Baptism of the Lord – Homily (Fr. Smith)

As a celibate only child I have little practical advice to offer couples who are getting married. My only suggestion has been that they have a pre-natal bucket list. List the things they will not be able to do when the child or children arrive and do the most important ones. I have heard of some interesting selections: a picture safari to east Africa, explorations of Tuscan Hill towns and, early in my ministry, following the Grateful dead for a few months. Yet a wise woman has suggested that I add a specific one; get lots of sleep now. This is not only or even mostly because of sleep deprivation with a newborn but that once a child arrives parents will never quite have an anxiety-free moment. He, she, or they will always be on the parental mind one way or another. This is not a sign of neurosis or something unique to a particular marriage: this is love and it is also the best way to understand Baptism and indeed the Synod. 

First some history and theology. 

The good news of Jesus is that because we are sinners he died for us, came back to life, and offers us new life indeed a new way of being human through membership in his family, the Church. 

Baptism is the way we enter the Church. We need always remember that he truly offers a new life not details about what we must achieve to have a new life but to really have it, to be changed not only by it but into it. Indeed, in the Catholic Church this new life makes us not the best version of ourselves but transforms us into Jesus himself. The great 4th century Egyptian Saint Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria put this most succinctly: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God” He did not mean that our nature becomes divine but that our humanity is so changed that we think and act increasingly like Jesus.  

This radical change begins at Baptism. 

Without Jesus we are not saved. Catholics do not believe that we are totally corrupt but that we are not good enough to be saved on our own. Our life must be totally changed, made new by a gift from God.  

How can this be symbolized? There was a Jewish custom of Spiritual Washing. Physically cleaning oneself to show a desire to be cleansed of sin. This was mostly for converts and was adapted by John the Baptist as a statement of an acknowledgement sinfulness and a desire to be free of it. This is wonderful but it did not change anyone. John the Baptist acknowledges this, he baptizes with just water Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Fire does not leave things the same, it changes what it touches and the fire of the holy spirit we receive in Baptism will change us. 

Jesus decided to keep the symbol of water because it not only had the meaning of cleanliness, but it could also express death and resurrection. Ancient people were afraid of water. They had comparatively small boats and even if they did not venture onto the Mediterranean the storms on the sea of Galilee could terrorize them. Also, potable water was rare and hard to get. Note the importance of wells in the Scripture. It truly was a means of life. 

Now this is not our experience. After hurricane Sandy and the 100-year storms which we seem to get every other week in the Fall we may have a greater respect for the power of nature but many of us are still disconnected from it. The symbol of water is just not as powerful for most of us as for our ancestors. I am a totally urban person and find it very difficult to connect with nature symbols. But this does not mean that people like me cannot experience the power of our sacramental symbols as well as being changed by their reality.  

Here is where the child comes in. 

When I prepare parents for their child’s baptism, I ask them to think of their love for the child. What they have done for him or her and what they will do. By this time, they have been sleep deprived for weeks and have already discovered that their apartment is too small. More is to come. This is a form of death to oneself. Yet even after the umptieth nighttime disruption the baby smiles and it is as if the sun has risen at 2AM. This is death, this is life. 

So, I suggest that the parents think of the love they have for their child as the water is poured. They have given so much for their child that they can now understand in a way they never could before what it meant to Jesus to die for us. But think of the life that they now have which they never had before and see in this an inkling of the love Jesus has for us and the life he gives us. This sacrificial love forms their family and same love forms the family of the Chruch. 

The call of Baptism is not only to the individual but to the entire community. Our faith is sustained in the Body of Christ of which Christ is head and we are members. That the Church is the body of Christ is not a metaphor but a statement of fact. We are Jesus’ presence in the world. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, humans however change often and sometimes substantially. For the church to connect with us she must also change. As we are seeing with the universal synod of the Church, this is a messy process and viewed from a merely technical perspective an imprudent and dangerous one. But looked at with love we can see the Spirit at work with the fire that molds and changes. Looked at with love that has experienced death and resurrection itself we will always find the life that is ever so ancient ever so new.