Baptism, before and after

Homily for the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Today’s three readings can be read as something like before and after photos.  Not, however, photos advertising a particular diet, plastic surgery, or hair cream.  The middle reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, mentions one of my favorite subjects, baptism.  The first reading and the Gospel give us the before and after of baptism.  

But before we get into the evidence of baptism’s effects in these before and after readings, take a look again at how St. Paul describes the first sacrament in Colossians: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Baptism means both death and life.  It means participating in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, dying with him in order to rise with him.  You may already have heard me say that I think we lose something if we only think about baptism in terms of babies and don’t remember the way that the sacrament was celebrated in the early Church.  Then baptismal fonts were below floor-level and deep enough for adults being baptized to step down into and be fully immersed.  

Ancient Christian baptistry, Naples

Baptisms, in other words, were really dramatic events.  In Colossians, Paul uses dramatic language—the bond of our guilt, he says, is obliterated and nailed to the cross.  In Rapid City, we know the dramatic effects of water.  After a dry and scorching week, we remember that water brings life.  But we also know that in 1972 this city was destroyed by flood—in fact, this church was built here after the original St. Isaac Jogues was washed away.  The Bible uses two very different sets of images to talk about baptism: the water represent both the tomb, because it means being buried with Jesus, and the womb, because baptism is a second birth.  

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Abraham’s promises

Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

This morning, I want to talk about Abraham.  For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related.  Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree.  He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis.  He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented.  It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation.  When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards.  And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock.  And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again.  And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.

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Augustine’s baptism

The baptism of St. Augustine, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:

“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”

Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.

“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”

St. Augustine, Confessions, Book IX, vi (14)

More on Augustine (and Ambrose)

Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)

In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.

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Visiting Augustine’s Tomb

Arca di Sant’Agostino (1362), San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Theologian don’t have a G.O.A.T. designation. (That’s “Greatest of All Time” for those who aren’t as hip as yours truly.) But if we did, Augustine of Hippo would probably get my vote. Sure, he’s not as systematic as Thomas Aquinas, but he more than makes up for it with humanity and passion, the way you can feel him throw himself so completely into the quest for God in his sermons and treatises. If you read Augustine’s sermons out loud, you can feel the power of his rhetoric. I’ve had many a conversation with the saint as I worked on my dissertation.

So it was quite a thrill–like visiting Graceland, or Disney World before it went woke–to spend an afternoon at the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia last week. You might reasonably wonder how the North African theologian’s bones ended up in a smallish city in the north of Italy. Pavia, today sensible and pleasant, was the capital of the Kingdom of the Lombards in the 8th century. After his death, Augustine’s relics had been hustled out of Hippo to save them from the Vandals (today the tribe would be called the Mostly Peaceful Protesters) who lay siege to Hippo as its bishop lay dying. The saint’s body ended up in Sardinia, which, like much of the Mediterranean coastline in the Middle Ages, was subject to vicious Saracen raiding. For safekeeping, Liutprand, King of the Lombards–who is buried in the same church–had the bones brought to Pavia. There they reside in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.

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St. Jägermeister?

Sant’Eustachio, Rome

With more than 900 churches, as I’ve noted before, if you’re looking for church-related curiosities, there’s no place like Rome. A friend recently pointed out an oddity that seemed to take the cake. Atop a church between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona is what seems to be a stag with a cross between its antlers, which looks suspiciously like it was taken straight from… a Jägermeister bottle.

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Boundaries of Eden

My recent pleasure reading has included Glenn Arbery’s Boundaries of Eden from Wiseblood Books. Always nice to discover another Catholic writer. Here’s a part I liked…

Why should there be providence with respect to Braxton Forrest, anyway? Hardest of all to imagine was that God Almighty, with the whole universe to look after, cared anything about the peccadilloes of a middle-aged literature professor. The apparent absurdity of it had to be balanced against the overwhelmingly convincing sense of an inner witness, an exacting (if often ignored) conscience, a kind of co-knowing whose ground lay deeper than his own conscious mind. So yes. Acceptance of providence brought him to see himself differently. It even brought him, if only occasionally, to the Gospels, where he did not encounter the sweet, naïve, androgynous new version of the fierce Old Testament God that he expected, but the Old Testament God incarnate, the fierce, severe, enigmatic otherness of a man whose absolute authority overflowed any apparent warrant for it….

Glenn Arbery, Boundaries of Eden

Pentecost Homily

The feast of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart because I presided at my first Mass on Pentecost Sunday. This year is the fifth anniversary of my ordination, so, for kicks, I dug up my homily from that Mass and thought I’d repost it here. A lot has happened since that day, yet in some ways it still feels like yesterday…

Pentecost Sunday 2017, Marquette University chapel

I’ll begin with homework.  Today’s first reading from Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost, but it’s just the beginning of the story of Pentecost.  So on your i-Phones on the drive home, pull up Acts of the Apostles and read all of chapter 2.  (Unless you’re driving.)  

Now, since in my 22 years of formal education I have noted that occasionally students don’t do their homework, I will go ahead and tell you what happens in Acts 2.  The part we heard this morning takes place after Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven.  One thing I don’t think we realize when we talk about Easter is how disoriented the disciples were even after Jesus rose from the dead.  The Resurrection doesn’t immediately bring understanding to the disciples.  If you read all of John 20, the chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken (extra credit), you’ll note that even after the Resurrection there’s still disbelief, confusion, and fear.  Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener.  Then, when she realizes who it is, she won’t let go of him—to the point that Jesus has to tell her, “Stop holding on to me.”  After the horror of the crucifixion, we can understand why the disciples would be fearful and why Mary Magdalene wouldn’t want to let Jesus go.  But Jesus says he has to go to do something necessary for the disciples.  He promises that when he has ascended to the Father, he, with the Father, will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.  

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Leo the Great on the Ascension

Raphael, The Ascension, Vatican Museums

The conviction on which sacramental theology rests is nowhere better expressed than by St. Leo the Great in his sermon on the Ascension: after Jesus ascended into heaven, what was visible in his earthly life has passed over into the sacraments.

At Easter, beloved brethren, it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father…

And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments…

The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity…

Leo the Great, Sermo 2 de Ascensione, Office of Readings, Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter

On Spiritual Communion

I was very pleased to get the new issue of Worship, where I have an article that brings together some thoughts from the early days of the COVID lockdown with research related to my work on baptism of desire. It provides some of the intellectual background for my thoughts on the limits of e-worship in America.

The article “Spiritual Communion or Desire for Communion?: Sacraments and Their Substitutes in the Time of COVID-19” appears in the April 2022 issue of Worship.

Here’s the abstract:

This article critiques the concept of “spiritual communion” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It traces the idea’s roots to the earlier doctrine of baptism of desire and explores how the scholastic distinction between the sacramentum and res sacramenti supports it. However, it argues that such a distinction runs the risk of reductivism, discounting the embodied and communal dimension of the celebration of the sacraments. It suggests that understanding the Eucharist to represent a single irreducible good which produces multiple secondary goods provides a better way to understand the sacrament. Such a framework is able to account for what is positive in such practices as spiritual communion or televised liturgies while avoiding the danger of presenting them as replacements for the sacrament itself.