Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Baptism

(Fourth Sunday of Lent; This homily was given on 3 April, 2011 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14, and John 9:1-41)

This weekend, as we celebrate Laetare Sunday, we move beyond the halfway point in our journey towards Easter. The Fourth Sunday of Lent affords us a great opportunity to ask ourselves not only how we are doing this Lent but, perhaps more importantly, why we are doing it.

Obviously, Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Pascal Mystery: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and our hope of rising to new life with Him. One of the most significant and essential aspects of the Lenten season which paves the way for this preparation is penance. We began Ash Wednesday by noting the importance of penance, and its focus will endure all the way through Holy Week.

Nonetheless, when the Second Vatican Council reflects upon the liturgical season of Lent, penance is not the first aspect that is mentioned, nor is it the only important one. Both of the times Sacrosanctum Concilium mentions the central aspects of Lent it names penance secondly, but begins with baptism (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #109). In fact, it could be said that penance is relevant not for its own sake but to the extent that it draws us more deeply into the mystery of baptism and animates our baptismal call to holiness.

Baptism is a tremendous gift and a remarkable sacrament that we can too easily take for granted. The most precious things in our lives come to us through baptism. It is through baptism that we are given new life in the Holy Spirit and we experience a vibrant and life-giving relationship with God. Through baptism we have access to a life of prayer and intimacy with Jesus Christ; we persevere through baptism to union with God in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist; all of our relationships in the Body of Christ come to us through baptism. What an amazing gift!

If you have ever read (or perhaps have seen the movie) The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis then you are familiar with the story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book begins with three small children who are playing hide-and-seek in an old medieval manor. The youngest girl, Lucy, soon discovers the ultimate hiding place: a small closet or wardrobe. She enters that wardrobe and closes herself in, moving way to the back where she can remain obscured behind a row of expensive coats. Yet making her way towards the back of the wardrobe she suddenly realizes that it is not a closed space at all, but actually a doorway to the mystical land of Narnia. She has gone through the wardrobe and entered into a vast and expansive landscape where there are mountains and hills, meadows and streams and all kinds of intriguing and living creatures. She will journey, with her brother and sister, throughout that amazing world and come to experience remarkable and breathtaking adventures.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes baptism in similar terms (minus all that great stuff about Narnia!):

"Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the spirit...and the door which gives access to the other sacraments." -CCC, # 1214

It is when we enter through that gateway that we begin to experience the true purpose and meaning of life, and we come into contact with the mysteries of our salvation. This weekend the Scriptures for this Fourth Sunday of Lent help us to focus in a particular way on this great Sacrament of Baptism.

The first aspect we can reflect on is the anointing of baptism. When a new child of God is reborn in baptism (whether he or she is an infant or an adult) that person is cleansed with water and baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, he or she is anointed on the crown of the head with sacred chrism, holy oil which signifies our share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly ministry of Jesus Christ. Reminiscent of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament, who were chosen by God and marked in a special way for service of God’s holy people through anointing, the signing with sacred chrism sets the Christian apart for a special life of holiness and service in the world.

No matter how far a child of God falls from this holy call, and despite whatever failings and faults he or she experiences in life, that distinction, that moment of being chosen by God and set apart, will never be erased. It cannot be taken away and it can never be repeated. The indelible mark of baptism remains all throughout life and into eternity because the favor of God and the call of God are irrevocable (see Romans 11:29). We may reject that favor and that gift, a terrifying dimension of our freedom; but God will never reject those who, in this life, return to Him.

There is a beautiful image for this reality found in our first reading this morning from the First Book of Samuel. Young David is anointed by the prophet Samuel and we are told “from that day on, the spirit rushed upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13). Every day of his life the Spirit of God rushed upon him and remained steadfast in David’s life…and what a life! We know all about the remarkable and heroic things David was able to accomplish: how he defeated the giant, Goliath, how he was victorious in battle and how he led the people of Israel as their beloved king.

But we also know the rest of the story. We know how he committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and then committed the sin of murder to cover over his adultery. There were many times in his life where he flagged in his fidelity to God. There is a difficult and even sad description which comes to us from David himself in the First Book of Chronicles. David had come before the Lord and offered to build Him a temple, but the Lord refused because David had shed so much blood upon the earth; he had been a man of war and not peace. Solomon was to build the temple, but not David (see 1 Chronicles 22:6-10).

David lived a very difficult and complicated life…but he always managed to find his way back to God. This reconciliation was something which depended always and everywhere upon God, not David. “The spirit rushed upon David” throughout his life. The Holy Spirit rushes upon us here even now. It is up to us to respond to that Spirit and be renewed and regenerated in Christ.

