Monday, January 13, 2014
Baptism of the Lord Sermon
I know some priests celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord by getting their congregations to remember their own Baptism, there is nothing wrong in that, except it misses the point.
John's Baptism is something intensely Jewish, it is part of those Jewish purification rituals, the washing up to the elbow on returning from the market place, the sprinkling of oneself, the bathing in mikvah after childbirth, menstruation, contact with a corpse, such purification was a necessary part of becoming a Jew. The Qumran excavations on the Dead Sea with it numerous cisterns and bathing pools show evidence of how important such rituals were to this particular sect, to the point where some have suggested John was a member, that is probably stretching things, bathing was an important ritual for all Jews.
John's baptism was a simple ritual act, that could presumably be repeated regularly, it had a psychological effect but no effective spiritual one. It did not take away sins, it gave no indelible mark to the soul, it did not transform who was in one's relationship with God, it was not salvific, it did not give Eternal Life.
John tells us that "I baptize you with water but but there shall come one mightier that I, ....he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire". During his ministry St John's Gospel us that Jesus disciple's baptised but he did not. However before the Ascension his last words to the Apostles are, "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
The baptism we have received from Jesus, through his Church is radically different to John the Baptist's baptism. It is a different as the Covenant between Moses and the Jews, which had nothing to do with salvation, it was simply, "If you keep my commandments I will be your God", unlike the New and Eternal Covenant made through the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who -alone- takes away the sins of the world.
Who says, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." This is the difference between the New and Old Testaments, or Covenants!
Christian baptism, like the other sacraments changes everything, hence the Church has always been very insistent on distinguishing between valid and invalid sacraments. John's ritual was not a valid sacrament, it was merely a ritual, except in the case of Jesus, heaven was not opened, no voice was heard saying, "this is my beloved Son", the Holy Spirit descended on no-one. In Christian baptism, heaven does open up for us, the Father does say, "you are my Son (my Daughter)", the Holy Spirit has descended on us with all His sanctifying power to enable us to become by adoption what Christ is by nature.
It is the great fault of many celebrations of the Sacraments that we emphasise what we do rather than what God does. The Holy Eucharist becomes 'sharing', Confession becomes therapy or spiritual direction, Marriage becomes merely a wedding, Ordination becomes about power, the Sacrament of the Sick is becomes 'comfort', Confirmation becomes a 'rite of passage'. Jesus in his baptism sees Heaven, hears God, 'feels' the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Notice the evangelist is concerned not with human things but with what God does. In the sacraments we need to notice what God does to us through his Grace.
As a Greek Bishop said about Holy Communion, "it is not so much our reception of God but God's reception of us that matters".
Let us keep our eyes on God and his Grace, on the His effects on what is at the very heart of our being our eternal Soul.
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