Sunday, January 07, 2007

What Was, What Is, and What Might Be

January 7, 2007
Feast of the Baptism of Christ
Hughes United Methodist Church
Wheaton, MD

Isaiah 43: 1-7
Luke 3: 15-22

Clip from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings: “The Mirror of Galadriel.”

Raise your hand if you remember your baptism.

I remember nothing from my baptism, which is really not surprising given that I was an infant when it happened. I am told that it happened right here in this sanctuary when Rev. Ed Van Metre was the senior pastor, but I must admit that it can sometimes be hard to recognize its importance when I do not even recall it happening! Perhaps some of you who also cannot remember your baptisms can sympathize. I can remember confirmation, up at the altar rail, surrounded by family and friends, when Carl Rife and Carletta Allen were the pastors. I remember my ordination to the diaconate, with my parents and the Lindisfarne Community surrounding me, but that one is easy because it just happened this past summer. But my baptism I do not remember. It makes the notion of “remembering our baptisms,” which we will do shortly, slightly ironic.

Nevertheless, we know that our baptisms do have meaning. The World Council of Churches has attempted to explain this meaning as it is found in all of the churches in its study document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. First and foremost, baptism is a sign of new life in Christ and the fellowship of all of the baptized in the body of Christ, the church. For turn-of-the-era Jews and early Christians, water symbolized death, and so baptism is a sign of dying with Christ as we pass under the water, and rising again with Christ as we reemerge. (This symbolism is, of course, clearer in full immersion baptism). Water is used for cleaning and so symbolizes cleansing from sin, conversion from seeking to direct our own lives in spite of God to life in communion with God who pardons and forgives our sins and offenses. As we heard in the Gospel reading, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism, and so baptism is a time when the Holy Spirit descends upon us and remains with us in life thereafter. These shared experiences of meaning in baptism are a sign of our common discipleship and the fact that we are knit together in the one body of Christ. Finally, these shared meanings in common discipleship are a sign of the inbreaking of the realm of God in the present world order.

But how are we to access these meanings if we cannot even remember the event happening? To bridge this gap, I want to briefly explore what the experience of baptism was in the early church, what the tradition of baptism became and is today, and then I will let our reaffirmation or remembrance of baptism serve as a sign of what our baptisms might be, recognizing that the road to sanctification twists and turns and is paved with bumps and dips.

To explore early Christian baptism, I borrow from Aidan Kavanagh, longtime professor of liturgy at Yale Divinity School:

“So they stripped and stood there, probably faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire. Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinized; years of hearing the word of God read and expounded at worship; years of being dismissed with prayer before the faithful went on to celebrate the eucharist; years of having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistry building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what actually was done by the faithful at the breaking of bread and in that closed baptistry. Tonight all this was about to end as they stood there naked on a cold floor in the gloom of this eerie room.

“When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistry doors being thrown open. Brilliant golden light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop (who has now regained his composure), the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconesses and sponsors move into the most glorious room that most of them have ever seen. It is a high, arbor-like pavilion of green, gold, purple and white mosaic from marble floor to domed ceiling, sparkling like jewels in the light of innumerable oil lamps that fill the room with heady warmth. The windows are beginning to blaze with the light of Easter dawn. The walls curl with vines and tendrils that thrust up from the floor, and at their tops, apostles gaze down robed in snow-white togas, holding crowns. These apostles stand around a golden chair draped with purple on which rests only an open book. And above all these, in the highest point of the ballooning dome, a naked Jesus (very much in the flesh) stands up to his waist in the Jordan as an unkempt John pours water on him, and God's disembodied hand points the Holy Spirit at Jesus' head in the form of a white bird.

“Suddenly the catechumens realize that they have unconsciously formed themselves into a mirror image of this lofty icon on the floor directly beneath it. They are standing around a pool in the middle of the floor, into which gushes water pouring noisily from the mouth of a stone lion crouching atop a pillar at poolside.

