Shirt of flame

There was a time in my life when I regretted that I have been baptized as an infant. Perhaps “regret” is the wrong word. I was angry that I had been baptized as a child. This was a time in my life when I was full of anger at the intrusiveness of God in my life. I was about to pull a Jonah and run, if not to Tarshish, than at least to Arizona to escape priesthood. And I found the fact that I had been baptized, that my parents had made promises for me, and had caused this monumental sacramental act to happen to me to feel as if I were trapped, as if there was not any place to which I could run to be free of God and of those promises made at baptism.

The Church has long taught that baptism, as of the other sacraments, is indelible, there is a quality to baptism which can never be repeated or undone. The metaphor that John uses in the Gospel this morning is that of “fire.” John baptizes with water, but Jesus who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And if Christian baptism is with “fire,” as the Gospel says this morning, than baptism leaves one scarred, burned forever, and even if I were to run to Arizona or Tarshish, even if I were to never darken the door of a church again, the burn scars of that day, ever so long ago, would stay with me forever. T. S. Eliot has a phrase which I always think of, when I think of baptism: “The intolerable shirt of flame / Which human power cannot remove.” There are times when the life of faith, or occasional faith, or the wish to have faith feels like a shirt of flame, a kind of flammable hair shirt that burns, and hurts, and which “human power cannot remove.”

That, at least, was how I felt. Which is perhaps not a very happy way to think about baptism, but it is not entirely uncorrect either.

Often baptism is taken rather lightly, as a normal cultural and social event. Baby is born, baby takes first steps, baby says first word, and baby is baptized. It is all of a piece.

But if baptism is what the Church teaches, than baptism is very dangerous, and we are almost unbelievably arrogant when we baptize, especially children. We are playing with fire which is not of our making, and risking a great deal, every time we step to the font with another soon-to-be Christian.

Baptism is permanent and it does scar us and takes us into place and times that are unpleasant. Vows are made at baptism that bind us to a life of service and selflessness, to seeking justice, to a life of repentance, and resistance to evil. Baptism makes us citizens of another kingdom, which in turn means that we are aliens and wanderers here, and have a sense of never quite being home. Baptism makes us hungry for the bread of heaven, with a hunger that the stuff of earth can never satisfy. And baptism calls us to make some pretty serious sacrifices: our lives, our money, and our comfort.

But this day we are remembering not all baptism, but specifically Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist. And I always find Jesus' baptism to be slightly unusual, slightly strange. I know why I need the shirt of flame of baptism, that slow purgative process that one day, God willing, will make me ready for the Feast of the Lamb, but why would God's messiah, why would the eternal Word need baptism? I may struggle, complain and resist that burn of baptism, but why would Jesus even need it?

In the parallel passage from Matthew's Gospel, John himself protests that Jesus has come for baptism. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus responds that it is somehow proper that John baptize him.

Beyond being indelible, the Church teaches another great truth about baptism: that baptism is the root of our Christian identity, the canvas on which all the other aspects of our Christian life are painted. Some Christians will be ordained, or married, or confirmed, but those sacraments all presuppose baptism. They are all variations on a theme of baptism.. Baptism is the context in which our entire conversation and struggle with God takes place. Baptism, that fire that is set in us, is the way that we learn to love God and our neighbors. Slowly, haltingly over time, the fire of baptism can burn away the brokenness of our hearts, the ways in which we are selfish, self-deceptive and prone to sin. We experience baptism as a shirt of flame because we are yet far off from the perfection which God has planned for us.

I wonder if that doesn't explain the properness of Jesus' baptism by John. Jesus doesn't need baptism like we do. He doesn't need to be rooted in God, bound in covenant with God, and made an adoptive heir to the Kingdom. Jesus is God, very God of very God; Jesus is already rooted and one with God. Jesus wouldn't experience baptism as a shirt of flame because he is perfectly attuned to God, loving as he should.

But in his coming to live as a human being, he shows us the way home. He is born and baptized, he lives and dies. It is proper that he be baptized because he shows us the model, the example, of how we are to be. He goes before us like a beacon in the dark, flaming with God's love, and because he has bidden us to, we set a fire in those who come to us, children and adults, and we give them the light of Christ as a candle to carry into the darkness of the world.

All of us struggle with the hardness of baptism, I would imagine. Must I give of my time, my money, my energy, my life? Must I struggle and suffer through this Lenten time? Must I be an alien and a wanderer here? Does God have to call me into these difficult places and times?

As I think about my regret that I had been baptized, I realize that what was wrong was not my sense that this powerful, scary sacramental moment had been done to me without my choice, but the feeling that God was somehow out to get me, that God was somehow punishing me, or asking too much of me.

The verse from which the phrase “shirt of flame” is taken are these, and they seem to me simply true:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

Behind the hands that wove

The intolerable shirt of flame

Which human power cannot remove.

     We only live, only suspire

     Consumed by either fire or fire.

The scar of baptism, the permanence of the covenant that we make with God in baptism, is rooted in an unbending love. Love devised that shirt of flame, Love binds us with it, Love will never remove it, and Love wills us flame with divine fire.

For this is what we were created for: to flame with the fire of God's love, and to burn forever in his presence. And the shirt of flame which is baptism is how we are prepared to flame with his fire. Our Lord, in his baptism, is our guide and example.

Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

The First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord

Posted on January 12, 2010 .