Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord

“Are you saved?”
Have you ever had anyone ask you that?
It is a question that tends to make Catholics nervous.

Many years ago, when I was young and foolish,
I spent a summer in Alaska working at a seafood processing plant.
If that in itself is not sufficient evidence that I was young and foolish,
I should add that, at the end of my summer in Alaska,
I decided that I would hitchhike home to South Carolina.
Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time
(did I mention that I was young and foolish?).
And in many ways, it was very educational.
One of the things I learned
is that when traveling across a vast space, like the Canadian plains.
you can easily lose any sense of forward progress,
especially when it is your fifth consecutive hour
standing on the side of the highway with your thumb out.
I also learned that one group of people who habitually pick up hitchhikers
are Christians who are on the lookout for potential converts.
I met several of these folks on this particular journey,
but one who stands out in my mind was a Baptist minister
who picked me up somewhere outside of Medicine Hat, Alberta,
and took me all the way to Regina, Saskatchewan.
This was a journey of several hours
in which our conversation consisted pretty much of a single topic:
was I saved?
He would ask, and I would reply,
“Well, I don’t really know. I’d like to think I am trying.”
He would in turn reply, “If you were saved, you would know it,
because you would believe in Jesus as your personal Lord and savior.”
To which I would say,
“Well, I believe in God and Jesus, but I still don’t know if I will be saved.
A lot could happen between now and when I die.”
And he would respond, “If you’re saved, you know it.”
And so forth and so on,
from Medicine Hat through Swift Current and Moose Jaw, on to Regina –
a conversation going nowhere at great length.

So, are you saved?
This might seem to be a simple case
of a classic difference between Catholics and Protestants:
Protestants believe that they are saved by grace through faith,
once and for all in a decisive moment,
while Catholics believe you need to do something in addition to having faith,
something we call “good works,”
and that until your good works are totaled up at the end of your life
you can’t really be sure of your salvation.
But if this were really what we believe,
then why would we be reading in our second reading today
that “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deed we had done but because of his mercy”?
In fact, it has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church
that our salvation depends totally upon God’s grace:
we are saved simply through the generous love of God
and not through any righteous deed – any good work – that we might do.

So why are we so nervous about the question “are you saved?”
Why can’t we rest easy with simply answering “yes”?
I would like to think that our Catholic anxiety
over this question of salvation
grows out of an at least implicit awareness
that the real question with regard to salvation
is not “what should I do?” but “who should I be?”
The question is not whether I should perform
some sort of inward, mental action called “having faith,”
or some other sort of outward, physical action called “performing a good work,”
that God will reward by saving me.
The question is rather one about who it is that I am in the eyes of God.
The question is whether the kindness and generous love of God
is transforming me into someone
who can live fully in God’s presence,
and thus share in the eternal life that is God.

Our faith is that the answer to this question is “yes”;
we believe that God’s grace is transforming us
into what Paul calls “heirs in hope of eternal life.”
But note that we are heirs “in hope” –
our certainty is the certainty of hope,
which is quite different
from the kind of certainty we might have in science or mathematics.
We have a keen awareness of ourselves as works-in-progress,
people on a journey,
and whatever assurance we have of salvation
is found in our faith
that God’s grace is sufficient to bring that work to completion,
to guide our journey to its destination.

Paul singles out baptism as a key moment
in our becoming heirs in hope of eternal life.
In Jesus’ own baptism, recounted in our Gospel today,
the Holy Spirit descends on him
and a voice speaks from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Likewise for us, baptism is what Paul calls “the bath of rebirth”
in which we are reborn with a new identity
as God’s sons and daughters,
an identity that we do not fashion for ourselves,
but that is bestowed on us by God,
through the Spirit of renewal that, as Paul puts it,
“is richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior.”

But the grace that God gives through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit
takes time – a lifetime – to work itself into our bones.
Our new identity typically takes shape slowly within us:
it is a journey far longer
than the journey from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to Regina, Saskatchewan.
The very way in which the Church celebrates the sacraments of initiation
recognizes this.

In the case of children,
the identity given in baptism must be nurtured and developed
through the other sacraments,
not just until adulthood, but over the course of a lifetime.
For those who are baptized as adults,
their new identity is not just nurtured after baptism
but must also be prepared for prior to baptism.
This is the point of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or RCIA:
to assist adults who desire baptism or the other sacraments of initiation
in preparing themselves to live the new identity God will give them.
Paul puts this rather dramatically
in terms of God “training us to reject Godless ways and worldly desires.”
We might put it, somewhat less dramatically,
in terms of those who ask for baptism
seeking to live a life of greater spiritual depth,
a life more deeply rooted in God’s love and mercy,
given to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit,
a new life that may well involve unlearning an old way of life.
In the Rites of Christian Initiation we the Church
assist them with our prayers and our love
as they undertake the arduous task
of learning to live lives of faith, hope and love.

For all of us, the task of living the identity given to us through grace in baptism
is one that is on-going.
We should ask God each day in prayer
to make us more faithful, more hopeful, and more loving.
Sometimes, it is true, we can see little in the way of forward progress,
not unlike hitchhiking across the Canadian plains,
yet in our faith we trust that God has already given us
the grace to finish the journey,
the grace that is gradually transforming us into those
who can live fully in God’s eternal presence.

“Are you saved?”
Let us answer with the confidence of the early Christian poet who wrote:
"I trusted, consequently I was at rest;
because trustful is the one in whom I trusted.
And immortal life embraced me, and kissed me.
And from that life is the Spirit which is within me.
And it cannot die because it is life" (Odes of Solomon 28:1-3, 7-8).