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Friday, 6 July 2012

Wetting heads for Jesus

SUNDAY, July 8th 2012

Readings:    2 Samuel 5.1-5, 9-10
        Psalm 123
        2 Corinthians 12.2-10
        Mark 6.1-13

It is perhaps both as sign of the times and a sign of the issues that we face as a faith community that this baptism of Pippa that we celebrate with her family and their friends today is the first since I arrived here 12 months ago today, and only the second since 2009. This minor detail should at the very least cause those of us who are a part of the faith community to do some soul searching: who are we, and what are the relevancies or otherwise of this strange faith we adhere to?

It is not an unusual place to find myself adhering to something firmly out of fashion, and indeed whenever Christian faith has been either imposed as compulsory or chic and fashionable it stands judged and condemned by its own founder’s call – if Jesus was the founder – to be a counterculture, an alternative society. When we became main stream, as long ago as the fourth century, we lost the plot. When the Emperor Constantine allegedly saw a vision of a cross and heard a voice saying ‘in this sign you will conquer’ he may have given Christianity a fine numerical boost, but he lost the plot of Jesus. It is not without significance that the American Nazi party uses those same demonic words for its motto. I make no secret of my belief that falling out of fashion is the best thing that can happen to us – but marginalization is often painful and demoralizing.

Surf the web – or just surf Facebook – and there will be no shortage of pseudo-intellectuals declaring with delight their dismantlement of the ‘bearded man in the sky’. While one or two wags have pointed out that several astro- and cosmo-nauts wear beards, this probably does not clinch the argument. More importantly, believers could remonstrate that, despite the representative iconography of Michelangelo, we never believed there was one, but such a response doesn’t clinch any arguments either. Like Archimedes running naked from his bath, the iconoclasts, liberated from the alleged oppressions of Christianity and its bearded man, run naked down the corridors of the internet yelling ‘Eureka. There is no God.’ Maybe, maybe not: I suspect the proof of the pudding is in the eating rather than in burning straw bearded men, but that’s the world in which we are called to live.

So, in the current climate of exterminated bearded men, we rarely baptise. Perhaps disproportionately rarely, but that’s another story. Forgive me for saying this, Scott and Jodi, but thanks for bringing Pippa along. Thanks for coming, Pippa, though I guess you had little say in the matter. Thanks for coming, all of you – I really hope we don’t bore the lifeblood out of you! I often think there are other, more interesting things I could be doing on a Sunday morning – but that’s not, I think, the point.

Naming ceremonies are probably by now more common than christenings or baptisms. I have no objection to that at all – though I suspect they are a little irrelevant insofar as we name a child by the unromantic process of sending a form to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Certainly such ceremonies get rid of any need for a bearded man in the sky, and for that at the very least I am thankful. I wouldn’t want him look over my shoulder either.

But I hope something else is going on when we baptize – and despite what some clergy say it’s not altogether dependent on the family of the baptizand. It has far more to do with the integrity of us, the faith community, as we attempt  to demonstrate some tiny reflection of the possibilities of the Creator God – who is I would add, far more interesting than a bearded man in the sky. Are we willing to uphold the promises we intone, we witness, we make as we pledge our support to a young child and her family? For that matter, do we understand what we mean in this peculiar and ancient rite of hope that was presented to the Christian community by its founder?

At the very least I think this strange rite is a ritual of hope – or of the hope of hope, as I sometimes put it. We take a child or an adult, and, either by immersion or infusion, carry out strange but harmless rituals that speak of love and hope and a value to human life that is greater than the merely human. We achieve, in scientific terms, nothing beyond a wet head, just as later we will achieve no tangible scientific benefit from the sip of very ordinary port and a morsel of reasonably unpalatable bread that we will consume. And yet some of us, indeed millions of us around the world, some even reasonably intelligent, keep coming back. What are we doing?

So, because I don’t want to offer only a question, I make three suggestions, one for each of the component parts of this ritual: one for water, one for oil, one for light.

In Australia, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, we are confronted year by year with water as a force for life and a force for death. It was no different in Jesus’ time.  Water – a dark brooding and untamed force in the opening verses of the bible – is a thing of terror to the Hebrew people. Yet it is almost a ‘can’t live with it, can’t live without it’ phenomenon. It is not our element – no matter how much I love body surfing I know one day I must get out … and the devastation of the Queensland floods will always remind Australians of the hell water can wreak. Yet as I watch my lawns turn to dust and many of my garden plants die I know how critical it is – and from living in the inland heart of this country I know only too well how vulnerable we would be without its renewing properties available at the turn of a tap. Water is life and death, and baptism is immersion in the vagaries of birth and life, but immersion in the name and the energies of the Christ we believe journeyed through death to life. In eastern iconography, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, he left behind him symbols of human grottiness.

We add two more symbols. We anoint the baptizand – Pippa – with oil. Like King David of whom we read in the Old Testament reading, she is anointed to remind us of the selecting and setting aside and commission of an individual by God, the calling to a particular role with the family of God. Though we will not see the oil on Pippa, its scent will speak after the ritual of the richness of the possibilities of a life invaded by the divine spirit. Funnily enough we see oil in our gospel reading, too; it is used as a sign of healing, even in the worst of life’s calamities, sufferings and deaths: the Spirit of life conquers death.

And that, too is why we light a candle. Early on Easter Day we lit the paschal candle, declaring that all time, all life, all existence is within the embrace of God. Each time we baptize we light a new candle, and the darkness that sometimes seems almost to suffocate human existence is conquered once again. Or, to put it another way, no matter how deep the darkness, it does not, and will not have the final word, for Pippa, for you, for me.

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