Which brings us to the second aspect of this great sacrament: the regeneration of baptism. While it is true that the sacrament of baptism cannot be revoked nor can it be redone, it is also true that God has the power to renew and regenerate this gift of spiritual life He has poured out so graciously upon us.

If we look to our gospel for this weekend, it is clear that the man born blind has done nothing to bring about his own healing and reception of the gift of sight. Jesus freely chooses him and smears mud on his eyes, commanding him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. It is pure grace. But the blind man does listen to this word of Christ, he does cooperate with all that God is graciously doing in his life, and as a result his eyes are opened and he is restored to a whole new vision of the world around him.

So it is with us when we cooperate with God, who renews our baptismal call to holiness. One of the greatest ways this can happen is through daily interaction with the living and active word of God (see Hebrews 4:12). We become immersed in the Scriptures, allowing that word to convict us of our sins. We come to recognize, as we become more and more immersed in the word of God, all the places that we have fallen short in loving God and neighbor. More than that, though, we also come to see more clearly the path on which God is leading us (see Psalm 119: 105). We become filled with hope, filled with joy, and the word of God begins to set our souls on fire as we burn to share the Good News with those around us!

This is an important thing for us to grasp, especially as Catholics. We may have a tendency to shy away from such a strong attachment to Sacred Scripture, thinking that such zeal for God’s word belongs to other Christians, but not to us. There is a powerful lesson we can learn right here in Flanders. In the years following the Protestant Reformation, many of those who had left the Catholic Church began to claim that they alone had a firm grasp on the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures. They claimed fidelity to the word of God while they caricatured Catholics as believing only in the pope and the sacraments. In response to this claim, the Catholic Churches throughout Europe, and perhaps more so here in Flanders than anywhere else, began to construct enormous, wood-carved pulpits as high as twenty feet tall, ornamented with various sculptures and vibrant biblical scenes. The message being sent was that the word of God, just as much as the sacraments and fidelity to the Vicar of Christ, mattered and made a difference in the lives of the Catholic faithful.

If you go up to Ghent, to St. Bavo’s Cathedral, you will find a magnificent wooden pulpit that is as ornate as it is enormous. There is a sculpture of an old man set into the base of that pulpit, with a blanket being pulled off from over his head; he appears almost to be holding onto it desperately as angels blow their trumpets and other heavenly beings lift high he cross of Christ. At the base of that sculpture are the words of St. Paul, in Latin, which we find in our second reading this morning:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.

—Ephesians 5:14

The time for that old man to take his rest is over! The living and active word of God has the power to regenerate us and reanimate our spiritual lives, setting us on fire and enabling us to change and transform this world we live in. This brings us to the final aspect of baptism which we find in our readings this weekend: the ripple effect of baptism.

If you drop a stone into a pool of water, there will be a ripple effect extending all throughout that pool. So it is with the sacrament of baptism; it affects every relationship in our lives. Baptism has an effect on every community to which we belong and touches everyone we come into contact with, for bad or for good.

We find something of this reality in our gospel for this weekend. The man born blind is healed by Christ, and almost immediately there is a ripple effect in the community. The Pharisees eventually stand against him, moving from a place of confrontation (“Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner”) to a place of outright rejection (“You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”). Christ, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, leading that newly healed man into a relationship of salvation and life.

The parents in the gospel, however, are standing somewhere in the middle!

They are not exactly sure what to do. Afraid of being thrown out of the temple and placing their social status in jeopardy, they nonetheless still feel close to their son and must have been grateful for the restoration of his sight. They temporarily defer to their son, saying “He is of age; question him.”

How important we realize this weekend that Christ does not criticize this couple. He criticizes the Pharisees, no doubt. He even challenges the man born blind to place his faith in the Son of Man. But as the gospel comes to a close, the parents are still wavering in the moment of decision. They have not taken a stand for or against Jesus Christ.

How many people in your life are also standing, even now, on that razor’s edge? How many people do you know who—while not totally committed to the Catholic faith nor willing to follow Christ in their everyday lives—nonetheless are still ambivalent and perhaps are yet discerning a life of faith and trust in God. How important that we place no obstacles before them!

There is a ripple effect that comes from our baptism and our willingness to live out that initial and unceasing call to holiness. May God grant us all that we need—this Lent and all throughout our lives—to be renewed in spirit, to be regenerated and reanimated by the word of God and set on fire so that we can be instruments of His powerful grace in the lives of those around us.