In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
You will have noticed that our mass today did not begin in the ordinary way. And that’s because its not an ordinary mass. Today we are baptizing baby Maximilian, the newest member of the Ryan and Brooks’ family. In a few minutes Maximilian – who was just recently born in the flesh, will be born again by water and the Spirit.
In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the reality that is effected by Baptism and faith in his name:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10.27ff)
In Baptism we are reborn, recreated. Just as we all emerged from our mothers’ womb into a particular family, so in Baptism, we emerge from the font, from the womb of Holy Mother Church, the Bride of Christ, and thereby become members of God’s family. It is in virtue of this heavenly birth that God has become our Father, and that we boldly address him as such, as in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not for nothing that we say at every mass, “and now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are BOLD to say, ‘Our Father’.” And as I have pointed out before, when the mass is said in Latin, the priest introduces the “Our Father” with the words “Audemus dicere” – we are AUDACIOUS to say “Our Father.”
Addressing God as our Father is indeed a bold, audacious thing to do, because we are by nature estranged from him. We were all born and raised in a foreign land, a long way from Paradise and a long way from heaven. And each of us ratifies our estrangement from the Father by our sin – our selfish ambition, and the violence with which we pursue our own agendas.
But Christ was born into the world, revealing a new way – his way, the way that he himself is. He was crucified and raised to reveal this new way – the way of selfless love, of finding our identity in God, and so in our fellow man. It is a way that means life and light and peace for us if we pursue it faithfully to the end. Christ reveals it to us, because it is constitutive of who he is. Saint Augustine said, “The Son, born from everlasting of the Father, God from God, has equality with God not by growth, but by BIRTH. This is that greater than all which the Father gave him; namely to be his Word, to be his only-begotten Son, to be the brightness of his light.” And by dying and being raised with Christ in Baptism, we too become what he is: we become for the world God’s self-disclosure, his sons, and the brightness of divine light.
Baptism and faith in Jesus opens the door to this new way, incorporating us into the family of God, the fellowship of those who likewise have been reborn into the way of divine love. It is through Baptism and faith in Jesus that we are reconciled to one another, that we are finally enabled to relate to one another as brothers and sisters. So Saint Paul says, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation,” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
But our baptismal vocation – the task to which we are set in virtue of our incorporation into Christ, which is to say HIS vocation within the world – is a militant one. We are soldiers in an army; and baptism calls us to war. After Max is baptized, I will mark the sign of the cross on his forehead, and say:
“We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner; against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto hislife’s end.”
But we may say at the outset that as Christians we fight for the sake of peace and by means of peace. We are fighting, as it were, a war on war – because we are engaged in the overthrow of hostility, alienation, falsehood, violence, cruelty, and death itself; in short, every evil thing. And the weapons with which we fight are those revealed and given to us by our Lord. We fight and we conquer by bearing witness to him; by being meek and lowly, witnesses of peace, by always telling the truth, by living for the dignity of every human being, even our enemies; by refusing to abide by the law of retaliation, but blessing when we are reviled, and living in peace with all men. We fight under the banner of Christ’s cross, and his cross is the token of our victory. The rock band Wilco has a song called “War on War,” in which they sing: “You’re gonna lose; / You’re gonna lose; / You have to learn how to die, / If you wanna wanna be alive.”
If this is how we are to live, why then do we say that the Christian life is a war? Why do we use the metaphor of fighting with respect to the Christian life? Why do we sing “Onward Christians soldiers, marching as to war…”? Its because this way of life is radically at odds with the world – even the world in which we live, here in 21st century DFW. We don’t often think that way, but OUR world is full of injustice, indifference, systemic violence, deceit, concupiscence, and envy and avarice. Really to be a Christian in THIS society would mean to be conspicuous and strange. And the fact that most of us probably are neither conspicuous nor strange, relative to our social contexts, ought to convict our consciences and spur us to a deeper, and a better imitation of our Lord.
St. Theophylact spoke of this in the 11th century, commenting on a passage in John’s gospel that says: “It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Theophylact says:
“Be careful in winter time, that is while you are yet in this stormy and wicked world. Be careful to celebrate the dedication of your spiritual temple [that is, yourself], by always renewing yourself, always rising upward in heart. Then Jesus will be present with you in Solomon’s porch, and give you safety under his covering.”
This is our vocation. This is the task to which we are set in virtue of our baptism – ever to rise upward in heart, by means of prayer and frequent and regular recourse to the sacraments. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” We must listen for Jesus’ voice – every one of us, individually, and as a community of faith. This is the ONLY way to protect ourselves from the evil powers at work in our world: by hearing Jesus’ voice. Its how we take up arms against evil and death. It’s the only way to receive the gift of eternal life.
In a few minutes we are going to have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows. We are going to renew our confession of the Catholic faith and our renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil; we are going to promise to persevere in resisting evil, and to repent when we fail; we are going to promise to proclaim the Gospel by how we live and by what we say; we are going to promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, to strive for justice and peace, and to honor the God-given dignity of ever person. Pay attention to what you are saying. Internalize it. Take it seriously. And don’t dare to say it if you don’t intend to do it.
There is room for improvement in every one of our lives, and if you are anything like me, there is a great deal of room for improvement. But we must understand that this is the way – the ONLY way – to eternal life. It is what it means for us to be Christians. It is how we become the brilliance of divine light.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.