On Remembering Your Baptism

Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
January 10, 2016

Church of the Intercession, NYC

Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

How many of you were baptized as babies, and don’t remember it?  How many of you were baptized when you were older, and remember your baptism?  I am in the second group – I was 29 years old when I was baptized (and confirmed) by the late Bishop Paul Moore at the nearly four-hour Easter Vigil liturgy at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  

Now even though I was very much an adult when I was baptized, I don’t recall the experience as a particularly spiritual one.  Many of you have heard me share the story of my baptism, so please forgive me if you’ve heard this.  

My baptismal preparation was given by the late Canon John Luce at the Cathedral; he gave us two books to read, and we met for six weeks to talk about the books and baptism.  
Now I grew close to Canon Luce over many years, and he had many strengths as a priest, but a great memory was not one of them.  He never learned that my name was Rhonda and not Rhoda.  So for six weeks during the baptism classes Canon Luce called me “Rhoda,” and I would correct him, “My name is Rhonda” but it never stuck.  So naturally when he presented me to Bp. Moore for baptism on that Easter Eve – and I felt this coming – he clapped his hand on my shoulder and said “I present Rhoda to receive the sacrament of baptism” and I had to jump up and down to get Bp. Moore’s attention – remember, he was very tall, and I’m not – and point at my name tag and say “I’m Rhonda, I’m Rhonda.”  Bp. Moore looked down at me, confused, but then did baptize me as “Rhonda.”  He found the whole thing very amusing, so after I was baptized and sealed with oil, he hugged me.  Because he was so tall my nose scraped across his rope cincture  that bled all over my nice white baptism blazer for the rest of the night.  So much for the sanctity of the sacrament of baptism.

Even without the bloody nose, though, I don’t think I would have been half aware of what was truly happening to me as I was baptized, even though I had 6 weeks of classes and read two very good books, which is more preparation than most catechumens get these days.  As we well know, what is common nowadays is that we receive a phone call or email from new parents who want to get their infant baptized, either because they are pressured to do so by their own parents or grandparents or out of fear that their baby won’t be in heaven if God forbid something happens.  

Infant baptism was not common in the early church; they believed that a child had to reach at least age 8 or so in order to understand and agree to the sacrament.  But obviously we baptize infants today, so the church has adjusted our preparation, downward: we give the parents and the godparents a class or two. Then they come church on the day of the baptism, after which they usually vanish, never to be seen again.  

This is in stark contrast to the early church, which took baptism very seriously.  For many centuries, three years of baptismal preparation were required.  Back then, if you were a catechumen (that’s the person undergoing the preparation for baptism, receiving catechesis) you attended many classes, you were required to read the Bible daily and take part in Bible studies, you were expected to fast frequently and attend all-night vigils, and you were given the rite of exorcism repeatedly to help cleanse them of evil spirits.  You were also watched very closely to determine your manner of life:  Were you humble and honest?  Did you visit the sick?  Give money and food to widows and orphans?  If there was any doubt about your qualifications in any of these areas, you were not baptized.

One of my favorite records of that kind of early, extensive baptismal preparation are the lectures of Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, whose life was so holy that he is considered a saint by everybody – the Roman Catholic, Easter Orthodox and Anglican churches.   What has come down to us from 1600 years ago are a set of 24 lectures designed to instruct the catechumen on every phrase in the baptismal vows separately, as well as on other subjects like penitence and fasting.  

But if all of this sounds like it might be dreary, or even a bit much, that is because we have lost sight of what St. Cyril saw very clearly, which is the true nature of baptism.  Here are the first words he would say to his new students desiring baptism, before they took their very first class:

    Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O ye who are soon to be     enlightened:  already are ye gathering the spiritual flowers, to weave heavenly     crowns:  already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you:  already     have ye gathered round the vestibule of the King’s palace; may ye be led in also     by the King!  Thus far there has been an inscription of your name, and a call to     service, and torches of the bridal train, and a longing for heavenly citizenship, and     a good purpose, and hope intended thereon.

