For Dec. 7, 2014: 2 Advent, Year B

The Reading                                                                   Isaiah 40:1-11

The long first section of the book of Isaiah foretold exile in Babylon and destruction of the Temple as proper punishment for the sins of the nation. Isaiah 40 shifts from disaster to hope; striking metaphors invoke felons rehabilitated, difficult terrain made passable, Jerusalem as herald, and God Almighty tending smelly sheep.

The Response                                                                Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 continues Isaiah’s message of hope as it celebrates God’s grace. Verses 10 and 11 anticipate the Good News: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle                                                                     2 Peter 3:8-15a

Isaiah and the psalmist relayed the promise of salvation coming in the reign of God. For Christians at the end of the first century A.D. who wonder why Jesus has not returned to save them, 2 Peter 3:8-15a explains: God’s goal is the salvation of all peoples, and the way we Christians behave toward the world now plays an important role.

The Gospel                                                                     Mark 1:1-8

The gospel of Mark, used for Year B of the lectionary, says nothing of Jesus’ ancestry or birth. It adapts Isaiah 40:3 by way of Malachi 3:1, 4:5 to present John, whose odd clothes and diet mark him as a prophet like Isaiah. John preaches repentance and baptism, and points the crowds he gathers toward the greater One to come.

Further thoughts

The multiple voices of Isaiah 40:1-11 anticipate the Lord’s coming, for which preparation must be made. Mark’s gospel makes the connection to John obvious: here, Mark 1:2-8 tells us, misquoting Isaiah, is the “voice crying in the wilderness,” a decidedly odd man from the desert who calls for repentance in advance of the One who follows, and who offers baptism.

What exactly is baptism? The word, first found in Middle English, is derived from Old French baptesme (the modern French is baptême), which in turn comes from ecclesiastical Greek baptismos ‘ceremonial washing’ by way of ecclesiastical Latin. (The Old English word was either cristnung (literally ‘Christian-ing’) or fulluht / fullwiht ‘full consecration’.) The corresponding Greek verb is baptizein ‘immerse, dip in water’; bapto ‘wash’ is perhaps less intentionally ceremonial.

In the first centuries of the Church, baptism was reserved for people of an age to understand what they were doing and to have studied for up to three years; the baptized person could receive Holy Communion immediately. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the number of baptisms increased so that such protracted preparation was less practical. By the 13th century, infant baptism was becoming common, along with a separate rite of Confirmation before one could receive the Eucharist. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer set forth baptism as a public rite, with water and oil of chrism. During the Victorian era baptism was increasingly a private rite, with only family and friends in attendance. [i]

Baptism happens once for every Christian—as the Nicene Creed states, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” The policy of the Episcopal Church currently is that anyone validly baptized as a Christian is welcome at the Eucharistic table. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that any baptism is valid provided it involves water applied to a baptizee by someone who intends to baptize and uses the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and it certainly follows from this that, should an unbaptized person be in imminent danger of death, any layperson may perform the baptism privately. Absent such a circumstance, however, baptism in the Episcopal Church currently is to be public and it is preferred (though not required) that the bishop preside.

Baptism can be carried out by submersion (full immersion), by partial immersion (up to the knees or waist in water) with water poured over the head; by affusion (water poured on the skin), and by aspersion (sprinkling), which requires an aspergillum (sprinkling device). The first three are valid ways to baptize in Anglican practice; affusion is most common in Episcopal churches, perhaps chiefly because most lack immersion pools,[ii] and aspersion is generally reserved for blessing that isn’t baptism, as at the Easter vigil. Church traditions that countenance only submersion point to verses like Mark 1:10: “just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water…” and to the literal meaning of baptizein. It is not clear that Mark 1:10 necessarily entails that Jesus was coming up for air after submersion, as opposed to walking out of the river. As for baptizein, the Online Etymological Dictionary notes two striking figurative meanings:[iii] ‘be in over one’s head (in debt)’ and ‘be soaked (in wine)’, the latter in a sense like colloquial English soused for ‘drunk’ but probably influenced by the sense ‘to dip up in a bowl, like wine’. Dipping up is precisely how baptism by affusion works.

One function of infant baptism is to wash away original sin—the sin of Adam, which is to say the sin that inheres to everyone by virtue of being human. (In the phrase cast aspersions, the word has gone from sprinkling for cleanliness through spattering to a metaphorical sort of soiling. Languages are funny that way.) Another is, with the oil of chrism, to mark the newly baptized person as belonging to Christ and to induct the newly baptized into the Church and the local congregation. A function that may have more resonance for adults being baptized, and for the congregation witnessing the baptism and renewing baptismal vows, is the symbolic burial with Christ and rebirth into new life. Both the washing and the rebirth

Like the other great sacrament of the Church, the Eucharist, baptism brings us the extraordinary grace of God clothed in the ordinary stuff of daily life. What if we were to take each of our daily uses of water as an occasion to give thanks for our baptism and the grace that comes of it?

[i] “Confirming Baptism.” Episcopal Diocese of New York. Web. http://www.dioceseny.org/pages/228-concerning-baptism. Consulted 6 December 2014.

[ii] Fischbeck, Lisa G. n.d. “Baptism by Immersion.” The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. Web. http://theadvocatechurch.org/worship-liturgy/baptism-by-immersion/ Consulted 6 December 2014.

[iii] “Baptize.” n.d. Online Etymological Dictionary. Web. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=baptize&allowed_in_frame=0. Consulted 5 Dec 2014.

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