Every baptism is a significant event for the individual, his/her family, and the local church; so, I always look forward to officiating a baptism. Today is of course even more special, given that I get to baptise not only my own baby, but also Florence and Molly – three different generations of “saints”, three cultures, three journeys to God. In a few minutes, when the three of them gather around our font, we will have a visual reminder that God is with us at all points of our lives, at any age or place. With its rather mundane and ubiquitous images of water, oil, and light, a baptism symbolizes and/or effects the welcoming of a human being into a relationship with something greater than herself. As you witness the today’s ritual, I invite you to ponder what these symbols mean to you, personally. I always ask this of the baptismal candidates and their parents, each time learning something new. Water, oil, light... present daily in the world around us, yet almost magically life-giving, nourishing, refreshing, healing, cleansing, illuminating, reflecting... awakening?
Water, oil, light. The appeal of these symbols is universal, isn’t it. Before Christianity was even a thing, an eccentric man called John, a cousin of Jesus, suddenly emerged out of the desert where he’d dwelt for decades. Disconcerting yet irresistibly charismatic, he somehow had such an appeal to the good faithful Jewish people, that many decided to affirm their faith by a ritual immersion in the river Jordan, following a custom already established in Judaism, but this time submitting to a new authority, one apart from their priests. Today, the Anglican church celebrates a feast called “the Baptism of the Lord”, remembering the piece of this story where, remarkably, Jesus also joins these people in the river. In our first reading, do we hear Isaiah perhaps hinting at this event, looking some six centuries into the future, saying on behalf of God: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”? If Christmas points us to the mystery of the birth of God in the body of every human, then the Baptism of the Lord reminds us of a similar truth – that God chooses to immerse his/herself into the sometimes-muddy waters of our lives and hearts, cleansing and renewing them through a continued presence with us and the entire creation. Not surprisingly, in Russia and much of the Orthodox world, the Baptism of the Lord is almost as important as Christmas. On that day, the priests bless the water brought into the church, as well as that found in nature; and the faithful, perhaps more shockingly, immerse themselves in the natural bodies of water (in mid-January!). In a few minutes, I will also bless the water in our font (and it’ll be much warmer!) -- in recognition that God has, in fact, already done so. Therein lies a mystery of baptism, and that of any sacrament: we know it’s not magic, but what’s going on in this rite? Who is at work here: does God do something to the candidate (or to perhaps to the witnesses gathered?), or do the hands of the people?
So as much I love presiding at baptisms, I do find it challenging to preach on these occasions. How do I even begin to explain what we are doing here, when even the professional theologians do not all fully agree on that? Fortunately, as you may have noticed, often when I get stumped by a theological issue, I turn to a wonderful resource I have right in my house: my theologian-in-residence, young Sophia (wisdom!). I promise I don’t do it for every single sermon; only when I get seriously stuck... so please indulge me today. Last week, I innocently asked Sophia, “Are you excited about Alexandra’s baptism” – “... um... yeah... why?” – “well why do we baptize people?” – “because they are part of God” – “what does that mean?” – “God knows them very, very well, and says, “you are the best, best, best!!” We are part of God, God knows us well, and thinks we are the best – need I say more?
Of course, it is exciting! In every baptism we celebrate our being, or becoming, “part of God”. Since childhood, we all have a sense of reaching out towards something beyond our selves. But in baptism, we are reminded that whenever we do open ourselves to the possibility of being one with God, we must inevitably recognize that we are one with other people. As Christians, we call it “the body of Christ” – the multitude of “saints”; us, still living, and those who have gone before us. Our number is beyond human comprehension, yet with all of us God manages to have a personal relationship. On which basis are we to enter this relationship? I don’t think Sophie’s has yet read Isaiah all that closely (though I wouldn’t put this past her!), but she’s got this right, didn’t she: God does know us “very, very well” and thinks that each of us is “the best, best, best”. Isaiah wrote of God saying to his people, “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made -- you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”. Of course, Isaiah’s own understanding was that God was here addressing his nation, Israel; but Israel may very well stand as a metaphor for each human being -- someone God creates, sustains, chooses, delights in, helps to grow in faith and talents. The relationship we have with God begins at the time of our conception -- not when our parents finally get all the travel schedules aligned so that to schedule a baptism, or when this “religion thing” finally begins to mean something to us.
So indeed, God knows us very well. As our Creator, of course, but also from the intimate involvement of God’s Spirit within us. Quite unlike the dove in the baptismal story, who merely hovers over the body of Jesus, the spirit of God exists at the center of our being; mysteriously united with our truest self. No, God will not always delight in us, will not always say “with you I am well pleased” as it was at Jesus’ baptism. We will do wrong from time to time, we will not be the greatest at everything we do, we will not always feel all that thankful that God has put us on this earth, and most of us will always keep looking for something that might bring us more joy that we already have. But if I am ever asked by any of my three children “who is the best?”, to each I will always fully honestly say, “you are”. Each with his or her own talent, own purpose, but equally part of me, my world, my family, my very existence. Among our three baptismal candidates, who is “the best”? Molly has the gift of creative writing, Florence is patient and determined, and Alexandra has the prettiest smiles - but all three were created, sustained by, brought to this font, and are equally precious to God.
No, a baptism is no magic: God and humans are in it together, both in this sacrament and in the candidate’s journey to the font. It involves an exchange of promises. God has already given us his in the words of Isaiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine... when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” There will be many, many fires in Molly, Florence, and Alexandra’s lives, but none that will ever destroy all that is human and divine in them. And thus, in return, we (the sponsors, the adult candidates, and the community gathered here) will promise something as well. What we promise will essentially amount to that we will continue to allow and foster the life of the Holy Spirit in us, that we will continually learn from God about ourselves and about him, and that we will one day come to be at peace with this knowledge, and sincerely trust that to God, we are “the best, best, best” – all of this, as we say in our rite, “we will, with God’s help.”