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.
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.
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.”
“One mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Put aside for a moment everything you think you know about baptism, and imagine you are hearing John the Baptist’s words for the first time. You’ve seen John calling sinners to repent, warning of punishments to come if they don’t, and then dunking them in the Jordan River as a sign of conversion. And now he says a mightier one is coming, who will use fire instead of water. Is it a promise or a warning?