Shall We Gather at the River

If you have been watching the news this past week you’ve seen the devastating power of water. In Australia whole areas of cities and towns are under flood waters. Rivers no longer able to absorb the heavy rains of the past weeks left their banks and devastated homes and farmlands over wide areas of Queensland, showing once again that water can be a source of life or death.

A group from the parish went to the Holy Land in November and of course one of the places we visited was the Jordan River. We visited a place where a great number of people were buying white robes with “I was baptized in the River Jordan” written on them. These pilgrims went to the river and were dunked into the water, imitating the baptism of Jesus. No one in our group took the bait. Our imaginations of the Jordan were shattered by what we saw. It certainly didn’t look like a river. At that particular spot it was only about 40 feet wide and because they are in desperate need of rain in the area the water level was very low. We could have walked across it.

In the Middle East they have two seasons; from September to April it’s the rainy season and from May to September is the dry season. That Jesus and others could be “dunked” in the Jordan indicates it was the beginning of the dry season, when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the melting snow in the mountains, and the sun warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature.

From the earliest times, the followers of Jesus were embarrassed by his submission to John’s baptism. John, after all, explained that his baptism was for the purpose of repentance. Being superior to John Jesus did not need to repent.

The voice from heaven in Matthew’s gospel says that Jesus is baptized because God wills it. God is pleased by Jesus’ obedience, an obedience that would bring Jesus from the Jordon to Calvary and to the glory of his resurrection.

Baptism did not begin with John the Baptist. Many religions used washing in water as a sign and wish for purification from past offences or as cleansing for ritual services.

St Paul saw baptism as our coming to new life in Christ as we imitated his death and resurrection. He saw the act of being buried in the water as a form of dying to former ways of living and our coming out of the water as our coming to a whole new life. As Paul wrote to the Roman’s “You have been taught that when we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death, in other words when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death so that as Christ was raised from death by the Father’s glory we too might live a new life. If in union with Christ we have imitated his death we shall also imitate him in his resurrection.

Paul saw baptism as that event which binds us together in Christ. As he told the Galatians, ‘All baptized in Christ, you have clothed yourselves in Christ and there is no more distinctions between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’

We know that baptism is the most important of all the sacraments – baptism initiates us into our Christian living and allows us to receive the other sacraments of the church. Our greatest sacrament is the Eucharist by which we are nourished by the body and blood of Christ.

During the Christmas break I had supper with a family I’ve known for a number of years. I was in conversation with one of the sons who was home for Christmas. Like most young people he had many questions about the faith in which he was raised. Again, like most young people his age he is very inclusive in his attitudes towards people, people of other cultures, faiths and lifestyles. Our conversation centered on the word unless: unless you are baptized, unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior basically you’re out. His question was, ‘what about all those good people, friends of mine, who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus, are they lost, are they going to hell?

To answer his thoughtful, concerned question we can go to the second reading of this feast of the Baptism of the Lord. St. Peter was blessed with his own insight to the great question, ’who can be saved?’ Speaking with a God fearing non-Jew Peter did a total U-turn in his thinking. “The truth I have come to realize is this: God does not have favorites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” Peter goes on to say, “it is true God sent his word to the people of Israel by Jesus Christ – but Jesus Christ is Lord of all people.”

So my friend and I talked about a teaching of the church that goes back to the church’s earliest days; the truth about the baptism of desire. Early Christians wondered about mothers and fathers or grandparents or friends who were truly good people, religious and spiritual people. They wondered, ‘are they lost, will I never see them again and will they never see God’? As one of the early Church Fathers wrote, “The Doctrine that Baptism of Water may be replaced by the Baptism of desire or by Baptism of Blood is not, as is some times supposed, a recent development of doctrine, it is taught for instance by St. Gregory Nazianzen in a sermon preached in 381, where mention is made of the Baptism of water, of Martyrdom and of tears.” This Church Father goes on to say, “It must be observed that we do not hold that there are three kinds of Baptism, for in the creed we confess one Baptism for the remission of sins, the actual reception of which, however, may be replaced in either of the two ways mentioned.”

Baptism of desire is not the sacrament of baptism and yet applying the term “baptism” to the baptism of blood and baptism of desire has been a practice of the Church for centuries. Even if it is not a baptism in the strict sense, it nevertheless is a baptism in the analogical sense.

We can say that, by the very way these good people live their different faiths they show that they are open to the grace and life of God in their lives.

Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, a feast that teaches God is the God of all peoples and Jesus calls us all to himself.

As we continue to celebrate this feast of the Baptism of the Lord may we recommit ourselves to our own baptismal vows and be open to the truth that we Christian Catholics have no corner on God and are happy with the fact that God shows no partiality but that in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God.