Today is a special day! Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord (Mark 1:4-11), a significant occasion full of joy as we are invited to reflect on our own baptism and its meaning.
Baptism is a sacrament, defined as a sacred or holy act in which an individual is bound by promises, and sacrament also means ‘mystery’ as we think about a believer’s initiation into the mystery of life, and into the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we baptise an individual, they are no longer simply a child of an earthly family, with parents and siblings, we recognise they are a divine child in whom God opens up a new beginning, and in whom something unique and singular in this world shines forth.
Through the rite of baptism, Jesus Christ himself directly affects the individual, pouring out his divine life and his unconditional love, conferring God’s own protection and disclosing God’s beauty. As the water is poured over the individual, they enter into God’s mystery in Jesus Christ.
When we baptise children, the meaning for the child at that time is limited, but for those sharing in the rite, and celebrating the occasion, we are helped to see the child in a new way, and with new relationships and behaviours, as this individual is now one of God’s children. Each individual has divine dignity and value.
Water has always been the main symbol of baptism. In the early church, Christians went naked into the baptismal water as we recognise water being the source of life. Remember the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at Jacob’s Spring as he tells her:
…those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (John 4:14)
The water in the baptismal font is a well that will never dry up. It is God’s love poured out over us becoming an eternal spring within us.
Water has the power of purifying and cleansing us. The water of baptism allows us to be cleansed of the mistakes of the past and renews us so we can go on living as new people. We celebrate a spiritual birth in baptism.
Water is a symbol of spiritual flourishing and fruitfulness. Baptism reminds us we have a never-ending spring within us. It is the spring of the Holy Spirit upon which we can always draw.
The story of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, concerns a gentile who dreams about sending for Peter, who has a similar dream from God, who baptises Cornelius and his whole household as the Holy Spirit is poured out on gentiles.
Baptism with water is therefore associated with the descent of the Spirit. The early church believed baptismal water was filled with the sanctifying and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit as it was with Jesus.
Paul also tells us about the power of baptism with Jesus Christ, where we share in his death, and how like Christ we will be raised from the dead (Romans 6:3f).
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
In baptism we dip down into Christ’s grave and bury every obstacle for us in life. We bury our old identity which has been intent on living in this world, with this world’s values seeking money, power, status; both selfish and consuming. We bury our past which has ruled us, we bury our mistakes, injuries and insults. We no longer need to blame others. We die to the world so we may live as new people defined by God not by others. Such freedom is awesome.
And if we are dead to this world, it no longer has power over us. This means we are living on the far side of the spring of living water through which we have passed and death no longer has a hold over us. Whatever happens to each of us, our relationship with the baptised individual will never be destroyed and cannot disappear. God’s love which is shared with the individual, flows in and through us and will keep us united even beyond death.
When Jesus entered the water to be baptized, Mark said:
In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (Mark 1:9-10)
The act of submersion into the water, symbolises his penetration of the depths of the earth, into the abyss of our own soul, into our hidden repressed selves. As we go down into the darkness, the heavens open above us. We take courage given freely by God, accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, failures and successes, and the darkness settled in us. Just being brave enough to descend results in the heavens being torn apart to reveal us in God’s kingdom. The torn-open heavens reveal the new horizons we live in as Christians in God’s being.
We are told Martin Luther engraved the Latin words ‘Baptizatus sum’ – ‘I am baptized’, on his desk. Whenever he doubted himself and struggled with feelings of inferiority, he looked at the declaration and told himself: ‘I am baptized’. For him it meant it was not a question of achieving anything, nor whether he did everything right or wrong, or justly, or if he managed to live in the right way in the sight of God. The important, critical thing for him and us to remember is God has accepted us unconditionally. God loves us impartially, God justifies me; and my justification comes from God and not from my achievements or failures.
Baptism tells us we are loved absolutely, not one part of us is excluded from this divine love. Love is the basic fact on which we build our lives. God’s love is also not fragile or contingent, as it can be with human love. It is not ambivalent or requiring sacrifices to pay it down the line. So the memory of God’s unconditional acceptance of ourselves in baptism helps us to affirm ourselves and others and share God’s love abundantly.
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:11)
Mark commences his gospel with the invasion of this world by God and God’s reign, and in Jesus’ baptism this invasion continues. Jesus joins the crowds being baptized by John in the muddy waters of the Jordan. He receives no special attention. He simply goes down into the water with all the rest.
Then the heavens are torn apart as God’s Holy Spirit descends. This is Jesus as God’s Son, told to all creation. God’s reign is coming whether we are ready or not. Jesus comes, submits and receives. This is a coronation of a king, an affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah, and a recognition of Jesus as the vulnerable, suffering Christ. All three persons of the Trinity are present. This is a story about God who is with each of us, now and forever.
As I finish this reflection, I wonder if you too can see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on you and those around you. Are you seeing God creating things anew, inviting and sharing? Are you hearing God’s words said to you and to others, ‘you are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased!’
I hear these words today as my grandsons are baptised in Victoria this morning; I see and hear them in the healing and saving of those living with illnesses shaping their lives, in the courage of those standing up for justice and love; and in the kind actions and pastoral love of the people of this parish demonstrated every day.
I say again: I hear God, our creator, redeemer and sanctifier; and God, my constant companion, friend, lover, comforter and guide saying to you and I, ‘you are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.’
The Lord be with you.
Anselm Grun. 2003. The Seven Sacraments (Tr. John Cumming). Continuum, New York, London. pp3-40