Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley on The Baptism of the Lord

Baptism of the Lord, Cycle C
by Edward Foley, Capuchin

For decades I have instructed ordination candidates
on how to conduct baptisms of adults and children
Often during the instruction on infant baptism
with a live infant present
[dolls never allowed … too docile and predictable]
I would remind the seminarians
of an important principle of physics
that when the baby is over the font
the head goes down, the bottom goes up
so that water flows over the forehead
and does not pool in the babies eyes or nose

I gave that instruction dozens of times
but never told the story behind it
When as a newly ordained
I was invited by a high school classmate
to baptize his first born
It was a day of much family delight around the fount
until I misread the aerodynamics of Martin junior’s body
and ended up pouring water into his eyes, nose and mouth
and of course, he erupted in tears …

That, however, was not the most traumatic moment in the event
for as his mother comforted her first born
patting him on the back, walking him around the baptistery
she shouted, he will NEVER forgive you for this …
that was my first visceral experience
That baptism was dangerous …

A second dangerous baptismal experience
occurred some years and many thousands of miles later
I had the privilege of participating
in an immersion in southern Africa
that included 10 days in Zimbabwe

While we eventually moved to the capital Harare
and even met with President Mugabe
our leaders wanted us to first understand
that life in Africa was largely rural

So we moved out into the bush
camped out around a large independent Christian Church
kept vigil with them all night praying and singing
& in the morning witnessed baptisms in the local river

That church baptized for initiation, healing and exorcism
Baptisms for initiation and healing proceeded well
but when it got to the exorcism
the young woman put forward by her family for this rite
was an unwilling participant
despite the fact that four sturdy elders
were holding her as the pastor began the rite
In her fury she dragged all 5 into the water
and left them bobbing behind her
as she emerged on the shore to thunderous applause

Baptism is dangerous for the baptized & dangerous for the baptizer

Some of the danger has been eliminated from today’s gospel
on this feast which marks
the end of the Christmas season for Roman Catholics

As you may or may not realize
the whole of our Christmas season is designed
as one long arc of continuous manifestations:

In Christ’s birth on Christmas;
in his family on the Sunday after Christmas;
to the Jewish people when he is brought to the temple
commemorated on 1 January;
to the Nations of the world, symbolized in the
presence of the magi;
and now in his baptism, revealed as the beloved.

Each one of those is a gracious story
worthy of a greeting card cover
but each also masks hidden symbols
of suffering and even death

Jesus being born in a manger
being presented as food … as fodder
to be devoured even unto death

Mary is reminded in bringing her son to the Temple
that her own heart a sword shall pierce

Gifts of the magi including myrrh …
a precious ointment used in burial rites
foretelling the death of the savior

And this baptismal day
begins the fateful journey of Jesus
from Jordan to Jerusalem
from the embrace of his cousin
to the arms of the cross.

The dangerous role for the Baptist
is actually recounted in Luke’s gospel
but the lectionary has edited it out

You know the lectionary we read is not the bible
Today’s gospel, for example, is from Luke 3:15-22
but the lectionary cuts out verses 17-20
that reports John rebuking the local monarch,
ending up in prison, ultimately leading to his death.

Baptism is dangerous
as it was for John’s younger cousin
who stepped into the Jordan to undergo
this missionary anointing
and proclamation as beloved

And what was so dangerous about this outdoor liturgy River Jordan?

Unlike my young victim
Jesus did not suffer because he got water in his eyes
He eventually suffered because he got PEOPLE in his eyes
and instinctively saw in each leper and Samaritan
child and grieving mother
the very face of God

Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism UNLIKE the other gospels
not much interested in the details
in why Jesus was baptized
nor in who baptized him
giving the Baptist pretty short shrift
in his telling of the tale

Actually his baptismal story is grammatically
just a subordinate clause [1]
preparing for Luke’s real message,
that is, the heavenly voice
proclaiming Jesus as God’s beloved …

But there is more
For unlike the gospel of Matthew
the voice from heaven is not impersonal
does not announce “this” is my beloved
but rather is direct address to Jesus
“You are my beloved”
And in that phrase
lies all the power and danger
for it is the power of saying “you”

