No Motherless Children   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 8 January 2017

Biblical texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes atheists make the most spiritually resonant art. The great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist, made a painstakingly-faithful and shockingly reverential cinematic adaptation of The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, with all dialogue straight from the Biblical text. And as his film comes to the scene we’ve just heard, we see John baptizing peasants in the Italian countryside while on the soundtrack, the Blues singer Odetta sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”

As Jesus approaches John, there is a smile of recognition between the two of them. John protests, saying he needs to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus assures him this is the right way. And once it has been done, God’s voice comes from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words reminiscent of several passages in Isaiah, including the one we heard a few minutes ago.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the day the Church remembers that Jesus, like most of us, was baptized. We have entered, as of Friday (or Thursday evening) the Epiphany: We have passed through Advent’s season of waiting, and the twelve days of Christmastide celebrating the incarnation of Christ in our lives, and now we celebrate Christ’s revelation to the world. Today is one of four days in the year that the Church recognizes as “especially appropriate” for baptizing newcomers to the faith, and though we are not baptizing anyone at St. Thomas this morning, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant together in a few minutes.

Baptism, according to The Episcopal Church’s Catechism (which is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845), is one of the two great sacraments of the Church—the other being the Eucharist. A sacrament, you’ll recall, is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The Catechism says, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The simple act of pouring a bit of water on a person’s head becomes a sign of God’s welcoming that person into the family.

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me as an infant; they wanted to wait until I was old enough to make the choice myself. And that choice came when I was about 13 years old, when the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up held a year-long confirmation class for middle school children, which would culminate in confirmation—full membership in the church—preceded by baptism for any of us who hadn’t been baptized earlier in life.

I was enthusiastically on board with confirmation: I wanted very much to be a full member of the Church, primarily so that I could vote in congregational meetings—I was already very interested in church governance. But I was terrified of baptism, to the point at which I really struggled with the decision to be confirmed.

My fear was entirely rooted in my adolescent vanity. First, I was simply embarrassed: Why hadn’t my parents taken care of this earlier? Why on earth would they have waited for me to make up my own mind when this was clearly something done to unknowing infants? Learning that roughly half the class was in the same boat as me somehow didn’t diminish that embarrassment.

But the more significant reason was my hair. I had thick red hair that required about half a bottle of hair gel every day to control. And for some reason I got a notion in my head that the pastor—who was known for his sense of humor—would, upon putting water on my head, make a joke to the congregation about how much gel was in it.

He was a compassionate person and a good pastor in the midst of a sacrament of the church, so of course he made no such joke. I was baptized, without any fuss apart from my own distraction.

Years later, days before I officially joined the Episcopal Church, I witnessed my first Episcopalian baptism. The whole congregation followed the altar party’s procession back to the font, and we all read or recited the Baptismal Covenant together. The adult baptizands were all dressed in a white alb after baptism and handed a candle: the Light of Christ. I was filled with a deep wish that this could have been my baptism, not the experience that my anxious teenage vanity kept me from appreciating at the time.

But: the wonderful thing in The Episcopal Church—and I think this is part of God’s grace in baptism—is that it didn’t really matter whether I was baptized as an unknowing infant, an unappreciative teenager, or a discerning adult: that baptism at Grace Cathedral was my baptism. As has been every baptism I have experienced since then. At every baptism we attend and participate in, each of us has the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, our Baptismal Covenant with God. We remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God and part of God’s family. We renew our commitment to be in relationship with God, not simply as individuals, but in community.

We recite—in question-and-answer form—the Apostle’s Creed. And then we promise, with God’s help, to continue in the teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers of the Church. To resist evil and repent of our sins. To proclaim the Good News. To see and love Christ in the person of our neighbor. To strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. We say aloud together our shared beliefs about our Triune God, and we recommit to our responsibilities to God’s kingdom and our siblings in it.

Going back to the Pasolini film: Pasolini uses that “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” cue several times in the picture, not just as prelude to the baptism scene. And motherhood was a recurrent theme throughout his work; perhaps its most significant sign in this film is the fact that Pasolini cast his own mother in the role of the Blessed Mother Mary.

I don’t know why he used that song in the baptism scene, but it seems a significant contrast to God’s proclamation moments later: “This is my beloved son.” Jesus is no motherless child.

Nor are any of us motherless children, even if we feel as if we are: I don’t know if Pasolini had any knowledge of the wonderful English mystic Julian of Norwich, but this Gospel message—perhaps particularly in the way Pasolini tells it—makes me think of a key theme in Julian’s work. In the late 14th Century, Julian had a series of powerful visions from God, which she later wrote about in her book Revelations Of Divine Love. Among many other things, God gave her in these visions an understanding of Christ as a mother to us all. She writes: “…Our Saviour is our true mother, in whom we are endlessly born, and out of whom we shall never come to birth…“We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be!”*

I know that not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and so: if you are someone who has not known a parent’s wholehearted, unconditional love, know that God’s love is that for which you have hoped. This is Julian’s message—and, indeed, the overarching message of the Bible. God loves you as dearly, as abundantly, as a mother should—and more.

In the humility of God’s incarnation comes the deepening humility of the Messiah’s submission to the rite of Baptism, despite the Baptizer being less worthy than the baptized. God welcomes Godself into God’s human family, into the Beloved Community. Jesus, though fully divine, is fully human: he is one of us.

And all this shows God’s love for us: that God would take part in this human life, and in particular today would take part in this rite to which each of us is called in righteousness. That one of the ways God makes the human family holy is by participating, in the flesh, in its holy rituals.

I’m sure there are 13 year-olds who approach baptism with far more grace than I had. And I am equally sure that there are mature adults who approach baptism with as much anxiety and trepidation. But at that font—as at this altar—we are received with the love that a parent has for their beloved children. God gives generously regardless of our ability to appreciate or understand what we receive.

Come to this font and be readopted. Come readopt your siblings. Come to this table and be made one with all of God’s people. Come be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, your loving mother.

 

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).

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