The cleansing of our souls in Baptism is something that God showed us in various ways, long before Jesus called us to go out and do this for others. As St. Peter reminds us today, we see Baptism prefigured in Noah and his family. When he tells us this, he is trying to show us that, in the same way, it is an outward sign of something much deeper going on.
It is sometimes hard for us to think that something we do here and now could make a real spiritual change in our souls. This is understandable, after all, who are we to do such things; what difference could my actions have? The principle we must remember is that there are also many things which are very real, but we make them more real when we actually do something about it. Just like we can show someone we love them, we can experience something deeper in our relationship with God through actions.
Whether it is Baptism or any of the other sacraments, there is something real that we can’t quite grasp, and something physically real which helps us get closer to it. Just like a hug can’t possibly express everything about our love for someone, but there isn’t anything that can replace giving someone a hug, the same is true in Baptism and all the sacraments. As St. Peter says, it isn’t washing away dirt, it is an appeal to God through an action that demonstrates what we are trying to achieve. The washing demonstrates the real desire, by going through the actions required to wash ourselves. This shows God we really mean it, and helps us to experience something that helps us understand what is really happening.
When we do this in other circumstances, it usually comes very naturally. We get dressed up for special occasions, we have a special meal to celebrate milestones in our lives, we have birthday cakes. All of these are very similar to what we are doing in the sacraments, because all of these are ways we actually want to do something special, something we can touch, taste, feel, to make that event more special. In some ways we are making it more special, and in some ways the extra stuff we do is making it more special for us.
Let us not forget this Lent that the outward signs and actions of our lives are very important. They aren’t the ultimate reality, there will always be something more real behind them. But, these signs are important for us to have a way to express it, and to teach ourselves once more just how important these things are. May all our Lenten practices do both for us, so that the reality which we can’t quite express might be made more real. And, in turn, deepen the reality within us as well.