Posts Tagged 'baptism'

For Feb. 22, 2015: 1 Lent, Year B

The Reading                                                                    Genesis 9:8-17

Genesis 9:8-17 finishes the account of the great Flood. Here is God’s promise never again to destroy the world by flood; the sign of this is the rainbow. On this first Sunday of Lent, it is good to consider how our sinfulness grieves God, how great God’s mercy is—and how we children of God are also called to mercy.

The Response                                                                 Psalm 25:1-9

Psalm 25:1-9 resonates for the first day of Lent and the commemoration of two great teachers of the Episcopal Church. The psalmist declares trust in the Lord and praises the Lord’s graciousness, faithfulness, and teaching—and yet, like so many of us, the psalmist cannot help begging not to be humiliated or put to shame.

The Epistle                                                                      1 Peter 3:18-22

The issue of shame that was raised in Psalm 25 is dealt with in the first letter of Peter, written by a Roman church elder in Peter’s name, who explicitly links the great Flood of Genesis and baptism. Through baptism God moves to drown our bad conscience and with it our stubborn, self-humiliated resistance to God’s unfailing mercy.

The Gospel                                                                       Mark 1:9-15

In Mark 1:9-15 we revisit Jesus’ baptism. The reading for 1 Epiphany ended with the voice from heaven in verse 11; today’s reading goes on to describe the dove-like Spirit turning into a hawk and harrying Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted or tested. Only after those forty days does Jesus begin his public ministry.

 

Further thoughts

Outside my window, the sky is grey—an encouraging color as parched Southern California faces yet another year of drought. Most of us can still simply turn on a faucet and expect water that’s safe and mostly clear, depending on how many particulates are contributed by the Colorado River. For some in California, however, this necessity is a luxury: the farmworker households of Alpaugh in the San Joaquin Valley, whose estimated median household income is less than $20,000,[1] must spend an average of $1500 per year on bottled water because the booming almond industry[2] sucks up so much groundwater that the town’s last functioning well is bringing up water tainted with arsenic. Ironically, when Alpaugh was founded in the 19th century, it was an island in wetlands that extended from Mendota in the north to as far south (though not as far east) as Bakersfield[3] and included Tulare Lake, the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi until the rivers that supplied it were dammed and diverted around the beginning of the 20th century.

Water infuses three of the four lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent 2015 as life-giver but also life-taker. Even when water makes an end, however, as the reading from Genesis reminds us, water is not the end, but rather a means. As we close Black History Month 2015 by celebrating the lives of educators Anna Haywood Cooper and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, it is good to remember the role of water in helping slaves escape to freedom. The spiritual “Wade in the Water” speaks of groups freed by passing through water and alludes to the healing at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:4, KJV); it was also a code instructing escapees to throw bounty hunters off their scent by taking to the rivers.[4] We are baptized once for all, of course, but visualizing God’s mercy as a flow we follow to freedom and our fullest selves can perhaps help us remember to be conduits of that mercy to the many in this dry world who still so desperately thirst.

 

[1] “Alpaugh, California,” City-Data.com, no date. Web, http://www.city-data.com/city/Alpaugh-California.html#b. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[2] Philpott, Tom. “California Goes Nuts,” Mother Jones, 12 January 2015, Web, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/01/california-drought-almonds-water-use. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[3] “Hydrology of the Tulare Basin,” Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners, 2013. Web, http://www.tularebasinwildlifepartners.org/history.html. Accessed 20 February 2015.

[4] “Revised Common Lectionary: Wade in The Water,” RevGalBlogPals, 17 February 2015. Web. http://revgalblogpals.org/2015/02/17/revised-common-lectionary-wade-in-the-water/. Accessed 20 February 2015. A glorious rendition of “Wade in the Water” by the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRpzEnq14Hs.

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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.

For Jan. 12, 2014: First Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 42:1-9

The reading from Isaiah gives us dazzling good news: the chosen of the Lord is coming, not to strut around in pomp and power but to work tirelessly to bring justice to all us people who are out in the dark, off in dungeons, shut in blindness or marooned far from God—and to make of us people who are ourselves bringers of light.

The Response            Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is a meditation on the power of God that is filled with astonishing images: the voice of God has the power to break mighty cedars, set mountains scampering like startled cattle, make sturdy oak trees squirm—and even to make us righteous.

The Second Lesson            Acts 10:34-43

Isaiah announced great good news for Israel. In the second lesson for the first Sunday in Epiphany, blunt Peter, called out of his comfort zone to visit a Roman centurion, summarizes the life and ministry of Jesus: the astounding gift of grace is for anyone—anyone—who will accept it.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus, the Son of God, begins his ministry not by announcing how badly everyone else has been doing everything but by seeking baptism from his cousin John.

 

Ponderables

The juxtaposition of images in the readings for the first Sunday of Epiphany is startling: a God with the power to set off great earthquakes and dictate terms to the mighty, yet bringing to those whom the world sees as wearing kick-me signs the gentlest of blessing; a God for whom mountains roll over like Rover and oak trees go limp on cue, yet patiently waiting again and again for Peter to blurt out the insight that Jesus and his own brain have been trying to get him to recognize; a God who sits in judgment on the entire universe, yet taking a place in line at the Jordan like everyone else for a baptism that he alone doesn’t really need…

It sounds like I’m being hard on Peter. In fact, I have great sympathy for him. Most thoughtful writers will cheerfully admit that they often don’t truly know what they think until they say or write it. I’m not in that exalted company, but certainly formatting lections and finding translations for them isn’t nearly as effective in obliging my brain to engage with the content as is the act of composing even a few sentences about at least one of them.

