Life of Christ
The Baptism of the Lord
January 11, 2015
Somehow, last week, I allowed myself to be talked into watching a “foreign film,” complete with English subtitles. These days, it’s hard enough for me to hear…in English…let alone read the dialogue printed along the bottom of the screen as I try to watch the action of the film. But, being a gracious guest, I agreed to watch a Japanese movie called “Departure.” Within no time, I was completely hooked. Although tempted to share the entire story, I’ll restrain myself and share just this.
The movie is about a young man, desperate for work, who takes a well-paying job that no one else wants. Apparently, there is an ancient Japanese tradition for a family to gather in the presence of the body of a recently deceased loved one and watch as the body is very ceremoniously prepared to be placed into a coffin, before professional morticians step in to take charge. This ceremony is not exactly religious; rather, it is cultural. Nevertheless, it is highly spiritual.
Early on in his apprenticeship, the young man is repulsed by the work, and in spite of the lucrative salary, is on the verge of leaving his employment. Besides the nature of the work itself, the attitude of the bereaved families is what he finds intolerable. The families, who have arranged for the ceremony out of respect for the deceased, (it’s what Grandma would have wanted) nevertheless are impatient, scornful, and even disrespectful and dismissive of this old tradition…this “old way.”
However, as the service progresses and moves into a “ceremonial washing” or cleansing of the body, the families seem to undergo a conversion. They stop being impatient spectators and become genuine mourners, participating in a powerful ritual, which, although they don’t fully understand, they come to appreciate as necessary to properly prepare the departed to leave this life and move into what awaits them. For his part, as the young man observes the change the cleansing ritual has on the mourners, as a consequence, he himself is changed. He comes to realize that his work is far more than a job; it is a special calling or vocation.
I think I was so captivated by this foreign film about a ritual I do not understand because the movie reminded me so much of something I fully understand…The Sacrament of Baptism. So often, in what has tragically come to be referred to as “the post-Christian era,” the parents or parent of a newborn will approach a parish to arrange for infant Baptism because it is a “family tradition.” “Grandma is putting pressure”… or even…”It’s a way to get the family together for a party.” Way too often, the Sacrament of Initiation is tolerated, often impatiently, by young parents who regard Christian Baptism as a cultural tradition, rather than what it really is…REBIRTH IN THE HOLY SPIRIT.
It is not unusual to have parents resist the sacramental preparation program intended by the parish to put them in touch with the spiritual reality of Baptism. If a pastor holds firm and insists that preparation is mandatory, some walk away and do not give their child the priceless gift of the Sacrament, while others endure with obvious boredom the Church’s best efforts to make the celebration as meaningful and joyful, as it should be. Even during the beginning of the Mass, on the day of the Baptism, it is clear from the demeanor of the family that they are “spectators” or gracious guests…clearly unaware and unappreciative of what is about to happen.
And then, it’s finally time to bring the baby to the living, Spirit-filled waters. At this point in the ceremony, almost always, the atmosphere and attitude changes. As the priest prays the prayers, extracts the promises, intones the Baptismal formula, pours the water, anoints the child with the Oils, and lights the Baptismal candle from the burning paschal candle…entrusting The Light of Christ to the parents…it’s as if the heavens part…and the Voice comes from the heavens, saying…THIS IS MINE! I AM WELL PLEASED WITH THIS NEW LIFE …AND I ENTRUST THIS CHILD TO YOU. And at least, for a brief moment, the parents seem to hear and understand.
Very often, even as the infant is reborn through Baptism, the family experiences the effect of collateral grace; a conversion experience by virtue of being present at the Sacrament, no matter how reluctantly. But, this grace must be nurtured and fed if it is to continue to grow and bear fruit. A moment of grace can lead to a lifetime of holiness, but it takes full, active and conscious participation in the Sacramental life of the Church for this to happen.
As we bring this Christmas Season to a close with the Baptism of the Lord, it is good to recall our own Baptismal dignity…a point of true “DEPARTURE” from a life of sin and darkness…setting us on a path illuminated by The Light of Christ. Our Baptism is not a cultural tradition. It is a spiritual reality that brings us into union with the Son of God. When we come to understand this, we are no longer satisfied with being mere spectators. Instead, we become eager to be full participants in the Life of Christ. And when we fully embrace the identity of Christian…disciple…child of God…the heavens are no longer foreign to us…but become our home.