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Gospel Reflection – Baptism of the Lord

Dear sisters and brothers,

As we celebrate today’s feast, the Baptism of the Lord, two events come to mind.  Both were many years ago.  The first was when I attended Church with an Anglican friend of mine and there happened to be a Baptism that day.  To mu surprise the Vicar came into the Church barefoot and in a t-shirt and shorts.  As he introduced the person to be Baptised he pressed a button and a section of the floor opened up electronically in front of the sanctuary, and a walk in font about six feet long and six feet wide was revealed, with steps going down into the water.  He went into the water and invited the new Christian – we would call them a catechumen – to step in alongside him, and he then proceeded to lower her whole body, including her head, under the water, Baptising her in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It was the first time that I had witnessed anything like it and so it remains indelibly imprinted on my memory.

The second such occasion was the Baptism of a young woman with whom we had been journeying since doing a mission in her secondary school.  You may remember that I was a member of Sion Community before going to seminary, and my main ministry was, with a team of people, leading missions for young people aged 11 to 18.  As part of the process, we would organise a summer camp each year.  Helen had been brought up a Methodist but had never been Baptised.  Like so many Christian families, her parents sent her to a Catholic school to receive a Christian education.  Helen and her group of friends were all in year 10 at the time, and they became more and more actively involved with the mission as the week progressed.  After the mission had finished they maintained contact with us and came along to successive summer camps over the following years.  Finally, when she had turned 18, she asked to be Baptised a Catholic, and hoped that it would be possible for the Baptism to take place at the summer camp, partly because it was the place where she felt that her faith had been nurtured and partly as a witness to the other young people attending.  (It’s important to note that, of course, her parents had had the most significant impact, even though ultimately she chose not to follow them into Methodism, and that the school had provided a level of formation that had made a notable contribution.)

Helen wanted her Baptism to reflect those would have taken place in the early Church, so a wooden font was constructed in the shape of a deep coffin, and she received what is commonly known as full immersion Baptism, her head and body being held under the water three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  It was very different to pouring a little bit of water over the catechumens’ heads as we tend to do today.  Our modern way of doing things is for the sake of ease.  It has become a symbol of the full immersion, which is the ideal, but messier, way that someone would have been Baptised in the early Church.

So why the coffin shape?  This was a reminder that when we are Baptised – remember the word means ‘immersion’ – we are being immersed in the death of Jesus.  Historically the catechumen’s head would have been held under the water until they were virtually running out of air so that each of the three times they symbolically died with Christ and came up gasping for the air of new life in the resurrection, the breath of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The early Church father, Hippolytus, tells us:

Whoever goes down into these waters of rebirth with faith renounces the devil and pledges himself to Christ. He repudiates the enemy and confesses that Christ is God, throws off his servitude and becomes an adopted son. He comes up from Baptism resplendent as the sun and radiating purity and, above all, he comes as a son of God and a co-heir with Christ.

Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord we remember that in our own Baptisms, whether they were full immersion or not, we follow where Christ leads.  When he was Baptised, Jesus represented each of us, he stood in solidarity with each of us and he transformed what had purely been a Baptism of repentance into one of, yes, repentance, but also immersion in the Holy Spirit who is the fulness of the love of God. Ponder the power of that word – immersion.  We are immersed in the Holy Spirit who floods us with God’s love and pushes out any hold that evil may have over our lives.  Of course, we can turn our backs on that love, but in that moment, we are filled with it in every aspect of our being.

As happened at Jesus own Baptism, so the same happens at ours, whether we were aware of it or not: the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on us. And a voice comes from heaven, ‘You are my son, my daughter, my heir, my Beloved; my favour rests on you.’  That is a truth that for us of faith can never be denied.  As we pray today, the heavens continue to be torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends on you and on me.  The Father’s favour continues to rest on each of us.  We are, and we remain, the Father’s daughter or son; his heir; his Beloved!!!

With every blessing,