In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “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” (Romans 6:4).
In this verse, Paul is saying that at our baptism, we are “buried” with Jesus and then “raised” to a new life with him. He tells us that the outward signs of baptism— water, oil, light, a white robe—are intricately tied to the inward work of regeneration that God does in everyone at their baptism. Each of us becomes“dead to sin and living for God” (Romans 6:11).
In today’s Gospel passage, John the Baptist talks about baptism as well. Only here he is saying that Jesus has come to baptise us not with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
So what’s the difference?
Water baptism washes us from original sin and brings us into a new relationship with God. Baptism “in the Spirit” is what happened to the apostles on Pentecost, when they were filled with the power and boldness of God. They were baptised into the life of the Holy Spirit, who then worked his wonders in them and through them.
Scripture tells us that our God is a “consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17). This baptism by the Spirit and fire is God’s way of setting a fire in our hearts so that we will want to go out and share his love. It’s his way of making us more like Jesus, who wanted to please the Father in everything he said and did. It’s his way of building his Church—by empowering his people to do the works that Jesus did. What an honour to receive the Spirit this way!