I love baptisms at Saint James. Not ones that I’ve done as a deacon – I've only done one since being ordained, and quite frankly I was so nervous about doing everything correctly that I could not take enjoyment in the fact that I'd been the one to welcome my sister's youngest daughter into our Church, at least not until well after the relief that I'd not botched it had set in. No, what I love here at Saint James is what I can see in the faces of those in the congregation during baptisms. Especially in those who are older, you can see that this ritual that they've seen their entire life is important to them, that the Church that they love is welcoming in a new member, as sign of vitality. There is a joy in the faces of many as they look on. The applause when our newest member is presented by Father is not just polite – it is heart-felt. I think that maybe senior parishioners can appreciate baptism in a way that younger adults harried by work and family obligations do not yet appreciate.
Baptism is essential to our Church. It is one of the three sacraments of initiation, and it is the first of these rites, the one that starts the process of joining the body of Christ, His Church. It is for this reason that John the Baptist protests that Jesus should be baptizing him and not the other way around. But Jesus answers that it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” Biblical scholars have differed on what exactly this meant, some siding with an explanation that Jesus set the example for us by being baptized, while others believing that it was a sign that Christ was taking on the redemption of all sinners. I prefer to think it was both of these. He is both God and man, and therefore he can both be like us in His humanity to show us how to act as well as be God in His ability to grant us salvation.
Baptism begins the covenant of which Isaiah speaks in the first reading, where we are part of God’s promises when we accept the call to be His people. Isaiah promises that God’s servant, which we know after the incarnation is Jesus, will deliver all of this for us. And fortunately for us, since most of us are not of Jewish descent, it is not just the Israelites, the direct descendants of Abraham, who are welcomed into this new covenant. In the second reading, Peter has just baptized the household of Cornelius, the first of the Gentiles who had not at least been practitioners of the Jewish law. This caused quite a stir when it became known in Jerusalem, for many still believed that the Christ came to save only the Jews. No, Peter declares, Christ, “the Lord of all,” came to save all people. And baptism is the special sign that we’ve indeed accepted and been accepted into this new covenant, and have become a member of His body.
Therefore, baptism is special, in a way that those who have grown wise with the experiences of life can fully appreciate. The Rite of Baptism is a beautiful rite, one that goes back to the very beginnings of our Church. But if baptism is seen only as a one-time sacrament, it is a mere shadow of what it really is. Some Protestant churches have rejected infant baptism, on the grounds that a child cannot fully accept Jesus as his or her savior. And if baptism degenerates to a mere rite, a cute ceremony, an obligation that Grandma insists upon, then the Protestants have a point. It can become a type of religious magic, where this difficult concept of original sin is taken away. And if this is all that happens, at least once the child becomes sufficiently self-aware to understand right from wrong and the concept of obligation, it is not enough. Baptism as a rite has an ending, a last page, and final “Thanks be to God”; baptism as a covenant with God does not end.
Baptism is a lifelong commitment. Jesus both began and ended his earthly ministry with baptism. Today’s Gospel is His first recorded act as an adult; His last act before the Ascension was to commission the Apostles to baptize all people. And all of His public life between these two events was the perfect example of living out the new covenant, one He both preached and lived. Today ends the Christmas season, and we move into ordinary time starting tomorrow, and we’ll follow that public life, this year with the Gospel of Matthew. We will continue our life-long attempt to fully understand our commitment to this covenant, and try to live it out. We will continue to make mistakes, and rely on God’s grace to forgive us. And we will continue to bring into that covenant those around us through our evangelization efforts. If we can do this, we will make what can be just a beautiful ceremony into what should be a beautiful beginning of an earthly life dedicated to God followed by a heavenly life with God.
Today marks a significant change in the life of Jesus. Before today, He lives what we suppose was an ordinary life – scripture contains little information of His life as a child or a young man. The Gospel of Luke says that He “advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man,” (Lk 2:52) and since Jesus left us His spirit I hope this can be said of all of us, too. But after today Jesus embarks on his public ministry. In this, too, Christ sets the example that we can also change our life, that what we’ve done so far in our life is always subject to change so as to bring us closer to our mission, our vocation from God. It need not be as significant a change as Jesus demonstrates. We all know ways in which we can align our life more fully to the path that we know God is calling us. Along with any New Year's resolutions we have made, we must make sure to include a resolution to align our lives more fully with the new covenant, a recommitment of our baptismal promises.
In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal beliefs that we or a family member vowed for us. “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord,” and “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life.” Let us live out these beliefs, lest they become mere lip service, and be the oath that we, His disciples, reaffirm weekly. Let the Eucharist that we receive be the nourishment that fuels our desire to serve, and let the fact that we all receive it together be the communion we share to come together as His body, the Church, the baptized, to build the kingdom of God here on earth.