Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. God speaks of “my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.” This servant will bring “true justice to the nations” and will open the eyes of the blind, free captives, and free those who live in darkness. Luke describes the scene where many believed that John the Baptist may be the Christ. John dispelled this and baptized many, including Jesus. After Jesus’ baptism a dove came from Heaven and a voice proclaimed: “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.”
Last week I spoke about Epiphany and how it continues to matter to us even to this day. This week we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and it also continues to matter to us, but for different reasons.
Just as we commemorate Epiphany by continuing to gift each other and recognize the Divine in each other, we commemorate Jesus’ baptism by continuing to baptize. But baptism appears to be unique to Christians.
From our earliest experiences as humans we’ve recognized that water plays a significant role in our lives. Noah’s Ark tells us that too much water can kill: other than Noah and his family, along with a pair of all animals, every living thing drowned. For them water was fatal.
At the same time we recognize that much of the ancient world sought fresh water and recognized that without it both they and their flocks could not survive. For them water was vital for life.
But until John the Baptist we didn’t see water as a vehicle of initiation. Jews of Jesus’ time presented newborns to the Temple (and circumcised their sons) but it was understood that children were members of the community from their birth. In the same way, children born into the Roman Empire were understood to worship pagan gods and nobody thought about whether they “belonged.”
We Christians are different. From our earliest days we saw baptism, and the role of water, in terms of welcoming someone into our community. A child born to a Christian couple was not assumed to be Christian until that child experienced a water ritual. It’s worth noting that while Jesus was brought gifts as an infant, he didn’t begin his public ministry until he was baptized.
From that day until today virtually all Christians have viewed baptism as an initiation, a way of entering the community of believers. And while Protestant Christians have abandoned many Catholic rituals, virtually every Christian sect continues to recognize and celebrate baptism.
Let us fast forward 2000 years. Full disclosure: I don’t remember this. But they tell me that when I was 19 days old I was taken to St. Agnes Catholic Church along with my parents and godparents and was baptized, much like Jesus was by John the Baptist.
Candidly, I have to admit that they all breathed a sigh of relief when I was baptized because of a belief that I think nearly nobody still believes. Catholics like myself see baptism as the first of the seven sacraments and much of our faith rests on these sacraments. That’s good as far as it goes, but within a few centuries after Jesus’ baptism many believed that only Christians (ie only those baptized) would enter Heaven. For much of our history families all over the world suffered from high rates of infant mortality. So what do we do with infants who die before baptism?
I say this with great embarrassment and humility but we made a poor decision. Rather than depend on God’s mercy we invented something called “limbo.” It was a place that wasn’t Heaven but it also a place devoid of suffering. Those who advocated a belief in limbo hoped it would placate grieving parents. It didn’t. Fortunately in the last half century most of us (and official Catholic teaching) have abandoned the concept of limbo and instead have gone all in with a belief that an all loving God will not abandon anyone.
But it’s also given us an interesting question about baptism: when should someone be baptized? John the Baptist baptized adults (including Jesus) who were able to ask for participation in what we now recognize as the Christian faith.
Today many Christians defer baptism until a child reaches adolescence. They believe that a person should not be baptized until he (or she) can ask for it with a mature voice. They believe that salvation should not be offered until it is requested.
I understand this, but do no agree. Several years ago I served in a parish in South Carolina and I found myself in a conversation with a fellow parishioner. Even though he was Catholic and even though he baptized his children as infants, he suggested to me that nobody should be forced to follow Christ without consent.
I understood what he was saying, and I well understand that baptism places us on a path that commands us to care for the poor and love even the unlovable. I told him that the decision to follow Christ wasn’t an intellectual ascent but instead demands that we embrace a moral compass that comes from our family.
I told him that when a couple welcomes a child into their family they tell this to their child: “Before you knew who you were and before you knew who we were, we knew you. Our parents gifted us with an understanding of God and the salvation of Jesus Christ and we gift you with this understanding. This will create for you a moral compass that will enrich your life beyond anything you can imagine.”
When Jesus was baptized the Holy Spirit he was told that he was God’s beloved son in whom he was well pleased. If today’s baptism tells us nothing else, it tells us that the Holy Spirit tells us the same thing.
My godparents, Duane and Rachel, have passed. I don’t remember when I was baptized but I know that when I was baptized I was loved by my parents, my godparents, and my God.
I know that I was welcomed into a Christian community that has nourished me from the day I was born.