Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.
By this time in the liturgical year St. John the Baptist seems like a poor cousin who came to visit for Christmas, he arrived early and still hasn’t gone home. He is a cousin, a cousin of Jesus in fact but we are never done with him because he, like the Mother of Jesus and St. Peter, belongs to the infrastructure of the Gospel. Because, as in the Grunewald altar piece, John the Baptist stands with Our Lady at the foot of the Cross, not as an historical person, historically he was long gone by the time Jesus was crucified, but as the spiritual figure who as in the painting with a grotesquely long finger, ever points, to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.
This vocation of St. John the Baptist, to say to the world ‘there stands one among you whom you do not know’, begins in the womb of his mother with that little kick in Jesus’ direction and it never stops from that point on. “He must increase, but I must decrease." His job is to say over and over again “I am not that light, which enlighteneth every man which comes into the world.” “I am not the Christ.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not.” So that men will see Jesus is the one who comes after him but was before him.
This is the source of John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" It is not, as we might imagine, a question of Jesus being without sin, yet undergoing the baptism of repentance. The problem is that Jesus is submitting himself to John, a has-been and never-was; Jesus, who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit, settling for John’s baptism, which at best is nothing but a gesture. John’s baptism changes nothing but the baptism of Jesus changes everything.
This morning we are baptizing Harper Grace. Why does the Church baptize babies? I suppose that most of us would simply say “because that is what the Church has always done.” And that is a perfectly good reason to do something. But we live in a religious culture which has strenuous objections to infant baptism and one reason for that is they have confused the baptism of John with the baptism of Jesus, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
The argument is that you have to be grownup enough to confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. That you had to be grownup was certainly the case with John’s baptism. The idea was that you listened to a sermon, which caused you to repent and as a symbolic gesture you got dunked by John in the Jordan River. But the important thing was the repentance. I remember years ago as a child listening to a radio preacher in East Texas –pretty exotic to a nice Episcopalian kid. The preacher called Christians who believed you had to be baptized “water dogs”. Makes sense, if the whole thing depends on us and our decision for Jesus.
But for us ‘water dogs’ it doesn’t all depend on us; it all depends on Jesus. It is significant that in the Eastern Churches the formula for Baptism is not “I baptize thee” but "The servant of God, N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The concern is that the Church understands that Baptism is something that God the Holy Trinity does and not merely something we do. A truth that is dramatically demonstrated in the rule that even an atheist in an emergency can validly baptize a person.
But the liturgy of Holy Baptism was called a mystagogy in the early church, an initiation into the mystery of Christ, not just water but a whole series of signs by which those to be baptized are led into the mystery of Christ:
The Sign of the Cross: because the baptized have been bought by Jesus, they belong to him, and receive the grace if redemption Jesus won for us by his cross.
The Exorcism and the Renunciation of Satan: not Hollywood special effects but because Baptism transfers us from the Kingdom of the Prince of this world into the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ.
The Blessing of Baptismal Water: the Holy Spirit comes over the water, as he did in the first moment of creation, as He did in the Exodus, when the Red Sea parted, that the baptized might be a new creation and liberated from the yoke of sin and death.
Chrismation: The anointing with sacred chrism, oil consecrated by the bishop, signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit to the newly baptized, who has become a Christian, that is, one "anointed" by the Holy Spirit, incorporated into Christ who is anointed priest, prophet, and king.
This is not the baptism of John. You can never be old enough or wise enough to be capable of completely understanding and receiving this Sacrament. But Holy Baptism does produce in the baptized that character, that indelible disposition of St. John the Baptist to point away from ourselves to Jesus, to know that we are not the One, that we are not, that He is, that He must increase and we decrease.
So the baptized are given a lighted candle, which is the Light of Christ, that they may shine with a Light which is not their own. We ask God to give them ears to hear the Word of God and mouth to proclaim that Word to the world. Finally they are given the salt of Wisdom to be able to see Christ in all things, before all things, above all things.
Can it really ever be too early to plunge a child into all that wonderful and mysterious grace?