St. Cyril goes on and on, but I’ll stop there.  I want to call attention to just a few of the surprising aspects of what I just quoted.  First, notice that St. Cyril is certain that desire for baptism is a call from God, not something you do as a result of pressure from others or to conform:  the catechumen is someone who is responding to Jesus’ invitation to join the body of Christ, with the holiness of life that that requires. Cyril also strongly believed that baptism makes you an instant citizen in God’s kingdom: once baptized, the believer gets to enter the King’s palace – Christ’s palace – escorted by none other than Jesus himself.

Also notice that, even though there is plenty of penitence in his catechumens’ futures, Saint Cyril says nothing at all about sin in his introduction.  This is very wise – it always amazes me what great psychologists Jesus and the early church fathers and mothers were, thousands of years before we ever heard of Freud or Jung.  They took it for granted that everybody was a sinner, but the way they dealt with the problem was not to say, “just don’t sin,” but rather to give people a vision of who they could be in contrast to who they were at that moment.  It is a great truth of the human psyche that you cannot just stop doing something bad without replacing it with something good, or it will not work.

So even before bringing up the subject of sin, Saint Cyril gives his students a vision of themselves filled with light instead of darkness.  In the early church baptism was called “enlightenment” and the baptized were called “the enlightened,” as Cyril says in his very first sentence: “Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O ye who are soon to be enlightened.” His new students could also look forward to being filled with the fragrant breath of the Holy Spirit, all to replace the stains of sin and darkness.

It wasn’t only the instruction that was more extensive in the early church; there were also more elements to the sacrament itself.  Of course there were (and still are) different rituals in different places, but one early tradition that I’m rather sorry got lost was that of including a mixture of milk and honey in the Eucharist for the newly baptized:  first they would receive bread, then milk and honey, and last, wine.  The symbolism is beautiful: the newly baptized were now in the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.

There are also some early traditions that have remained, but which have acquired new meaning over the years.  For example, the oil still used to seal the newly baptized is olive oil mixed with balsam; it is called “chrism” meaning “anointing oil” which of course refers to Christ, “the anointed one.”  The balsam is what’s interesting – there are several different kinds of oil we use in the church, but we can tell baptismal oil from the others because only chrism smells of balsam, which to us means that it smells like Christmas, like fir trees.  I doubt that chrism smelled like Christmas to middle easterners of the 1st century, but the association for us now is profound:  the newly baptized Christian is newly born, just like the baby Jesus at Christmas.

Which brings us to the final way I’d like us to recover the true meaning of our baptism. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, the gospel says that he heard a voice from heaven:  "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."  I don’t think that we know that we are all meant to hear that voice, the one that calls us God’s beloved.  Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, but when we are baptized into the body of Christ we share in his identity as God’s Beloved.

And we also share in his light:  the light that came into the world with Jesus.  I’ve always rather wondered why Jesus had to be baptized.  He did not need cleansing of his soul or forgiveness of sins.  But as we spoke about last week, Jesus did mature into his identity, and I think his baptism was a part of that growth, that process.  What his baptism gave Jesus was light – enlightenment, as St. Cyril said.  The Jesus that went into the Jordan River was an anonymous young man, the Jesus that rose from the waters of the Jordan was Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, and he and everyone around him knew it, because of God’s voice. 

So today, even if you were baptized as a baby and don’t remember it, or if you were baptized as an adult and weren’t fully aware at the time of the amazing gifts that God was giving you, we can all learn about our baptism this day, and be thankful.  Through baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.  We are God’s beloved sons and daughters.  We are citizens right here and right now, of God’s eternal kingdom, the land flowing with milk and honey, with all of the rights, privileges, and power that citizenship implies. It is up to us to walk in that knowledge and use our baptism to bring others to God by our light.  Think how different the world would be, if we all acted truly baptized, as though we truly are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.