Saturday, January 12, 2019

Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isa 42:1-4.6-7; Ps 29:1-4.9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Luke 3:15-16; 21-22

At least for Roman Catholics in the United States, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings the liturgical season of Christmas to an end. It was wonderful to baptize two children on the penultimate day of Christmas (as with "juxtapose," I always look for opportunities to use "penultimate"). This morning I had the privilege and pleasure of baptizing a seven year-old girl and her three year-old brother. Their parents were formally received into full communion with the Catholic Church last Sunday, on Epiphany.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I was privileged to baptize a 2-week old infant. This Baptism occurred at the parish in which, at 24, I was baptized during the Easter Vigil of 1990: St Catherine of Siena Newman Center. Of course, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year C of the Sunday Lectionary cycle (this liturgical year), we read about the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the house of her kinswoman, Elizabeth- the mother of John the Baptist. Like Mary, but unlike her husband, Zechariah, Elizabeth believed and responded to God's loving initiative with love and fidelity. What made celebrating the Baptism of little Millie-Josephine on this day so special was that her parents had been trying and deeply desiring to have a child for quite a few years. Prior to her conception, Millie-Jo's Mom and Dad were going through arduous process of adopting a child, something they found to be nearly as discouraging as not being able to conceive.

Needless to say, Baptism has been much on my mind since the Third Week of Advent when I began preparing for these Baptisms. I love that the primary option for today's New Testament reading is from the portion of the Acts of the Apostles that tells us of a Second Pentecost- the Pentecost of the Gentiles (see "Year B Sixth Sunday of Easter"). The message of this reading is clear: "God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34b-35). These days, at least in advanced Western societies, the assertion that anyone who "fears" God is acceptable to him doesn't typically evoke more than a shrug of the shoulders. This shoulder shrug, I think, can be attributed to Christian influence, even as we can acknowledge those times in history, some not so long ago, when Christians have acted contrary to this truth and been unfaithful to God's revelation in Christ. Suffice it to say, at that time the assertion that God shows no partiality was revolutionary, especially in the almost exclusively Judaic milieu of the primitive Christian Church. Our reading from Acts gives us part of Peter's Spirit-led preaching at the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius (for the whole thing see Acts 10:34-43)

Largely thanks to marketing, which trumpets many things as "revolutionary," to say something was "revolutionary" doesn't mean much. It is important to bear in mind, however, that up until that point the status of Gentiles in the nascent Christian church was very unclear, But then, it's very likely the case Christian Gentiles were practically non-existent. Those Gentiles who were Christians were probably also observant Jewish converts. Stated simply, the primitive Church in Jerusalem remained deeply rooted in Judaism. Hence, it was not entirely distinguishable, even to its members, as something other than a form of Messianic Judaism.

In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul more clearly expounds the revolutionary nature of what happened at Cornelius's house- the second Pentecost event:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:27-29)

Using the passage from Isaiah 42 as our first reading we can make reference not only Jesus's Baptism by John in the river Jordan but to his confirmation as well: "Upon [my servant] I have put my spirit" (Is 42:1). Yes, Jesus's identity as the Only Begotten Son of the Father in the flesh, which was revealed in Baptism, was confirmed as he came up out of the water and "the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased'" (Luke 3:22). There was not a bishop in miter and crozier with a vial of Chrism waiting on the other side of the Jordan. Rather, he was anointed with the Spirit and his divine Sonship was announced by the Father.

Moreover, the passage from Isaiah 42 focuses on God bringing about justice through his anointed servant. It was to bring about justice in the world that God called Israel. Jesus, the Messiah (i.e., "Anointed"), is the crowning achievement of what God accomplished through Israel. It is Christ who opens "the eyes of the blind," who brings "out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness" (Isa 42:7).

Thinking back to last week, we discussed the difference between an epiphany and a theophany, Jesus's Baptism is truly "an appearance of God," which is what θεοφάνεια (transliterates as theophaneia) means. Are you looking for the Trinity in Sacred Scripture? Jesus's Baptism, an account of which is included each of the four canonical Gospels, is a great one. The theophany that occurred at Jesus's Baptism also sanctified water. Rather than being an element of destruction, as it was in the flood and for the Egyptians in Red Sea, by Christ Baptism water became the matter of salvation, our way of deliverance, like the ancient Israelites fleeing Pharoah's army, that through which we are reborn as God's children, that into which we are buried after we "paschally" die and from which we rise to new life, eternal life.

When you were baptized you were reborn as a child of God through Christ by the power of their holy Spirit. When one considers Baptism in light of the reality that every human being bears the imago Dei (the image of God), it becomes clear that Baptism makes what is implicit in us explicit. It's like when a detectorist (i.e., someone who searches for treasures using a metal detector) detects something metallic. Once she digs the object up, it is typically covered with mud. And so, to see what it is and if it is of value, the detectorist must wash it with water. Like all analogies, this one limps, because even before you are baptized you are worth more to God than you will ever possibly imagine. Just as Christ's identity was revealed at his Baptism by his subsequent Confirmation, our identity as God's adopted children (through Christ by the power of their Spirit) is revealed in Baptism and strengthened in Confirmation.

Baptism, then, is the fundamental sacrament of Christian life. It is important to state this fact very clearly because very often for both laity and clergy alike people view ordination as the apex of Christian life. Of course, the source and summit of life together in Christ (there is no life in Christ that is not together) is the Eucharist. Every Eucharist seeks to include all the baptized. It is a very human tendency to want to exclude others, those who are different, those who do not meet one's standards, belong to one's tribe, or do not, in your view, consistently "keep the rules," etc. But in Baptism we made all the commitment we need to be Christians: we renounced sin and the devil and professed our Father God, Father, Son, and holy Spirit.

In short, what continues to scandalize people, what continues to scandalize far too many Christians, is the radical inclusivity of the Gospel. Well, it's not called Good News for nothing! Learning to get over yourself and not only welcoming but inviting others to "Come and see" (John 1:39) is what your Baptism bids you do with all the acceptance and hospitality with which Christ and his Church welcomed you. This is the justice of God. God's justice (in Hebrew מִשְׁפָט, or mishpat) cannot be separated from God's lovingkindness (in Hebrew חֶסֶד or ḥesed)

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