Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 OR Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 29 OR Psalm 104; Acts 10:34-38 OR Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; LUKE 3:15-16, 21-22
G.K.Chesterton says somewhere that the only Christian doctrine that needs no argument in support of it is the doctrine of original sin. Walk down any street, he says, and you will see the consequences of that sin. I suppose he means pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth, and perhaps a few more besides, injustice, prejudice, selfishness ...
During the Christmas holiday I had the joy of baptising my newest grand-niece. And some of the prayers in the rite can seem strange when baptising an infant. Just after her baptism, for example, I was talking to her as if she was already an adult! Of course the rite we have is basically for the baptism of adults, adapted now for baptising infants, but some of the adult bits remain.
Another moment that can feel strange is the first anointing, with the oil of catechumens, and the prayer of exorcism that accompanies it. Why start talking to this pure, innocent, perfect, thank God, little bundle of joy, about nasty things like evil, sin, death and the devil? Is it all just part of an outdated mythology, a story to make a point, yes, but really not a subject to bring up in the wonderful first weeks and months of a child's life?
At the same time, looking round the family circle, many of whom I baptised, and knowing something of each one's struggle and difficulties, as well as my own, it seems only right that the darker realities in human experience should also be acknowledged if only because they are inevitable. In fact it is the point of baptism, is it not, which is not just a christening, a naming ceremony. Baptism means incorporating the child into Christ, making her to be a member of His Body, as Saint Paul puts it, dying sacramentally with Christ in the waters of baptism in order to rise with Him to Eternal Life.
It is a lot to place on the shoulders of a newborn baby. It is a lot to share with a newborn baby, but we do it on the strength of our own conviction and experience of human life and of what the Christian faith illuminates and establishes in us for that life.
The Christmas liturgical season ends with the baby born at Bethlehem being baptised by John in the river Jordan. Finally John's moment has come, when he hands over the mission to the one who baptises in the Holy Spirit and in fire. It is the moment in which Jesus' solidarity with the rest of the human family is revealed. Though we believe him to be without sin, he stands with sinners, and shows that he is at one with us, even in our sin, and for our salvation. The same moment reveals Jesus' solidarity with His eternal family, the Spirit who appears as a dove, the Father whose voice he hears from the open heavens.
So it is also a kind of marriage, when two families are united, the human family, wonderful and fragile, and the heavenly family, eternal and ever-creating. The Church's liturgical tradition links the Baptism of the Lord with His Epiphany, the revelation that Jesus is saviour of all people, and with the wedding feast of Cana, the first sign given by Jesus of the communion he had come to establish between God and human beings.
So on a mild December day we gathered in a church outside Dublin and celebrated what Saint John Chrysostom liked to call the 'awe-inspiring rites of initiation'. It seems like a big title for a simple ceremony. But so it is. Awe-inspiring when we delve a bit into its history and its meaning. Awe-inspiring when we remember that through this sacrament my grand-niece received the greatest of graces, a solidarity with and even identification with Christ, the pledge of His presence with her for ever, the right to participate in the worship of the Church which is the prayer and sacrifice of Christ Himself, and strength to persevere in the gift of life she has received even when the day of testing comes.
Walk down any street, said Chesterton, and you will see original sin. Our prayer today, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, is that as we walk the roads and streets of our lives we will remember always Jesus' solidarity with us, that He walks with us, and remember also the gifts He gives us, for building with Him the communion of love, justice, joy and peace which he has initiated.