In the voice from heaven
and Jesus’ subsequent ministry
God shows a divine commitment to
what one commentator calls “the good of particularity” [2]

God’s direct address to Jesus
the very personal “you”
reveals a divinity cued to singularity,
concerned about uniqueness,
predisposed for particularity

One theologian argues this is the reason
that Jesus heals one leper,
raises one dead person,
forgives one sinner at a time
She writes: Jesus did not issue an impersonal decree
about the anonymous sick
the innominate lost
the nameless sinner

No … Jesus’ healing, ministry and love is particular,
is personal,
is passionate about the individual in front of him,
the one lost sheep,
the one adulterous woman,
the one divorced Samaritan

and such particularity became reciprocal
as believers discovered a personal God
and proclaimed “You are the Christ”
“You are the son of God”
“You are the Messiah” …

A “You” he could not or would not run from
and so he was targeted
by clergy and politicians
by Romans and Jews
and singularly nailed to a tree

I recently finished a long, sometimes slow moving
ultimately satisfying novel by Katy Regan
entitled Little Big Love [3]

The central character is Zach
a 10 year old boy
from a small fishing village in the North of England

Chubby, fatherless, bullied
he desperately wants to find his Dad
and displays incredible tenacity
to complete this “dad mission”

It is a story of unimaginable secret keeping
family dysfunction
adolescent hope
and ultimately about the triumph of love

One of the arresting descriptions
that returns over and over again in the book
is not about Zach’s waistline
but about his eyes …

As his mother remembers
they are like his long gone fathers’,
deep blue, with flecks of gold around them

Looking into those eyes
Zach’s Mom, Juliet, ponders Zach’s uniqueness
his preciousness
his lovability
something she found as well, in his father’s eyes
and would ultimately discover
that such precious particularity never fades
from either set of blue and gold flecked eyes

As you well know, these days the media
is saturated with reporting on this historic government shutdown
and the stalemate over the construction of a wall

As one recent commentator noted
a wall is a commitment to an uncomplicated view of reality [4]
innocent on one side
needing to be protected
from evil on the other side
There are no extending circumstances with a wall
Details of individual stories don’t matter
When there’s a wall
it is not possible to know those stories
to look into the eyes or soul of another
and experience their unique gift

Roman Catholic sacramentality is not generic
We don’t anoint crowds with spray canisters filled with oil
but one person, one forehead, one set of hands at a time
We don’t baptize by spraying crowds with water
but by going into the pool with one person
one elect at a time
and we don’t offer communion
by tossing bread to the masses
or impersonally passing a tray of consecrated hosts
so you can self-communicate

Rather consecrated bread is offered to one person at a time
and in the repeated text “the body of Christ,”
“the body of Christ, “the Body of Christ”
the church announces in endless particularity
that each baptized, each communicant
each believer is indeed,
a unique reflection of God’s own holiness
a distinctive child of God

As we launch into this near year
and transition into ordinary time that is anything but ordinary
our worship queries whether
this will be the year of the wall
or a year of welcome

A year of generalized dismissiveness
or a year of looking into the eyes of each woman and man
and see there God’s beloved as well

A year of social bondage
or a year of blessedness.

God in Jesus has opted for welcome, belovedness, blessedness
for each is called by name

Having been reborn in the waters of baptism ourselves
and having those dangerous streams of prophetic welcome
coursing through our individual and community veins
we commit ourselves to similar welcome,
to an unimpeded nurturing of belovedness,
an endless promotion of blessedness
so that we the baptized might continue the revelation
begun in the only begotten
of a God of gracious particularity
tuned to the beauty of each person’s singularity
through Christ our Lord.

Endnotes
[1] Mark Davis, “Left behind, and loving it,” http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[2] Eleonore Stump, “Here and Now,” http://liturgy.slu.edu/BapLordC011319/reflections_stump.html

[3] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/564665/little-big-love-by-katy-regan/9780451490353/

[4] Morgan Guyton, “Theology that Builds Walls,”
https://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2019/01/08/theology-that-builds-walls/

2 comments

  1. What an excellent homily. In its length, the homilist builds with quotes from the Bible to our world today… Jesus is the Beloved and so are each of us, it’s personal. And so, I know I am called to go into the world and reach out to others – be personal and love my neighbor and the stranger too.

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