“Then a young male catechumen of about ten, the son of pious parents, is led down into the pool by the deacon. The water is warm (it has been heated in a furnace), and the oil on his body spreads out on the surface in iridescent swirls. The deacon positions the child near the cascade from the lion's mouth. The bishop leans over on his cane and, in a voice that sounds like something out of the Apocalypse, says: "Euphemius! Do you believe in God the Father, who created all of heaven and earth?" After a nudge from the deacon beside him, the boy murmurs that he does. And just in time, for the deacon, who has been doing this for 50 years and is the boy's grandfather, wraps him in his arms, lifts him backward into the rushing waters and forces him under the surface. The old deacon smiles through his beard at the wide brown eyes that look up at him in shock and fear from beneath the water (the boy has purposely not been told what to expect). Then he raises him up coughing and sputtering. The bishop waits until the boy can speak again, and leaning over a second time, tapping the boy on the shoulder with his cane, says: "Euphemius! Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, who was conceived of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, died and was buried? Who rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead?" This time the boy replies like a shot, "I do," and then holds his nose. "Euphemius! Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the master and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be honored and glorified equally with the Father and the Son, who spoke by the prophets? And in one holy, catholic and apostolic church which is the communion of God's holy ones? And in the life that is coming?" "I do."

“When the boy comes up the third time, his vast grandfather gathers him in his arms and carries him up the steps leading out of the pool.”

This exposition of the baptismal experience of the early church seems quite distant to our late-modern ears, does it not? The greatest disparity is probably that early Christians baptized adults and adolescents, not infants, as is our practice today. The original reason for baptizing infants was the concern that only the baptized could get to heaven. Since the infant mortality rate was high in pre-modern societies, and remains quite high in some societies today, the church was worried about the status of those children who did not make it. The solution was to separate baptism from confirmation, so that baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the church at infancy while confirmation is the sacrament that seals baptism upon reaching maturity. Sadly, as we late-moderns have become accustomed to very low infant mortality rates, although not entirely absent, many of us struggle to find meaning in the theological answer to the mortality problem so many centuries ago. Baptism has become simply what one does upon the birth of a baby: a cultural ritual instead of a sacrament pointing beyond itself. Indeed, there are many Christians who come to church only on Christmas, Easter, and at the birth of a new member of the family; and some who also skip Easter and Christmas, only coming for the baptism.

In his Christmas Eve sermon, Dr. Ennis told the story of a pious grandmother who wanted her granddaughter to be baptized in spite of the fact that the identity of the child’s father was unknown. The pastor did not want to celebrate the baptism without being sure that there was a family to raise the child in the church, but the grandmother was persistent and asked that the issue be taken to the session, the decision making body in the Presbyterian polity. Finally, the question went to the congregation, and the pastor asked who would come and stand with the child and her mother. Eventually, most of the congregation stood with her. My first reaction to the story was, “how could a pastor possibly deny the sacrament of baptism to a child?” Upon further reflection, however, I decided that the pastor was not wrong for being concerned about the spiritual welfare of the child, but he was wrong for assuming that spiritual welfare is dependent upon a Norman Rockwellesque nuclear family. The congregation was right to take up the responsibility their own baptisms placed upon them to stand by the child, the mother, and the grandmother in guiding the child to maturity. In the end, this child’s baptism was given a great deal more gravity than might have been the case if the father had been known, not unlike the story of the birth of another child, albeit many centuries earlier.

The church has a special word for remembering, the Greek word αναμνεσις. This word has been interpreted theologically with regard to the sacraments of the church to mean not simply remembering a past event, but also making it present again. Furthermore, αναμνεσις not only makes the past present but also remembers the future, giving us a foretaste of what might be. It is in this full sense of remembering that I would encourage you to enter into the remembrance of baptism in a few moments. The remembrance of baptism is not a rebaptism, but for those of us who cannot remember our own baptisms, it may mean remembering out baptism as if for the first time since the actual first time is absent to us. Moreover, for all of us the remembrance of baptism is not a dwelling in the past but a movement toward the future accompanied by our family of those baptized into the body of Christ and in the awful or awe-filled presence of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Amen.

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