The baptism of Christ is the first time in the New Testament that we hear the words “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”; in fact it is the first time that we hear the Father’s voice. The next time we will hear the Father’s voice will be at the Transfiguration, when not only will the onlookers, in this case Peter, James, and John, hear the voice of the Father, but they will see Christ radiating light, more brilliant than the sun, and experience the Holy Spirit as a cloud, a cloud which instils awe and fear, but here at the Jordan, Christ is just one among many people who are presenting themselves to John, for baptism. Christ does not need to be baptized, but he is so to speak, paving the way for us by example, and showing us what our baptism will entail; nothing more and nothing less than incorporation into the life of Christ, and into his death and resurrection.
Our baptism seems un-dramatic compared with Jesus’, because we have lost much of the passion for our Faith. Dumbing down has been the favourite hobby of writers, artists, politicians, and the Media for the last 50 or so years. Serious things are made light of, the sacred is sent up, particularly by very clever comedians, Monty Python being one of the most witty and therefore highly dangerous . Christianity either is seen as irrelevant or has to become relevant by becoming cool, whatever that is meant to be. I was amazed, years ago when my younger teenage niece’s boyfriend, who was not a Catholic, found me, a newly ordained friar, to be cool. I would have thought I was depressingly old fashioned and something of a fuddy-duddy 25 years ago when I was still young at 35. However Faith is never about fashion. It is about eternal truths. It is about the God who created us to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this World and then to be unbelievably happy with Him for all eternity. Faith is a solemn gift, for the babe in arms it is the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and the washing away of original sin. These days however it is seen as entering the Christian Community; one would think such a title to be depressingly prosaic, and lacking the romance which is an integral part of the Christian life.
Christ’s baptism is, of course, different to ours, but it does inform our baptism and our mission, because all missions and vocations in the Church are one in Christ’s mission. Christ comes in flesh, and we are flesh of his flesh. Christ comes to preach repentance, and we are asked to repent and preach repentance to others. Christ comes to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to earth and he does this by redeeming us in his great sacrifice of Calvary, which is made present at every sacrifice of the Mass. And so we read about Christ’s baptism in the Gospel, and we see it depicted by some of the greatest artists of all times, and we see the scene played out in the various films of the Life of Christ. We too when we are baptized experience the Holy Spirit enveloping us, and hear the Father’s voice “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”. For all of us, whether we are male or female, we are in some profound way sons in the Son, which should for once please the feminists. The great mystics see all souls as being in some sense feminine to Christ’s masculinity, and here is another mystery that we could ponder on for a long time.
However our baptism is not meant to be the equivalent of a delightful experience bordering on ecstasy; if it is, we are favoured, but Faith at the end of the day is not about feelings. No! It is a call to mission. It is a call to battle. It is a call to help in the work of salvation. We will not be pleasing to the Father, indeed to the Trinity, if we luxuriate in a spiritual experience and do nothing. We will find ourselves with the foolish virgins and shut out from Heaven and eternal bliss. No! our baptism must be our incorporation into Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If it is not, woe betide us when we get to the Judgment seat.
Just as one feels that the devil is getting all the best tunes and looking as if he is also getting the last laugh, his demonic applecart of permissive sex, gay marriage, and secularism has been upset by a bishop! For a long time, too long, certainly in the West, the voices of bishops have been somewhat muted, embarrassed by the classical exposition of the Faith, or ambiguous in their utterances. They have stuck to safe themes, namely the laudable campaigning for a reduction in World poverty, and a fairer share of the World’s wealth for the over eighty percent of the World’s population who are living in grinding poverty. They have talked about care for the planet and they have applauded theologies of ecology. But they have steered clear of sex, the very thing that needed to be met head on in the mad days of the 60’s when sexual freedom was trumpeted across the globe by pop and rock stars, artists, writers, film makers and goodness knows who else. I remember attending a performance of Tippet’s opera “The Knot Garden” in 1971 in which there was a frisson when two homosexual men kiss at one point in the opera. It was avant-garde then, but now it would be considered tame, and rather oddly might have been more risqué then than “Hair” or “Oh Calcutta”. Not a few of the higher clergy would talk about anything as long as it was new, controversial, and rather depressingly “with it”; even the language of the sixties and early seventies was bizarre to say the least, and not a few clerics and religious found themselves attending plays and performances which would have been denounced by the Penny Catechism under sins against the Sixth Commandment, but now we have a fearless pastor in Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, who is a mixture of Don Quixote and St. John Fisher, not that he is like Don Quixote, but to the modern world he must appear to be tilting hopelessly at the unstoppable progress of sexual perversion. He is like John Fisher in that he is a bishop who will speak the truth, whatever the consequences. Though there have been, in recent years, some very impressive American bishops, who have stood up for the Church’s teaching in the realm of sexual morality, in particular the former bishop of Lincoln Nebraska, Bishop Bruskewitz, and Cardinal Burke in particular, they have not been English. If the Reformation had failed in England, then it would have failed on the Continent, and it would have died. If anyone saved the Reformation it was Elizabeth I, not Luther or Calvin, or Knox. In the reconversion of the West, England along with France may indeed be pivotal. It only takes one courageous bishop to stand up for the Gospel and then we will see Catholics and other Christians going happily to prison for their Faith, and even die a martyrs’ death if called upon to do so. In a sermon that he preached in his cathedral in Shrewsbury at Midnight Mass at Christmas Bishop Mark Davies in a sermon, worthy of John Fisher, Thomas Becket, and possibly even Ambrose of Milan, called us all to a heroic defence of the Gospel. So let me conclude this reflection with the final part of the bishop’s sermon, which may define the turning of the tide of this present godless age that befouls not only the West, but will soon be infecting every part of the globe.
This Christmas we are conscious of new shadows cast by a Government that was pledged at its election to support the institution of marriage. This vital foundation of society which, the 2011 census indicates, now stands at its lowest ebb. At such a moment the Prime Minister has decided without mandate, without any serious consultation to redefine the identity of marriage itself, the foundation of the family for all generations to come. This is again done in the name of progress. The great English writer, G.K. Chesterton, warned: “progress is a useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined direction; and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree” (American Notes) . The British people have reason to ask on this night where is such progress leading?
In the face of what is presented as this inevitable march of human progress we recognise once more the Saviour born for us: “he is Christ the Lord” (Luke2:11) who meets us all along the path of history. The same Lord who promised those who follow Him would be called to give their witness amidst the most testing circumstances (Mt. 10:17). This, we recognise, is our moment, our, unique time to stand up for what is right and true as previous generations have done before us: to give witness to the value and dignity of every human life, to the truth of marriage as the lasting union of man and woman, ordered to the transmission of life, the education of children, and the foundation of the family. In this we are assured of “ a light which shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overcome” (John 1:5). “On Bethlehem night,” Pope Benedict reflected in 2005, “the Redeemer becomes one of us, our companion along the precarious paths of history. Let us take the hand he stretches out to us...” (Urbi et Orbi Message, Christmas 2005). This is the good news offered to the whole people (Luke 2:10). The Gospel first brought to the English people fourteen hundred years ago. The invitation to take the hand of the Redeemer stretched out to us in gentleness, in such humility because Christ seeks to take nothing from us, Pope Benedict reminds us, but give to all the light of life.