans, 474).
Paul reflects on the relationship of Baptism with our being incorporated with Christ’s Resurrection: “As Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
Thomas observes that our “likeness to the Resurrection” is “by the Father’s power, by which the Father Himself is glorified.” For Thomas, walking “in newness of life’ is to “advance in life through good works” (Commentary on Romans, 476).
Thomas understands that sin brings a breaking down, similar to that of old age but “… whatever leads to restoration, i.e., being without sin, is called newness of life: ‘your youth is renewed like the eagle’s’ (Ps 103:50); … be renewed in the spirit of your minds’ (Ep 4:25) (Commentary on Romans, 476).
Paul continues: “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Rom 6:8). Thomas explains, “If we are dead to sin by virtue of Christ’s death,” we “live in the likeness of His life. We shall live the life of grace here and the life of glory in the future” (Commentary on Romans, 486).
Paul asserts: “As to His death, He died to sin once and for all; as to His life, He lives for God” (Rom 6:10). Thomas notes that this doesn’t mean that Christ sinned: “Sin had no place whatever in Him, ‘who did not know sin’ (1 Pet 2:22)” (Commentary on Romans, 487).
Thomas explains “Christ died to take away sin: ‘for our sake He made Him who knew no sin to be sin” (2 Cor 5:21), i.e. a victim of sin. In another way, because He died to the life of sinful flesh, i.e. to a suffering and mortal body: ‘God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom 8:3)” (Commentary on Romans, 489).
In both ways, Christ died once: “He wiped out all sin through one death: ‘by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified’ (Heb 10:14). Therefore, He does not need to die again for sin: ‘for Christ also died for sins once for all’ (1 Pet:18)… ‘Just as it was appointed for men to die once, so Christ also was offered once to bear the sins of many’ (Heb 9:27)” (Commentary on Romans, 489).
Paul states: “… as to His life, He lives for God” (Rom 6:10). Elsewhere, Paul writes: “He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4).
Paul continues: “So do you also reckon that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, to Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:11). Thomas reflects: “We are conformed to the life of the risen Christ both with respect to its death to sin … never to return to it, and with respect to living conformed to God” (Commentary on Romans, 491). Paul announces: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2:20).
We are not able to do this on our own but “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thomas affirms: “… through Jesus Christ, through whom we die to sin and live to God; or, in Christ Jesus, i.e., as incorporated into Christ Jesus, that by His death we may die to sin and by His resurrection live to God: ‘ He made us alive together with Christ, by whose grace you have been saved through Christ’ (Eph 2:5).
We realize that even Baptism does not keep us from sin once and for all. It is a process by which Jesus continues to save us from sin and to enable us to live for God.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.,
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans are taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, pp. 159-166.