The word for baptism comes from a root that means “immerse” or “dip”, even “dye” in the ancient world. Paul told the Galatians that baptism was a clothing in Christ (3:27) and the Romans that was a burial with Christ after close association his death (6:3-4). In the early Greek speaking church, baptism came to be known as phōtismōs, an illumination or bath in light. John’s gospel was a strong influence here — the word for light is phōs as were other light-darkness passages in the correspondence of Saint Paul. The phrase “children of light” appears in John and in the Manual of Discipline from the Dead Sea community of Essenes, a group of separatist Jews.
The main concern of this Sunday for many centuries has been the impending baptism of adults into the congregation during the Easter season. The choice of David, the unprepossessing shepherd boy, by Israel’s God is a parable of the mystery of our election. Why, of the billions on the earth, have we been chosen? Our personal merits are all against it, just as in the world’s eyes the raw lad David was no match for the regal Saul. Ephesians names the conditions of the new life of the baptized throughout chapter 5, from which we read. It culminates in what may well be an excerpt from an early baptismal hymn: “Awake, O, sleeper, arise from the dead and Christ will give you life” (Ephesians 5:14). We the baptized hope that we are awake and alive in the light that is Christ. We have no need to put a cover of darkness over our shameful deeds.
An obscure 17th-century poet named John Denham wrote these lines in a poem called Progress of Learning:
I can no more believe old Homer blind,
Than those who say the sun hath never shined;
The age wherein he lived was dark, but he
Could not want sight who taught the world to see.
Those lines say something very important about the ancient, sightless bard. The gospels used the imagery of blindness and vision to signify spiritual resistance and openness to truth long before the English poet thought to do so. Every cure of blindness by Jesus reported in the gospels is used as a parable of opening the eyes of the mind in faith. To be united with Christ in baptism is to see the world as it is, not to impose a false character on it stemming from our talent for self-deception. To live as a Christian, in a word, is to see. Easter is 3 weeks away. It will celebrate the baptism of some absolutely new Christians in our midst. We who are Anglicans, part of the catholic Church, must be sighted people to receive them. Otherwise, it will be the blind leading the blind and their last state will be worse than the first. We remember the scorn Jesus poured on those who traveled over land and sea to make a single proselyte and we ask, “Is that us, Lord?”
Why do people speak today of the widespread loss of hope in the western world, of our purposelessness as a people, our lack of direction? Our country is so good to some, so cruel to others. It is by no means the case that the favoured see meaning in their lives while the disfavoured do not. Often it is just the opposite. There is no correlation whatever between possessions and good fortune and a sense of purpose. Getting very specific, do we who claim the Christian name in a community of believers, a Church, know where we are going? That is the question for Lent, in a sense, the only question for Lent.
Jesus asked the man who was blind from birth, “Do you believe in the son of man?” (John 9:35). One wonders if this was a direct question put to the candidates in the rite of baptism in John’s community, perhaps the only question. Jesus asks another question in Matthew, “What do you want me to do for you?” and the two blind beggars answer, “Lord, open our eyes” (Matthew 20:32f.).
The invitation to life in the church in a particular congregation is a call to a lifetime of clear sight regarding the son of man. Christian life is more. It is the life of vision regarding all humanity or it is nothing. In our day, even Christian people, are terribly wary of one another. There is a profound lack of trust. The fear is not so much that deeds of darkness will be uncovered but the deep inadequacy in each of us will come to light. “Dare I level with him?” “Why should I tell her the whole truth?” “I doubt they will be honest with me.” The fourth gospel’s son of man in whom the evangelist required belief was that unspeakable unspeakable paradox, a weak human being in whom the full glory of God shone forth. The venture of faith has not changed since then. God is not in others exactly as God is in Jesus; nonetheless, God is very much in others. Do we dare to look at them? Have we the courage to show forth the divine glory that is in us or will we, clutching our human weakness, keep it from others gaze until we die?
Anglicans and many other Christians zealously guard the custom of baptizing in infancy. Those committed to a “believer’s baptism” wait until adolescence, until adulthood. In a sense, by its practice neither tradition asks the deepest question. The question is: Are Christians such a community of trust that one would wish passionately to be of their number? Is joining them a new life or is it just a bit of ritual behavior, an accident of birth, in some circles a Bible-spouting about a new life? These are Lenten questions.
“Great God! I’d rather be/ a Pagan circled by a creed outworn,” said the Christian Wordsworth. Than what? Than getting and spending. Than living comfortably with “the world.” But not seeing what is there to be seen. Do we really want anyone to join us in our faith community a few weeks from now? Does it mean that much to us? Will it ever? These are Lenten questions. We have three weeks to answer.