Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord 2020 Homily

At the beginning of each Mass of Christian Burial we turn our attention to the two great symbols of our spiritual life: fire and water. As we firstly turn our attention to the Fire of Easter, represented by the Paschal Candle, we say, In baptism our friend was enlightened by Christ. May Christ, the eternal and unfading light now welcome them into the kingdom of light and peace.” And then we take water, the great sign of life, and as we bless the body with it, we say, “In the waters of baptism our friend died with Christ and rose with him in glory. May they now share eternal life with Him in glory.”

As we are reminded at a Catholic funeral, in our Baptism we are drawn into the life and light of Jesus. We are drawn into his story. And the story of Jesus is what we term paschal: it is one about dying and rising. Indeed, when we meet Christ, “he bids us come and die”, as the German write Bonhoeffer once observed.[1] Something must die, in order for something to live. We die to our selfishness and our fear and rise to others and to love. He urges us to let go of the nets of our familiarity and to caste into something deeper. This is never simply a single event, achieved and completed. No, rather our discipleship of the living Christ makes this a way of life for us. We are caught up always in Christ’s dying and rising. Our baptism immerses us into this new law of the spirit. In Christ, we are people of exodus, people always caught up in movement from the places of fear in our life to the places of love, from the places of shame to the places of dignity, from the places of bitterness to the places of openness, from the places of estrangement to the places of hospitality, from the places of death to the places of life.  As T. S. Eliot points out in the “Journey of the Magi” which we celebrated last Sunday, having discovered the Christ Child the wise men from the East can never be the same.

This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. [2]

After Bethlehem, the men from the East cannot return by the same routes. They can never go back to old ways. Their discovery is both the death of everything and the beginning of everything.

To celebrate the Baptism of Jesus is both to recognise the turning point this represented in his own life, and to remind ourselves of the baptismal character of our own lives, the paschal nature of our lives as disciples. “The art of dying is part of the charismatic art of living,” as another German writer, Johannes Metz would declare.[3] Christ’s death and resurrection live within our hearts as a constant tension. What develops through our discipleship is the depth of awareness of this tension the mindfulness of this movement ‘from’ something and ‘towards’ something, the mindfulness of something dying and something rising.

This is the ever-present personal implication of our own baptism. It is the invitation that is present in its liminal character. A liminal event is one that takes us to a threshold, the end of something and the beginning of something. Our baptism is a liminal event. But, indeed, there are others, too. They may be those that are joyous such as a new job, our marriage, the birth of a child; or those that are challenging such as a failure or a difficult prognosis. All of these are threshold moments for us, moments that bring us to the end of how we previously thought and related and into a new way of doing so. The circumstances force us to let go of something and to think and act in a new way.

It would seem to me that our current national crisis of fire and drought is also very much a liminal experience.  The scale of the disaster and its implications in the lives of so many Australians means that we are at a turning point. As many have expressed, life cannot be the same after this summer. It has raised too many questions for us – questions about the changes to our climate, questions about sustainability, questions about our management of the landscape and its resources, questions about our reliance on fossil-fuel, questions about our own fragility and that of our wildlife, questions about political and social leadership, questions about the long term economic and emotional impact of the disaster. In time, life will return to some normalcy for most, albeit that we cannot presume it will for all. But the questions are too significant now to be pushed aside. They must continue to goad us into a different way of thinking and hopefully a new way of acting. They have the potential to lead us into a new identity as Australians.

We talk colloquially about a baptism of fire. It means we have been immersed into a situation that strips us bare, that refines and purifies us, that scorches us and remoulds us in its furnace. This summer has been such a baptism for us as Australians. It has been truly a liminal experience for us – one that brings us to the end of something and the beginning of something else. May our own baptism in Christ, of which we are reminded as we come to the conclusion of this season of Christmas and in the midst of the national disaster that grips us, teach us how to enter this moment as fully as we can, to recognise its character, and to live its invitation.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 44.

[2] T. S Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi” from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974)

[3] See Johannes B Metz, Followers of Christ: The Religious Life and the Church, translated by Thomas Linton (London/New York: Burns & Oates, 1978), 18-22