A priest I know is about to retire after 44 years of ordained ministry, and he was recently reflecting on changes he’s seen in the church in those decades. “When I was at Princeton Seminary in the late 60s,” he said, “a group of us students became very interested in Greek Orthodoxy and the early Church fathers, and we began to ask our professors at different points in different classes, ‘but what does this have to do with prayer? Or how does this affect the way that one prays, and thinks of prayer?’ And every single one of them would look at us, bewildered, and ask, ‘why on earth would you ask that?!’”
Happily, he said, this attitude toward prayer has changed in mainline Protestant Christianity — and so has the discussion of baptism. “When I was a young priest,” he said, “no one talked about their baptism, or their children’s baptism, except perhaps in the language of having their child ‘done’ or a baptism ‘done.’” It was a one-time event without aftershocks or further implication — or, if there were further implications, no one talked about them. Slowly, our way of praying as developed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has begun to shape our way of believing: baptism is less like receiving a holy gold star to be hung on the wall and much more like receiving a new passport, a holy ID, that changes our notions of citizenship and identity. Who do I belong to? Who do I serve? If I am a citizen of the kingdom of God, a beloved child of God before and above all else, that has implications, every day.
And in the Gospel of Luke, all of this identity shifting that changes the way we walk in this world begins and ends in prayer. If Luke’s author were asked what baptism has to do with prayer, he might respond, “practically everything.” While the baptism of Jesus is somehow addressed in each of the four gospels, each account has a unique emphasis. In Luke, the emphasis is on Jesus praying; we hear only of the baptism in the past tense in a very subdued way: “now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized,” and then we get to the present tense, the main event, when Jesus is in prayer: heaven opens up, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice comes — “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is not the baptism itself that brings an experience of epiphany to Jesus, it is a time of prayer afterwards. Make no mistake, it is still a pivotal moment that launches Jesus’ public ministry, but the gifts of baptism only become clear in prayer.
This is not unique to the big event of baptism: “Throughout the gospel, Luke shows us Jesus in prayer. Jesus prays before he calls his disciples, before asking them who he is, at the time of his transfiguration, before teaching his disciples to pray, on the night of his arrest, and at his death. For Luke, what is characteristic of Jesus is prayer,” and this is also to be characteristic of the church, as described in the book of Acts.
Prayer can sometimes be misconstrued as an escapist endeavor, and those who talk about it most loudly and most often can appear to us as if they are not grounded in reality, not in touch with the actual problems of actual people in the world. But this is not prayer as we see in Jesus, or in countless faithful saints and sinners who have followed in his Way. Jesus is so enmeshed in his world and the hurting people in it that he is particularly concerned for the poor, especially kind to women, a friend to schemers, cheaters, and sinners — he even gets accused of being a glutton and a drunkard himself! He does not pray to further remove himself from the unpleasant realities of the world, but rather to be strengthened for walking in its deep, muddy waters.
The word spoken to the people of Israel in Isaiah, and then more particularly to Jesus, is now ours, too, through the Holy Spirit, who early in Church history made it clear She was breaking through exclusive ethnic and religious lines to be known as a gift for all people:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, says the Lord; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you … You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. … Do not fear, for I am with you.”
It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? And that is precisely why it seems to be a truth we have to listen for in prayer to experience, because the world and our eyes and ears will not tell us this, not without God’s help.
When I was a campus missioner, one of my most wondrous office visits came from a petite girl, Verania, who wanted to talk to me because she didn’t know who else to turn to. She was an atheist, you see, and quite comfortable with that, given what her eyes and her mind concluded. But she was very curious about God, because, it turned out, when she closed her eyes and sat in the darkness she had begun to feel that there was something there, something she could only describe as a giant smile in the darkness. Someone is smiling, she said. But I only see it when I am alone and quiet.
While I treasure this image of an unbidden divine smile in the darkness, it is not quite the full picture of our relationship with God, for Jesus or for us. In prayer, Jesus hears: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is a combination of two phrases from the Hebrew scriptures that have echoes of meaning beyond themselves, sort of like the phrase “We the people” conjures entire notions of democracy and equality for American ears. “You are my son, the beloved,” was used at the coronation of Israel’s king as son of God, and “with you I am well pleased” harkens to a description of the servant of God in the book of Isaiah. Together, “the two texts join sovereignty and service.” And this is what the holiest men and women seem to find in baptism, in prayer, in Christ: Like Jesus, we know we are exquisitely loved royal children, children of the kingdom of heaven, AND we are servants. We are blessed, and yet we are not destined for a life of pampered privilege.
This faithfulness-before-personal comfort servanthood is a part of the Christian experience not frequently broadcast, for obvious reasons. When we face a beautiful group of children and parents and godparents, as we are today, a small part of us wishes we could say that this newly strengthened Christian identity will protect you from pain, from loss, from sorrow, but Jesus in the beatitudes as well as all the lives of the saints remind us that this is not true; this is not the way it works. You shall pass through waters; you shall walk through fire. It is hard to say this to sweet babies and new converts alike, but we are trying to be honest, here, so we must look with eyes wide open to the fact that trusting in God and following the way of Jesus is not a good security or insurance plan. In many ways, the more we trust and follow, the more faith we have, the more vulnerable and open we become. There will be pain, and sorrow, and loss.
Yet, like Jesus, we are blessed to walk among this marvelous world, not untouched by its problems or suffering, but strengthened by the touch of the Holy One, the one who made us, and knows, and has called us by name. We can love because we are loved. We can serve with joy because we know it’s not ultimately all up to us. We share not just in his death, but also in his resurrection. But first, we pray. Because some truths, like the ones at the heart of baptism, are most fully discovered when we pray, when we are alone and quiet.
The Rev. Laurel Mathewson
January 10, 2016
Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after the Epiphany), Year C
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego