Baptisms Gone Wild

You may listen to Mother Takacs' sermon here.

Picture the scene. A Sunday morning at Saint Mark’s. 11:00 Choral High Mass. Ushers are helping people to find their seats, handing out leaflets, and welcoming newcomers. The congregation is settling into pews or scanning ahead to see who is preaching today or bent in prayer after shuffling a red kneeler across the floor. The candles are lit; the organ begins to play. Altar servers are gliding about the chancel, in that amazing, unique way that says, “I’m going as fast as I possibly can, but I will darn well look dignified while I do it.” Then the servers disappear, the prelude rolls into the Introit, a breath!, and the first hymn. The congregation stands and opens their mouths wide in joyful song, the choir and altar party and clergy process in – and the Mass is underway.

But just as soon as it’s begun, you notice something different. After the opening acclamation, the Celebrant chants, “There is one Body and one Spirit….” Ah-hah!, you think. A baptism today. I wondered why the pews seemed so full. Come to think of it, the church is really full – really, really full. Bursting at the seams, in fact. What a joyful occasion, you think, I love baptisms. They’re so beautiful, so tender, so sweet. And so you travel through the liturgy of the word, listening to the readings, reminding yourself – again – to let someone know that you’d like to become a lector, praying the psalm as the choir sings, rising for the Gospel, attentively following the sermon, getting lost in the middle, finding the preacher again when she gets near the end, and then – finally! – the altar party stands, the choir begins to sing Palestrina’s Sicut cervus (which you now know so well that you like to sing along quietly under your breath) and the baptism has begun.

When the baptizands and their families gather with the priests at the back of the church, it looks like half the congregation is trying to squeeze back there. The crowds turn into more of a mob as they try to find their spots, and you find yourself worrying about the safety of Father Mullen – but he eventually emerges from the fray and all is right with the world again. When all has settled down and the candidates begin to be presented by name, you realize why there is such a crowd – there are twelve people to be baptized today. Twelve! Amazing! What are they doing in that confirmation class these days? After all the names are read and the promises are made, the candidates make their renunciations and affirmations, prayers are sung, the water is blessed, and the baptisms finally begin.

And for a while, all is going quite well. The candidates are processing up to the font in order, receiving the baptism with water and anointing with oil and a baptismal candle. But then you notice that after they are baptized, the candidates seem to be a little dazed. One of them has wandered up the North aisle and seems transfixed by the stained glass window of Jesus walking on water. Another has started some kind of davening in the soft space, rocking and muttering under his breath while holding a little stuffed lion. And yet another has marched straight down the center aisle and is smiling up at the rood beam with his arms extended. You think to yourself that all of this is starting to get a little unseemly when suddenly, from the font, you hear a strange, alien sound. The man who has just been baptized is standing on the step, his hair dripping wet, and, well, he’s moaning. Or talking or rapping or scatting or something, you really can’t tell…and as soon as he starts to make noise all heaven breaks loose. The davening man begins to sing, the window man is now rocking back and forth, a woman has jumped up on a back pew, pointed at the congregation and belted out, “Hear, O people, repent and return to the Lord!” Another woman has begun witnessing earnestly to the people seated by the St. John’s altar, and yet another has run up into the choir yelling, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, the kingdom of heaven is like a fugue.” All of the newly baptized are dancing and singing, lighting every candle they can find, praying and prophesying and speaking in tongues. All is finally brought to order again when the Master of Ceremonies, who just happens to be Dan Devlin, calmly approaches each new prophet and quietly reminds them of their place in line, which they, of course, are happy to find if only because he asked them to.

It sounds crazy. It sounds absurd. It sounds like it could never happen and that Erika was a little giddy when she was writing her sermon this week. But this is exactly what is described in our reading from Acts today. Twelve disciples, living in Ephesus, meet up with Paul. When he asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized, they answer him that no, they don’t even know what a Holy Spirit is. They were baptized with the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance and preparation for the one who is to come. But, Paul says, the one who is to come has already come, and gone, and come again, and when he ascended into heaven he promised the disciples that they would receive a comforter, the Holy Spirit who would come upon them and bless their preaching and their healing, offer strength and consolation for the journey. Well, give us this baptism, these twelve disciples say, and “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

So why does my little scene seem so crazy to us? The Bible is full of stories of baptisms gone wild – impulsive baptisms in an obliging stream; baptisms of dozens, hundreds, thousands, after a particularly dynamic sermon. And in today’s Gospel, in Jesus’ own baptism, “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove” and the voice of God thundering from the clouds. But you and I have rarely seen a wild baptism like this. Most of the baptisms I have seen or performed have been quite orderly, some even stately, and the wildest they’ve ever gotten is when an infant thinks that the water is too hot or too cold and decides to test out his lung power. No wonder we’re tempted to think of baptism as something domestic, as merely a “rite of initiation” meant to be witnessed by family and friends and followed up with fluffy white cake.

Now I have nothing against family and friends and fluffy white cake. And baptism is the rite of initiation in the Church. But it is so much bigger than that, so much more powerful, so much wilder than anything we could ever contain in a small marble font. Any invocation of the Holy Spirit is bound to get wild, but baptism particularly so because of the astonishing promises of the baptismal covenant. In our baptisms, we promised, or someone promised on our behalf, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. These are the promises that we made; this is covenant that we entered into. They’re crazy; they’re impossible – we’ll never, ever be able to keep them all all the time. But, remember, we never promised to do these things alone – we promised to do them only with God’s help.

It is God’s help that makes the wildness of these promises something creative and life-giving instead of fantastical. And this help is found most powerfully here, in the Mass itself. Each week, in this liturgy, we enact these promises and remind ourselves of what they feel like. We learn the apostles’ teaching through the Holy Word of Scripture, break bread and pray; we confess our sins; we proclaim the Gospel and hear sermons that hope to share the Good News; we seek Christ in all persons by gazing into their eyes and offering them his peace; we love our neighbors and effect peace and justice through our prayers and thanksgivings; and we respect each human being by kneeling shoulder to shoulder to receive the bread and the wine. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor compares this facet of our worship to strength training – a workout that helps us to be fit and ready to run when we enter the mission field.  

And in our worship, we are reminded, too, that this covenant has never been one-sided. God has also made promises – to be faithful to us, to be present in the body and blood, to “raise us to a new life in grace” day after day after day. And God keeps his promises. Without his righteousness, made manifest in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we would be utterly lost. The wildness we would face then would be utter chaos with no hope and only the rule of Death. But that is not the life into which we have been baptized. Our baptisms had power, have power, the power of this holy covenant that, when lived out by you and me, transforms the world. So keep this covenant, or if you have not been baptized, seek it out. Embrace the wildness of these promises; practice them together here week after week. And then listen for that mighty voice of God proclaiming again and again that You are my son, my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And do you know what the really wild thing is? He really means it.

Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs

8 January 2012 - The Baptism of our Lord

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on January 12, 2012 .