Year A; The Baptism of our Lord; Epiphany 1; 1.12.2020
Last summer during my visit to San Diego to see my sister, I had several “play dates” with my niece and her two little daughters. During a somewhat slow afternoon one day, I spied in the corner of my niece’s living room a wooden child’s “concession stand” cart. Instantly, I saw an opportunity for playing “just pretend” with my four-year-old grand-niece. I asked if she’d like to play “concession stand,” and she happily got behind the counter!
I pulled out my coin purse full of loose change. Her eyes widened and she gasped, “Coinez!” That’s her version of the word, “coin” influenced by the Spanish she is learning at her pre-school. So, I got myself onto the floor in front of the wooden cart while she pulled out the “concessions:” A wooden hot dog and bun. A wooden hamburger and bun.
“How much for the hot dog?” I asked. She leaned over to look into my coin purse and said, “Five coinez.” So, I paid her. Then I said, “I’m still hungry. How much is the hamburger?” She said, “Five coinez.” So I paid her and then told her I’d like the fries, too. For that I gave her 10 coinez.
Soon, it was time for me to choose dessert from the wooden ice cream cone selections. I ordered a vanilla cone. At that point, I just made sure she had ALL my “coinez.”
So, there I was on the floor, eye level with the cart, my grand-niece, the “concession stand vendor” standing over me, both of us laughing with delight at the “concession stand” game we just played.
Play-acting with children and adults alike is a cause for joy, delight and laughter. There is a truth in it that touches on our humanity in an unselfconscious way. My grand-niece and I were totally absorbed in the game and in the parts we played. I think this is why I love theater and acting. There is a freedom and delight in playing a part and watching a part being played.
I think this is why I love liturgy – the joyful, freedom we have when we participate in worship. It’s not play-acting as much as entering into a human and holy drama together as a people of God. There is freedom and delight in listening to the word of God, of singing together, of praying together, taking in the words of a sermon and then entering into the most ancient act of our faith – the Eucharist.
The Sacrament of Baptism is another ancient sacrament we act out as a community. Reaching back to biblical times, Baptism is the one-time event for Christians that comes to us from the most ancient of practices. While there is no Jordan River here in the Nave or in Brunswick, for that matter, we still follow the gospel story of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
John’s was a call to the prophetic ministry of baptism. He called people to repent, to be cleansed and return to God. His ministry captured crowds and crowds of people desiring a second chance and a symbolic gesture of returning to God, healed and cleansed. Jesus entered into John’s ministry and certainly this moment of his baptism is based on history because the story is described in great detail in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Bible scholars go out of their way to say that Jesus wasn’t one of those who needed to return and repent since he was without sin. And Matthew includes that adorable conversation between the Baptist and Jesus to clarify the purpose of Jesus’ baptism: Not to repent, but to launch him into his full life of ministry and to reveal God’s approval of him. Matthew writes, “The Spirit of God descending and, like a dove alighting on him…a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” A theophany described in Matthew as being heard by the surrounding people.
I’m in favor of play-acting baptism with our children. Since my grand-niece and I had had so much fun playing “concession stand,” I decided that baptism instruction for parents and children could include acting out baptism. So, for the three candidates for baptism today, I set up a mini baptism. As props I took my grandmother’s small glass cereal bowl, a small glass of water, little shells that I had collected from a beach visit to Florida many years ago and my silver oil stock that has a cotton ball soaked with chrism oil that the bishop blessed.
I poured the water into the little bowl, asked one of the children to unscrew the lid of my oil stock and invited him to smell the oil. I described the ancient Christian recipe to make chrism from olive oil and balsam perfume. Lovely! Every child wanted to put his finger in it. Then they put their finger into the water and splashed it around. We play acted a blessing over the water and then I put the little shell in and scooped the water up and over the hand of the child. That was fun, too.
I asked the question, “What does baptism mean to you?” Sometimes the answer is, “I want my child to become a kind adult.” This time the answer came from a teen who is to be baptized. She said, “Because I want to be in a community like this.” The others concurred and said that now of all times, it is important to belong to a loving, forgiving community.
The Sacrament of Baptism is the once-in-a-lifetime Christian initiation into the life of Christ and his body, the Church. The word “adopt” appears frequently in Scripture associated with baptism. In Roman times, adoption had more powerful meaning because it meant that a family made it their goal to bring in a son or daughter. Life was cheap then and many children of blood relation didn’t necessarily have the documentation of their kinship. But adoption had legal documentation.
So, the gospel writers and the Apostle Paul chose the phrase, “adopted as God’s Children” to mean initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church. Today, we still believe that baptism brings us into membership of Christ’s Body here on earth. And we also believe that baptism joins us to those who have died, the communion of Saints – the whole family of God on earth and in heaven.
I spoke to the teen who will be baptized and said, “Do you mind if I place the holy oil in the sign of the cross on your forehead after your baptism?” She had smelled the beautiful aroma and agreed. I said, “The words I will say are, ‘you are marked as Christ’s own forever.’ That means Christ is always with you, even if you turn away from him. He is not going to be a harsh judge. He always want you to return because He has so much love to give you. It’s as if he stands next to you with his finger beckoning you to Him.”
So God IS going like this beckoning sign, calling us back to his love again and again. That’s what it means to “be marked as his own forever”. “Come home, children. Come back to the community that loves you. Return to a community of healing and forgiving.”
Soon we will stand together and renew our baptismal promises. How will we celebrate this day of Jesus’ baptism and live into our promises?