Our parish has a Q&A feature in which staff members tackle the queries left in a comment box or e-mailed to the parish. I volunteered to reply to the question titled above:
The root of this principle is in John 3:3-5, and it reads:
Jesus said to (Nicodemus), “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
Scripture scholars note that the Greek word ἄνωθεν (anothen) means both “from above” and “again.” Jesus seems to be referring to the first meaning, and Nicodemus seems to misinterpret the Lord, taking the second meaning.
Misunderstandings aside, the notion of being reborn in baptism, in “water and Spirit,” tells of the great significance of the sacrament, and of the commitment to the Christian life it implies. Jesus certainly preaches that those who wish to see and participate in the kingdom of God will experience such a momentous change in their lives, that the notion of a second birth is not an exaggeration.
Many Christians speak of being “born again,” as a graced event in which people, usually adults, experience the Lord in such a significant way that it’s like a whole new life for them. And ideally, this is what all Christians should experience when they commit themselves to Jesus Christ. The question might be raised: does it happen only once? Or is it possible, through a continuing conversion, to go progressively deeper into a Christian commitment to God? The witness of the saints might suggest that this continuing experience is the mark of a godly life.
In baptism, and even as infants, Catholics are “born again,” in the sense Jesus means: “being born of water and Spirit.” It’s no accident that the baptismal font at our parish was designed to suggest a tomb, and that in baptism we participate in death and rebirth, as Saint Paul describes, “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)
As a child grows, an openness to God’s grace is necessary. The same is true for adults. Baptism is not a magical event, and neither is the evangelical or charismatic experience of being “born again.” Each of these experiences is an opportunity for God’s grace to work in us. But we always have the freedom to choose: we can close ourselves off from divine grace, or we can cooperate with God’s will and live out a Christian life after being “born from above.”
Image Credit: painter Edward Tanner (1899), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.