But what must it be like to be John? Feet firmly braced in the Jordan’s slightly slimy bottom, you’re up to the hips in water and in lost souls seeking the light; as you’ve done hundreds of times, you release your safety grip on the previous baptizee and reach for the next—only to discover that it’s Aunt Mary’s kid who also happens to be the Son of God. How are you not going to screw this up?

Well, by God’s grace and showing up: what else could do?

For Jan. 13, 2013: 1 Epiphany, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 43:1-7

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah most probably date from the time of exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. After long silence, the Holy One speaks again, calling Israel back out of exile, declaring love, and announcing willingness to redeem all God’s people, no matter how high the price and no matter where they are.

The Response            Psalm 29

The Second Reading            Acts 8:14-17

Our second reading today is from the book of Acts. Jesus’ command to go to all nations combines with rising persecution in Jerusalem to propel Philip on mission to Samaria, where joyful crowds of both men and women accept baptism. The apostles decide to investigate.

The Gospel            Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

Further thoughts

The constant in the readings for the first Sunday in Epiphany is change. In Isaiah, God calls Israel to transition from exile in Babylon back to freedom in Jerusalem—though, as it turned out, life in Jerusalem wasn’t what the Israelites expected it to be. The reading from Acts shows the church transitioning—whether it liked the idea or not—from a local concern for a subset of Jewish men to a movement that was intertribal, intergender, and indeed en route to being international—though the apostles seem to have experienced some cognitive dissonance over the possibility that the despised Samaritans should provide the welcome to the Word that one might have expected of God’s own Israelites. Luke shows us Jesus transitioning into his earthly ministry, with an astonishing sign following a good deal of wondering and speculation on the part of others.

Human beings tend not to find transitions easy, one way or another. As we come today to the end of the ministry of Lark Diaz among us, it occurs to me first that it is very human not to be comfortable with transition.

This discomfort may well have been shared by Jesus. For we believe that Jesus is true God—the true God of today’s psalm, whose voice makes stolid oak trees writhe like eels, whose power is limitless, who sits enthroned for ever. But this God voluntarily was born into our world of change and loss, and went through all the transitions of life: birth, then the challenges of toddlerhood, middle childhood, the considerable trials of adolescence (can anyone imagine Jesus not having a God-sized case of adolescent angst?), adulthood, and finally the loss of status and dignity in the trials and suffering followed by death. Unless Jesus retained no memory at all of being God, all of this earthly transition must have been incredibly jarring.

But, say Isaiah and the psalmist, God is the constant through all of our transitioning. Whatever the disasters, God loves us forever and is prepared to make good on that love, though in ways we often can’t imagine. Even though a transition involves grief and even humiliation, and though the final transition for us is our extinction, God is with us, and God has walked this path.

But what if the God of eternity is also the God of eternal change?

For Feb. 26, 2012: First Sunday in Lent, Year B

The Reading            Genesis 9:8-17

As Lent begins, we think about human sin and God’s mercy. Today’s reading comes after the great Flood. We hear God’s promise to all creatures never again to destroy the world, no matter how much our sinfulness grieves God, and the sign of this is the rainbow.

The Epistle            1 Peter 3:18-22

The first letter of Peter, written by a church elder in Rome, makes an explicit link between the great Flood about which we heard in the first reading and baptism. The Flood destroyed disobedient humans. It is sobering to think of baptism as a means through which God moves to drown our disobedience.

 

Further notes

One thinks of baptism as a gentle process: tip a little water from a scallop shell onto a baby’s tender scalp, or at most dip a youth or grownup in the Baptists’ full immersion, whether in a specially built pool or in the wilder water of a river. In either case the person baptized is literally supported. The priest cradles the infant; I for one love to watch a priest whose own family is complete gazing at the child in her arms and getting herself a “baby fix” in the course of administering this delightful sacrament. The Baptist baptism is almost a liturgical dance, and it takes a certain amount of practice to do gracefully: as the pastor and the baptizand stand thigh deep in water, it is the baptizand’s part to relax at the knees and not struggle while the pastor—who may be holding the baptizand’s nostrils shut for him—quickly lays him down into the water and brings him back upright again.

The first letter of Peter tells us that baptism, whatever form it takes, is prefigured by the epic Flood of Noah. Now the reading from Genesis today gives us the end of the process, with God promising never, ever again to destroy the whole world by flood. This promise is the first great covenant between God and humanity. The Flood that gets us this covenant, however, is a violent process.

Did the Flood prefigure baptism by washing away the human propensity to do wrong? I think we know the answer to that. The verses after today’s selection from Genesis tell us that, as soon as the world dried out enough, upright Noah discovered wine, got blind drunk and exposed himself. And things have only gone down the drain since then.

We could instead look at baptism as a kind of epic flood. A huge flood changes the landscape permanently. It sweeps away familiar landmarks, creates new ones and makes new growth possible. It overruns the banks we assign it and astonishes us with its power. Baptism does these things. In baptism is God’s self-binding promise never to destroy the human soul, even when our sin deserves it. Through it is God’s declaration that no other power has the right to condemn us—not a government, not Satan, not the church nor even our own deep shame and guilt—because Jesus is our claim on righteousness. We don’t always recall this as we ought, but let us look to the rainbow and remember.