Sunday, January 09, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Baptism - For the First Sunday in Ordinary Time (1/9/05)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)[NRSV]

What does it mean ~ baptism?

In my family, my nonreligious family, it apparently meant something of unvoiced significance, because we children were not baptized as babies in accordance with the usual practice of the Methodist Church. My father felt that people shouldn't get entangled with the church until they were old enough to know what they were doing, and babies weren't old enough. Young teens weren't either, as I discovered when I went through a period of wanting to convert to Catholicism while I was a junior high school student in a Catholic boarding school.

So I wasn't baptized until I was an adult, and had decided to become an official member of the Methodist church. Baptism was a prerequisite, so there I was, still pretty clueless, but doing it anyway. I can't say that I thought I was "saved" or "cleansed of my sins" or anything else approximating what people often say about baptism. I just thought I was taking the first step in a journey that was going to have a public as well as a private side to it.

One of our pastors articulated it well a couple of weeks ago when she said that baptism was an occasion for welcoming someone into the church family. I wish I had had that language on the tip of my tongue a couple of years after my own baptism, when we arranged for the baptisms of our first babies. I had hoped that my family would join us but circumstances got in the way. Months later one of my younger stepsisters, as cyncial and caustic as I had been as a teenager, asked icily, "Why would you have them baptized, anyway?" It was hard to respond in the face of her adolescent certitude that religion was for idiots, and I wish I could have just said something along the lines of what our pastor had said to me: I wanted them to be part of a church family, and baptism was the doorway. Jesus says as much, when he says that "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

No doves, of course, for the rest of us. And no voice of God from the heavens, either. Or am I wrong about that? Jesus' baptism is apparently one of the few moments in the Bible when God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are simultaneously present. Their concurrent appearance would seem to portend a momentous occasion, and maybe that is indeed what baptism is, even for those of us who don't recognize it at the time. Maybe it's a time when God in all of God's vastness drives a wedge into our lives and begins to take up permanent residence there -- quietly and unobtrusively, perhaps, but definitively there. Even defiantly there. God perhaps saying, "I am pleased with your existence, whether you like it or not, and whether you even know it or not ~ and this is your first step toward undertanding that."

In our church, our pastors emphasize, week after week, over and over, God's all-encompassing love for all of us. At Jesus' baptsim, at the outset of his ministry, we see God call Jesus "the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." At a baby's baptism, it's easy to see that love, too -- what could be more lovely than an innocent newborn in the arms of a parent?. But even those of us who are adults -- adults with long histories behind us -- even for us, God's love is there at baptism. Recognized or not.

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