One of the greatest joys that I have as a priest is being able to preside over our liturgy of Baptism. There is something quite moving about the prayer over the water which tells of the various ways water has been powerful in God’s history with us. Immersing the person who is being baptized in the water that we have blessed in the name of the Trinity, is a beautiful and and sometimes scary thing even if we are pouring water over someone’s head rather than submerging them; I don’t “sprinkle” whatever that means! I get the water with my hands and pour it on the person; for me as a priest it is important to use and touch the water; sacraments, those opportunities for grace are “earthy” and the symbols like water should be touched and held; and then the part of the baptism that hits me every single time… putting the sacred oil of chrism in the person’s forehead and telling them that “they are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own, forever”. It seems so incredibly simple and I suppose it is… water, oil, prayers, candles; all simple things to express the inexpressible grace that is given to us by the Holy Trinity.
I know for myself, being marked as Christ’s own forever is powerful because before my baptism, I had no real sense of what it meant to be loved by God and especially God in the life of Jesus. Because I was 11 when I was baptized I remember much about that day and about preparing for it. I remember my parents and Godparents going with me to the church and I remember Father DeCosta saying the prayers and pouring water over my head. I remember the candle lit from the Easter candle symbolizing the light of Christ that would always light the way, no matter how dark the way seemed. It was an incredible day with beautiful prayers, water, bread and wine, and candle light.
I think it’s important to say, that baptism or any sacrament for that matter, are occasions of grace; they are mysteries that far surpass our understanding; they are not magic, something where we expect something tangible in return for the rituals performed. The tangible results of baptism are wet hair and an oily forehead… however the holy mysteries that come with the sacrament last a lifetime and beyond.
Our women’s book study touched on some of this, this past Tuesday. I have been thinking about that conversation all week. We began talking about hospitality and barriers to hospitality. The church has taught for hundreds of years that in order to receive the Eucharist, to receive communion, one must be baptized. Is this a barrier to hospitality?
I have to say, no, it isn’t. In fact, I believe requiring baptism before the reception of Eucharist IS in itself an act of hospitality. While I know that some traditions are meant to be broken, this has been the tradition of the church since at least the 2nd century, with the baptism of infants in the third century. What happens to us in baptism is that we are invited by Jesus to be part of God’s kingdom; we are given the gift of his Holy Spirit so that we can get as close to God as it is possible to get in this life; the Holy Spirit lives within us and prays through us and helps us to continue the work of Jesus in the world. In baptism we are adopted as God’s own, and nothing can separate us from God. Does that mean that those who aren’t baptized aren’t God’s children? I don’t think it means that at all; but in our baptism we are saying yes to God much like Mary and Joseph did when they agreed to raise Jesus and protect him, and be his earthly parents. Baptism is a way for us to say “yes”; it is a way for us to commit to God as God commits to us. Do any of us have it all figured out? No. That’s where that beautiful word mystery comes in… we don’t have it figured out, but God certainly does, and through the church we have been given an imperfect but well worn path that has been taken by many before us. And so we continue on that path as others have. Inviting others to receive communion without baptism is an invitation that is incomplete; our adoption as God’s children comes before the family meal. People deserve to know what is being asked of them by God. Yes, God’s love and grace are free and not earned, but there are still requirements that help us to live more fully into our relationship with God. Baptism is our full entrance into that relationship; communion helps us in the day to day living into that relationship.
I think today’s gospel reading can perhaps shed some light here for us as well. Jesus goes out to the Jordan river to be baptized by John. John at first argues, saying that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus. Yet Jesus says something that convinces John; “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus as he does at the garden of Gethsemane, remains obedient to what the Father has asked him to do. In this instance, Jesus is putting himself forward for John’s baptism, perhaps as a way to model what it looks like to BE obedient to the Father; and, since Jesus, who was without sin, still goes through all that we go through…when I think about Jesus doing some of these things, it seems as though he has blessed it all with his presence; nothing he does is without purpose. In submitting himself to John’s baptism, Jesus manifests what it looks like to submit to God’s will.
Our own baptism starts us on a path of faith and also on a path to continue Jesus’ work in the world. As we renew our baptismal vows today, I hope that we can be reminded of the holy responsibilities that we all have as children of God. May our gathering at the table help to feed us for the work that is in front of us to do.