Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord

Is 42:1-4,6-7
Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Mk 1:7-11

Those of us who are more than halfway to 100 years old or older will remember the Art Linkletter show.  It was black and white TV at its best.  The show’s most popular feature by far was a live segment titled, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  Truer words have rarely been spoken.  Kids do say the darndest things. But they frequently get it right.

A few years ago four year-old Sophie was looking at pictures of her 18 month-old sister’s baptism.  Looking at  the usual group photo taken near the baptismal font she began pointing to various participants:  That’s Maya.  Here’s mommy.  That’s daddy.  That's nana and grandpop.  That’s me.  She said that giggling with the particular note of pride typical of children.  She then pointed to the priest in his white vestments and asked, “Is that Jesus?”  Daddy and mommy dissolved into helpless laughter (Note: Daddy in particular was hysterical with laughter because I was the priest.  Both parents are psychiatrists with dad having been my chief when I was training director at Georgetown).  In reality Sophie got it right.  She got it right not by confusing the priest with Jesus.  She got it right by seeing Jesus present at Maya’s baptism. 

In the Church, the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season.  Tomorrow we resume ordinary time until the beginning of Lent on February 18th,  Ash Wednesday.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of His public ministry. 

That Jesus was baptized is indisputable.  All four Gospels give accounts of it.  As usual, the details vary across the Gospels.  John’s description is particularly murky.  However, the importance of Jesus’ baptism does not hinge on how it was performed, whether it was total immersion, pouring water over His head, or something in between.  The importance of Jesus’ baptism hinges on its significance, and thus on the significance of baptism for each of the faithful.  This is where Sophie’s question becomes both relevant and theologically sophisticated.  Both of the readings, the psalm, and the Gospel illuminate the significance of Jesus' baptism for us.

The majority of Old Testament readings during Advent and the Christmas season are from Isaiah, with particular emphasis on the servant songs from the latter part of the book.  The servant described in today’s reading accomplishes his mission with quiet strength rather than brute force.  The images of the bruised reed or smoldering wick need explanation.  One commentator notes that the images indicate the servant’s gentle respect for others and perhaps his awareness of a hint of strength in their weakness.  What better description is there for Jesus in His public life?  Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, Jesus who cleansed lepers, Jesus who prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Peter’s writing in Acts elaborates Isaiah’s prophecy.  But, rather than speaking prophetically he is speaking historically with a brief synopsis of Jesus’ baptism by John and His ministry, a ministry that was possible only because “God was with Him.” 

Peter’s statement that God shows no partiality is a central theological tenet.  “In truth I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”  It is unimportant whether we are socially elite or oppressed, it is insignificant whether we are economically disadvantaged or wealthy, it is irrelevant whether we belong to the in-crowd or are hopelessly nerdy.  Our status does not make us acceptable to God.  How we respond to His goodness, how we respond to His presence in our lives, is what makes us and our offering acceptable to God.  Living in faith is what ultimately matters. 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters
The LORD over the vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty
The voice of the LORD is majestic.

The psalm reflects the Gospel in which we hear God’s voice as Jesus emerges from the water:  “You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased.”  John’s role as herald is over.  The one whose coming he prophesied in his preaching has come. 

There are three ways to understand baptism in the New Testament.  The first is the most obvious:  washing.  Washing is the literal meaning of the Greek root baptein or baptizein.  For us the washing includes remission of original sin.  But sin was the single human dimension Jesus did not share with us.  He united Himself with sinners but He Himself was free from sin.  Thus the question of why Jesus was baptized arises.

A second New Testament understanding of baptism is that of dying and rising.  Jesus’ baptism by John  presaged the baptism of blood He was to undergo. As Leon-Dufour notes that the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan announces and prepares for His baptism “in death.”  Analogously for us the waters of baptism suggest dying in order to live anew, dying so as to live again.  Leon-Dufour again, “Baptism kills the body in so far as it is an instrument of sin and confers a share in the life of God in Christ.” 

A third understanding is that of new birth; a birth in the Spirit, a very Pentecostal theme.  While one could go on and on about various themes and symbols of the sacrament of baptism, there is one fact which unites understandings of baptism; and this is  where little Sophie proved herself to be a four year-old theologian. 

Whether one understands baptism as cleansing from sin, as dying and rising to new life, or as new birth in the spirit, Jesus Christ is the agent.  Jesus is there.  Perhaps He is smiling.  He may be looking on with concern and love; rather like Sophie, Nick and Susan her parents, her grandparents, cousins and friends.  Jesus’ hand was underneath little Maya supporting her as she was anointed with the chrism and the oil of catechumens, as the waters of baptism poured over her.

The name Sophia or Sophie means ‘wisdom.’  With the wisdom of a child who can see around corners and discern the faint shadows that are invisible to adult eyes, she showed that she understood this celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.  She demonstrated exquisite understanding of the sacrament of baptism  Like us in all things but sin, Jesus, like us, received the waters of baptism . . . . He is present when we receive those same waters.  And He remains with us forever.

Tomorrow night after evening prayer the Church's Christmas season will be over and we return to the green vestments of ordinary time.   It will be a busy day as I have Mass at 9:30 AM and 5:00 PM.  

It has been very cold up in New England.  Hit some temps of about 1 and perhaps a bit below zero.  Got to drive in the snow on Friday.  A few trips on slippery roads and I will be missing Chad.  Or Lyon where I wouldn't try to drive anyway.

I didn't do any picture taking of the chapel this year.  The decorations were the same, I was lacking the energy to light all those candles at night and there are only so many angles one can capture.  And then came this morning.  I went over to the chapel to see it set up for a baptism.  We rarely have a baptisms here.  The sacrament is ideally administered in the parish.  However, the opportunity for photos presented itself.  I needed a reason to pull out the camera.  Wish I'd gone over about 30 minutes earlier.  The light was just a bit more interesting then.

I'm fascinated by glass and by the sacred oils.  Looking back I've got photos of the various vials holding the oils from multiple churches in a few different countries.  We have very nice and very simple vials for the oils.  The smooth glass allows for interesting distortion of the background.  

Ornaments on the tree in the middle of the rotunda. 

A retreatant at prayer in the chapel.  The old glass in the door panes gives a slight distortion to parts of the scene. 

The sacred oils (catechumens and chrism) and the paschal candle stand with the altar and creche in the background.  The paschal candle is at least eight feet from base to wick.  Didn't even try to get the entire thing in the photo with the close-ups.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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