10 JAN 2021
Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7;
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I suppose it is not often that the Christian sacraments make headlines in the secular press, but such seems to have been the case a few months ago as the Vatican declared that the Sacrament of Baptism, as administered in recent years by some -- mostly American -- priests and deacons was invalid; that is to say, it was no Baptism at all.
What happened, you may well ask… Well, it turns out that any number of well-intentioned Roman Catholic clerics had taken it upon themselves to change the words of the Baptismal rite from the traditional, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” to “We baptize you...” thus including, apparently, in their minds the entire community or congregation in the act of Baptism.
The change of one word in the formula -- from I to we -- made all the difference in Rome. The issue has since been remedied of course, but the Vatican has ordered that the apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of Roman Catholics who had been baptized with the faulty formula must now be rebaptized with the correct rite and words. As a corollary, by the way, it has meant that several young Roman Catholic priests who had also been incorrectly baptized as children two or three decades earlier had to be themselves rebaptized…and re-ordained.
The Vatican’s point was that the priest or person doing the baptizing is acting not in the name of the community -- nor even on his own behalf nor on the authority of the Church -- but in the place of Christ. It is Christ who baptizes. Christ is the I in the baptismal formula. And so the formula must emphatically be “I baptize you…” Not we. No such problems that I am aware of in the Anglican Communion, you will be happy to know.
But words do matter.
Now, the first chapter of Mark, from which our Gospel account today is taken, does not tell us what if any words John the Baptist used in baptizing our Lord at the Jordan. Nor for that matter do any of the other Evangelists who report the event. But the words John does speak in this passage from Mark tell us of the importance of our Lord’s Baptism and of his Mission it inaugurates. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” are the words John speaks to the people. And, in a sense, that is indeed what our Lord has come to do; to bring the Spirit of the Lord once again upon his people; and to usher in a new era of grace and Spirit.
Christ’s Baptism, you will note, comes logically enough at the very beginning of his earthly ministry. Indeed, in the Gospel of Mark, it is practically the very first thing that happens. And in a sense, it is itself an act of new creation; a new beginning to the world. Just as “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” as we heard in our passage from the first chapter of Genesis moments ago, so does the Spirit of God descend upon Christ at the waters of Jordan. And, as Jesus emerges or ascends from the waters -- the formless void -- so too are the heavens torn asunder as was light from darkness at creation. At his Baptism, Christ himself has become the light of the world.
Our Lord’s Ministry upon earth is quite unthinkable without his Baptism. And, that Mission or Ministry of his is confirmed by the voice from heaven which says: “You are my Son, the Beloved,” arguably among the only words spoken by the Father in the entire New Testament, and more or less repeated at the Transfiguration, by the way. And, these words matter. For, they confirm for any who will hear them and listen that in Christ’s Baptism all creation is changed and made new. And from now on, it is not any longer John who baptizes. It is Christ, who has come “for the forgiveness of sins.” It is Christ who says, “I baptize you…”
And so, in our Baptism, we too are made part of creation as it has become in Christ and in his Baptism. In an age which has fast grown old and weary, an age seemingly and suddenly torn asunder by social and political turmoil, and by fears and threats of ever-present illness and even death, it is reassuring to each of us -- or should be -- to know that in Christ at least we are not part of the chaos; we are not swallowed up by the darkness that “covered the face of the deep;” we are not left to our own devices and machinations.
We in Christ have also become “beloved.” That is to say, we have been loved. And, love is itself that Spirit which forever brings forth new creation. "God's name to us is love," as we sang moments ago in one of our hymns. This is the reassurance which our own Baptism gives us still today, however long ago it may have been. As Paul, in our Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, lays hands upon the disciples of Ephesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. That same Spirit is upon us in our Baptism and in the faith we live each day.
I do not always agree with the Vatican. But in their decree about Baptism they will perhaps be reassured to know that at least one lowly Anglican cleric thinks they are right. It is indeed Christ who baptizes each of us. Talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus: It just does not get any better than that. In Baptism, we are loved profoundly, completely. And in times such as these, this is a reality we dare not forget.
No wonder the Church guards the words so carefully. No wonder that the formula of Baptism is essentially the same whether administered by the Pope himself in Rome; by an Anglican priest in Budapest, of all places; or by a Southern Baptist preacher, say, in the Texas Hill Country. By the way, the Orthodox use a slightly different formula for Baptism, one employing the passive voice. But the intent and effect is the same.
I am happy to report that eight-year-old Benjamin of our parish community was recently baptized in the days after Christmas in our beautiful church in Szentkirályi utca, surrounded by immediate family and friends. And, I am also happy to report that in the moment of his Baptism the Spirit descended upon him as it did upon Christ at the Jordan. In the moment of his Baptism, though surrounded by only a few, he became part of the Church universal, the very body of Christ on earth.
And, it was Christ himself who baptized young Benjamin into the Holy Spirit, into the love which God has for us all. And yes, I did use the words of the ancient formula, “Benjamin, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”
After all, words matter.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs