Monday, December 18, 2006

A Baptism close to home

Yesterday, Gaudete Sunday, Advent Three, my five week old grand-daughter, Jasmine Aurora Brand, was baptized during Evensong at St John's. Many of the regular congregation turned up and doubled the usual numbers attending. They were so welcoming. It was wonderful to be able to share our domestic joy with them. For me it was the fifth service of the day. We had a splendid reception upstairs in the choir vestry-cum-tea room, whilst downstairs preparations went on apace for a late evening Carol Service, hosted by members of the South Wales branch of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. That was to be my sixth service of the day. No remission of duties for personal reasons, unfortunately, being so short staffed.

Uncle Owain, Rachel's brother was one of the Godparents. One came from London and an Australian friend came over from Dublin. A fourth Godparent lives in Greece, and the fifth, is a Cardiffian working in Latvia over the weekend. These had to be represented by proxy. Rachel and John, Jasmine's Mum and Dad live in the French West Indes, and have friends all over the world. It was fortunate that we should be able to organise a family gathering to celebrate Jasmine's christening at short notice before Christmas, fitting it in before they fly home next month. It was such a joy for me that they both wanted this.

Our social settings and influences, even within families are nowadays so diverse that differing ideas of what baptism are understandable. Kath, my eldest daughter and her husband Anthony conscientiously abstained from presenting our first grand-daughter Rhiannon for baptism. Nevertheless they were there, and they joined in the festivity with enthusiasm. Kath even managed to take a movie on her camera of the actual moment of baptism. I don't discourage anyone from taking photos (as long as they don't interfere with the ceremony), for I have come to realise that some people participate more strongly in an event by means of its visual element, than by words that are said.

Whenever I hear the words of our baptism liturgy, I think how obscure and elaborate they are, leaving little space for people to ponder in. The intention of articulating the church's beliefs about baptism in its prayerful actions is noble enough but too many words make it difficult for people to connect with the silent mystery of the action, no matter how well prepared or educated in textual meanings they may be. If the rite is unfamiliar to participants, it needs to be simply expressed to make clear the meaning of the actions, and if it's well understood, simplicity offers space in which to contemplate on deeper meanings. Over-wordy services can either be a puzzle or an irritation. Less is more, as the saying goes.

My colleague Christine admirably conducted the whole service, enabling me to be (mostly) Grandpa with the family, except that I couldn't resist the opportunity to give a brief homily to mark the occasion. Here's what I said.

In this morning's service, the Gospel reading spoke about John the Baptist and all that he taught. He was uncompromisingly tough and scary in telling his audience to look hard at their lives, and recognise that their behaviour was under divine judgement. There's nothing in what he says about hedonistic pleasures, sex or abuse of intoxicants. He cares only about compassion, justice, truthful living, right relationships with each other. This is what shows a person is trying live their lives aright in God's eyes.

If anyone was ready to make a fresh start in putting themselves straight in relation to God, John took them through the river Jordan, from outside the promised land - the east bank, across to the west bank, washing them all over with water as they went. This is baptism.It was meant as a sign of commitment. No matter how successful people actually were in reforming themselves in a complex moral world, forced on times to compromise or be destroyed in the face of overwheming dark powers, baptism would always be there for them as a point of reference to return to in their soul's journey, a declaration of their values and hopes for themselves and their world.

Some decades later, the followers of the messiah Jesus, had a much more penetrating life transforming message of Good News of God's unconditional universal love & compassion. They continued John's practice of baptising people wanting to make a new start with God, and as Christianity spread, baptism became a sign of identity, a sign of belonging among those who wanted to be known as disciples of Jesus, people learning to live by the same vision and values he taught.

Baptism became a sign, not only of conscious commitment, but also of inclusion in a faith-community, of initiation into a way of life based on the kind of love Jesus taught and showed would make us as fully and confidently human as we are meant to be. No matter how old or young we are when we receive it, the sign of baptism offers a promise whose spiritual value we learn to appreciate as we grow up - the promise of unconditional love and acceptance, as a secure foundation for becoming the person we're meant to be.

It's not so long ago that the dominant way of interpreting baptism was as an insurance. If you didn't have it, you might be lost forever and roast in hell when you die. I'm not sure what Jesus would have made of that! He came into a world that resembled hell in its way, with the poverty, brutality and injustice of life in an occupied country.

He declared that God cared about human suffering, and taught the secret of overcoming evil with good, rather than endless unsuccessful attempts at eliminating evil by violence. He drew people into a community guided by compassion and forgiveness, willingness to suffer rather than inflict suffering on others. His philosophy was 'Heaven can't be delayed, it has to be made by us, here and now, treating each other aright, so let's start as we'd like to continue forever. Given how hellish the world we live in can be for all of us at times, this propostion is worth taking seriously.

Baptism is about our identity - do we understand ourselves merely as products of genetic coding and social history? Can we also see ourselves as children of God, embracing higher life-giving, life-enhancing values? Being under the sign of baptism, declares that our lives mean more than anything our National Insurance, passport or bank account number, or even our family genealogical tree can entitle us to. We aren't merely defined by the norms of the society we are obliged to live in. Our lives are greater than what the government and commerce would have them be.

Baptism is also about our alignment. We line up with those of different faiths who also see human existence as having a spiritual dynamic and destiny which also give priority to the moral life, to dignity, humanity, compassion. It's one way of defying the tyranny of a culture that worships the idols of materialism, which has no room for God, and no desire to live beyond the given of this world.

No matter how old you are when you come it, the fact of being baptized is always there for you, an anchor that connects us to the graciousness and compassion of God, reminding us always that we, and every other human being are born children of God invited to a life that surpasses understanding, an adventure that knows no end.

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