St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Baptism of the Lord, January 10. 2020
Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder.
Lectionary: Genesis 1.1-5 , Psalm 29, Acts,19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11
I was sitting in my study here at the church one day, this was quite a few years now, when the phone rang. “Good Morning, St. Mary’s Anglican Church.”
It was the location manager for a local film company looking for a church in which to film a baptism scene, and she was wondering if St. Mary’s might be available.
The story concerned a young woman who had started attending A.A. meetings in a church basement, such as happens here at St. Mary’s on Wednesday evenings. It was in the A.A. meeting where this young woman, according to the 12 steps,
1. Admitted she was powerless over alcohol—that her life had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than herself could restore her to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn her will and her life over to the care of God as she understood Him.
And so it was that through A.A., God launched this young woman on the road to sobriety, which of course involved following through on the remaining 9 steps…
But then the plot thickened.
The young woman discovers she is pregnant, and the father has checked out. She needs help, and more to the point, so does her baby. But what is an alcoholic single mom to do? Bring the baby to A.A.? Not likely. When it comes having a drinking problem, breast-milk does not qualify you for A.A. . But what A.A. had done for her, she very much wants to do for her baby, and is entrust her powerless child to a higher power who would be able to maintain her child’s sanity in a world that was insane and unmanageable. And so up the stairs she went to talk to the minister about arranging for a service of Holy Baptism.
It seemed to me a reasonable enough script, and so I extended an invitation the film crew to come down and have a look and to talk further.
That afternoon the location director showed up along with the director and the assistant director. I met them at the top of the stairs to the narthex, and immediately took them into the nave.
“Well”, I said, pointing to the font, “there she is. Now tell me”, I said, turning to the location manager, “what do you think this looks like?”
“A bird bath?” she said.
“Good answer,” I replied.
“What do you think?” I asked, turning to the assistant director.
“A water fountain?” he said.
“Good answer,” I replied, “But now let me tell you what this actually is. It is a coffin in which we perform ritual drownings…”
“Do you not know,” wrote St. Paul in His Letter to the Romans,” that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6. 3-4)
What does this tell us?
It tells us that life is something that we enter into not being born, but by dying, by being united to Jesus in His death through the waters of baptism. The life that we have thus entered into a life that is beyond the reach of death, because it has been entered into through death.
In the last 100 or so years incredible advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medical science have resulted in the doubling of life expectancy our culture, which has meant that very few people actually see death any more. What used to be a regular even monthly event, witnessing the death and seeing the dead bodies of family and friends, has almost all but disappeared from our experience. And so we also rather no longer attend funerals, but rather celebrations of life with pictures and slide shows where the dead body is conspicuously absent. As a result, our horizons have been become limited to this so-called ‘life’, and we have forgotten that our life on this earth is brief and limited, and that we are in fact just passing through, and that no matter what we do, vaccine or no vaccine, we are all going to die. We might even say that we are in fact already as good as dead. Theologically, in the Church, we have come to believe that the reason Jesus came to this earth was to make the world a better place. One hears this all the time.
But this is not the Gospel. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews put it, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too ( that is Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”(Hebrews 2.15). Jesus Christ came to has trampled down death by death, and we by our death are to do the same. This is what baptism is all about. And so as somebody said to me recently, “What would is the worst thing that could happen if you caught COVID? You would die, that wouldn’t be so bad!”
Back at the nave of St. Mary’s, the film director, fumbling with his binder, asked me to come over and review the script of the baptism scene. I read the dialogue, and told him I thought it needed a bit of work, and I would be happy to help.
I asked the actor, who was to play the part of minister, as I helped him into my cassock, “Now, how does that feel? “ And he said, “Like going into combat.”
I thought that is just about right. You don’t take the field against “the world, the flesh, and the devil “ ( BCP p.525) without putting on the protective covering of the authority of the Church, not to mention “the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith in the strong name of Jesus Christ, and the sword of the Spirit that is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6. 14-17)
The scene went off quite well, but as the case with actual infant baptisms that happen in the church, you could be forgiven for not realizing that you had just witnessed a ritual drowning. A little sprinkle of water on the forehead? Really? And yet having momentarily surrendered her child to the minister, the nervous and anxious mother was visibly relieved to have the baby back in her arms, and to proceed to the narthex for a reception with friends and family of baptismal cake and non-alcoholic punch.
The baptismal font however is not just a tomb, but a womb, an image perhaps more apropos the baptism of infants, and why the font and the church is referred to with the gender specific pronoun, “she.” In baptism, we are re-born by water and the spirit in the womb of the Church, and are to given to feed on the pure milk of the Word of God, so that as St. Peter wrote to the newly baptized “by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2.2-3). This explains why there can be no baptism of children, without a commitment of the parents and god parents, lest the children end up spiritually malnourished and immature.
One of the questions that has vexed the Church from time to time concerns the baptism of infants. John the Baptist called the people to faith by repentance and baptism, and the people came to him confessing their sins, all of which children are incapable of doing on their own. How then can the Church baptize children? It’s a fair question. But as Alexander Schmemann points out, “The question about faith in its relationship to the sacrament is: what faith, and even more precisely, whose faith? And the equally essential answer to this question is, it is Christ’s faith given to us, becoming our faith and our desire. Faith is either a response to God’s call or the very reality of that which the call summons. Faith, in other words, is what baptism imparts to us, not though some kind of magic, but rather through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The presence in this world of Christ’s faith is the Church. (1) As John explained, “I baptize you with water, but he (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” It is the Holy Spirit and not the water that effects the transformation of the baptized, and that is something over which we have no control, “the wind blows where it wills” (John 3. 8) but we believe is invisibly at work in the baptized, since baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In baptism the Father grants us the faith of the Son, and the fire of love that is the Holy Spirit, that is a gift and grace which needs to be guarded and nourished.
Today we are celebrating the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which is not only determinative for our understanding of baptism, but is for us a major Epiphany, a major “manifestation” or “showing forth of God” in the person of Jesus Christ.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. (Psalm 29. 3-4).
This powerful, thundering, and majestic voice which in the beginning spoke over the waters of creation and said , “Let there be light!” and spoke creation into being, bringing order out of chaos, spoke once again over the waters of the Jordan at the Baptism of Jesus, and was heard to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased.” ( Mark 1.11), confirming the truth about what Jesus had just seen as He came out of the waters: the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. At the baptism of Jesus, the world of nature is upended. A new reality has entered the world, that of the Holy Spirit, infusing Jesus’ body, and through Jesus, transforming all things, “seen and unseen.” ( Nicene Creed)
It was here at His Baptism where Jesus Christ is manifested, is shown to be the unique, obedient, beloved Son of God who descends into the waters, thereby uniting Himself to us in our sin and in our death, draws us out of the waters, and raises us up with Him into life everlasting, a life in which we are forever transformed from “one degree of glory to another.” ( 2 Corinthians 3.18)
The Baptism of the Lord is for us not only an epiphany of the Divine Sonship of Jesus Christ. In the Baptism of the Jesus the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. And so we confess that:
We have seen the true Light,
We have received the heavenly Spirit;
We have found the true faith,
worshipping the undivided Trinity,
for the Trinity has saved us. (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom)
and to pray, in times of darkness and distress
The Father is my hope;
the Son is my refuge,
the Holy Spirit is my Protector,
All Holy Trinity,
Glory be to Thee. Glory be to Thee. (Prayer of St. Joannicius, 9th C.)
- Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and The Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 67-78