I always look forward to officiating a baptism because I consider it a special privilege to witness the gathering around the font of the many generations of “saints”, all representing their own journeys to God -- a visual reminder that God is with us at all points of our lives, at any age or place. In baptism, we celebrate our relationship with something greater than ourselves, and we do so with the help of the rather mundane and ubiquitous images: water, oil, and light. As you witness today's ritual, I invite you to ponder what these symbols mean to you. I ask this question of each baptismal family I meet, each time learning something new. Water, oil, light... We encounter them daily, yet they are almost magical: life-giving, nourishing, refreshing, healing, cleansing, illuminating, reflecting... awakening? Hard to assign only one meaning to them, isn’t it?
Therein lies a mystery of baptism and every other sacrament: what does it do, and who is truly at work, and how exactly? At baptism, does God do something to the candidate, or does the priest? However we understand what is happening -- sanctifying, cleansing, initiating and/or manifesting relationship, hinting at Jesus' burial and resurrection, exchanging promises and acknowledging faith -- is it only at this moment that God begins to extend his grace to a person? I don’t think so. Consider the example of Jesus himself: for about 300 years since he walked on this earth, people held different views regarding the moment he became divine; whether it was at his resurrection, baptism, conception, or before the world even began. Eventually, the Emperor Constantine gathered 300+ bishops who concluded that there was, in fact, never a moment that he was not one with God… all of this is to say that if it was so hard to pinpoint for our predecessors in faith the exact moment of Jesus glorification, no wonder it is difficult for us to understand that of our own. And, as it is often the case in matters of our paradoxical faith, the answer is probably, “all of the above”. Jesus’ own baptism illustrates his saving work in our lives at the moments of our repentance, just as he immersed his body into the waters of the river Jordan, already muddied literally and figuratively by all those people whom John the Baptist had already washed in there. But, Psalm 139 also tells us that God knew us before we ever existed, even as babies not yet born; certainly, well before pandemic restrictions have let up, allowing us to celebrate a baptism today! Jesus’ words, directed to people who tried to prevent children from coming to him, show that it is never too early or late for us to approach God, and that it’s never a “bother” to him/her. But, the chrism (oil) that is used at baptism is the same as the one applied in the final hours we spend on earth, reminding us that only God truly governs all our endings and beginnings.
And so, today’s OT story of Samuel and his mother Hannah tells us that the children whom we have the privilege of welcoming to our lives, both as parents or mentors, are God’s gifts to us. We express our gratitude and acknowledgement of this when we dedicate them to God, as Hannah did. Like her, we create for them the opportunities to hear God’s voice and realize their life's purpose. On the cover of your leaflet, you will see the 17th century Dutch painting depicting a mother tenderly holding her child’s hand. As the child is reading from a book in her lap, the mother exchanges a meaningful glance with the man who stands behind the child. The painting is believed to show the moment Hannah relinquishes Samuel to a literal life in the temple under the guidance of Eli, while recognizing her as her son’s first teacher. Eli didn’t do a very good job raising his own children to the life of faith, but he did well for Samuel, who became a great prophet. Even if he did nothing else, when Samuel kept hearing God’s voice speak his name one night, Eli encouraged him to listen. So, if you don’t have a child of your own, there are countless young people in whose lives you may be highly instrumental. Of course, for our children, the life in the temple will be figurative, as they grow, learn, and serve God in their own small ways, of which they might not even be fully aware. It is our job to help them pay attention, but it will still be God’s own voice that will invite them to a life of faith, both for the first time and many times over. One day, we will have to relinquish them to their own choices and the guidance of mentors other than ourselves. And, God’s voice will not always say to them, “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, will not always feel all that thankful and or content, and we won’t even always behave in ways that espouse Christians values -- which is often the main reason parents bring kids to baptism, as though it can automatically secure the “right” moral path! Alas, baptism is no magic. God and humans are in it together: in this sacrament, in the journey to the font, and out into the world.
The journey does involve an exchange of promises. So today, 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 and in those whom we bring to be baptised, that we will keep learning about ourselves and about God, and that we will resist evil as best as we can. And, most importantly, we recognize that we will only be able to truly fulfil these promises, as we say in our liturgy, “with God’s help”. Thanks be to God.