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Why Did John the Baptist Baptize?

© Copyright John Salmon

Q. During Advent we hear Gospel readings about John the Baptist and his ministry. This month we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism by John. This, however, was not a Jewish practice, was it? Why was John baptizing in the first place?

A. You cannot find the word baptism or any of its derivatives in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Baptism was not an official part of Judaism as it reshaped itself during and after the Exile in Babylon (most of the sixth century B.C.). Baptism was, however, practiced unofficially by some Jewish people in the century before and after Jesus’ birth.

In this context, baptism was a sign of general repentance and thus could be repeated (as altar calls can be among Protestants). At Qumran on the west side of the Dead Sea, the Jews known as Essenes practiced a baptism of repentance during Jesus’ lifetime. Some scholars think this group may have influenced John’s ministry.

Around the same time, ritual baths for purification became more common among Jews in urban areas. These were obviously not possible during the desert years under Moses. If you go to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem today, you can see houses with ritual baths dating back almost 20 centuries.

Eventually, some confusion arose concerning the baptism conferred by John the Baptist and the Sacrament of Baptism given by Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew 3:11, John describes his baptism as being “with water” while Jesus’ Baptism will be “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

In Acts 8:14-17, the apostles in Jerusalem send Peter and John to baptize some Samaritans who had been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” but had not yet been baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Later we meet Apollos, a Jewish man instructed in the Way of the Lord (Christianity) but who “knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Priscilla and Aquila explained to him the Baptism that Jesus’ disciples used. In Ephesus, Paul rebaptized those who had received only the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-5).

The relationship of John’s baptism to Christian Baptism is directly addressed in Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8 and Luke 3:16.

Minimum Age for Readers at Mass?

Q. Is there a minimum age before someone can be designated as a reader at Mass? Must that person be confirmed?

A. There is no minimum age, and having received the Sacrament of Confirmation is not a requirement. Carrying out this service to the Church is a matter of someone’s ability to read effectively in a faith-filled way during public worship.

The Evangelist, the newspaper for the Diocese of Albany, New York, carried a story last August about Jackson Raimo, who was only nine years old when he began reading at St. Clare Church in Colonie, New York.

According to that article, some parishioners consider Jackson one of the best readers they have ever heard. Many people are edified at how seriously he takes this responsibility and how effectively he proclaims the Scriptures.

Obviously, not everyone is comfortable reading in public. That skill, however, is not confined to a particular age.

Is Scrupulosity a Sin?

Q. I’m having a difference of opinion with a friend who says that scrupulosity is a sin. I say it is not. What does the Catholic Church teach on this?

A. Genuine scrupulosity is not a free choice like preferring Snickers candy over Skittles. Scrupulosity is influenced by many factors beyond a person’s complete control. Although atheists can be scrupulous, we tend to describe their situation as seeking an impossible certainty or perfection.

We associate scrupulosity with a religious motivation, probably linked to a person’s mental image of God. If that is the case, there is some possibility of change once the individual realizes that no single mental image can represent God completely.

Someone whose scrupulosity is religiously related should seek the help necessary so that he or she can enjoy the inner freedom that flows from being made in God’s image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26).

We certainly need to reflect upon our decisions. Scrupulosity, however, is a continual agitation that maybe I could have made a better choice or perhaps God is angry with me over something that, in fact, a reasonable person would regard as not that important.

Under the heading “Scrupulosity” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Cyril James Harney, O.P., writes: “Deriving from the Latin scrupus, whose diminutive form scrupulus means a small sharp stone, scrupulosity signifies habitual and unreasonable hesitation, doubt, coupled with anxiety of mind, in connection with the making of moral judgments.

“The scrupulous person’s life journey has been aptly likened to that of a traveler whose pebble-filled shoes make every step painful and hesitant. Scruples render one incapable of making with finality the daily decisions of life.”

All the time and energy claimed by scrupulosity should be available for generously cooperating with God’s grace in a person’s life.

Is Gambling a Sin?

Q. Is it a sin to place a bet on a horse race? What about lotteries or betting on sports contests? What does the Catholic Church think about playing slot machines? At times it seems that the Church opposes gambling, but isn’t bingo a form of gambling?

A. Although gambling is not evil in itself (that is, under any and all circumstances), it has become an addiction for many people. Some experts say that more people are addicted to gambling than to alcohol. If someone bets money that is truly recreational (for example, not money for housing or a family’s food, clothing and health care), that is not sinful. But many gamblers cannot set a limit for how much they can lose without endangering their own welfare or that of others.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive [people] of what is necessary to provide for [their] needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement” (#2413).

That holds true for all forms of gambling.