The Very Rev. Tom Callard – January 10, 2021
This Sunday I invite us to take a little break from all that’s going on out there in the world. I know it’s easy to be absorbed by all the news coming from Washington, DC. Like you, I imagine, I watched in dismay on January 6th, which is the feast of the Epiphany. And instead of seeing three kings laying down their gifts to the Lord we saw this mob laying down anger, sowing chaos and spreading fear in an attempt to hurt our democracy.
But let’s take a break from that for just a moment. And let’s focus not on the pandemic and the threat of Covid 19, and not even think about Kim Kardashian, who I hear may be getting divorced.
But let’s stand here present with Jesus. Let’s stand with him in the river Jordan. And let’s feel the river water wash over our feet and guide us as we walk toward Jesus today, where he is about to be baptized.
So the question is: why is Jesus baptized? Catholic theology holds that baptism is done because we are born with original sin, and baptism removes that sin. But Jesus had no sin. And Jesus was not baptized because his parents made him do it. They didn’t bring him to church in the morning in his little white suit so John could sprinkle the water on his head and make him part of the body of Christ. JeHe’s already part of the body of Christ. He is the body of Christ.
The Catechism of the Prayer Book says that through baptism we become living members of Christ. But Jesus is not baptized to become a living member of himself.
So I pondered that this week – why is Jesus getting baptized? And as I read this passage, I was drawn, as I always am, to the place where we hear the voice of God coming down from heaven and saying: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. The same thing happens in Matthew and Luke when Jesus is baptized, and it’s very powerful.
Part of why this is powerful to me is that I was baptized as an adult at the age of 27. And I had been studying the Bible and I knew this passage. And as I stood there in Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the day of my baptism with the congregation and my friends and my family present, I honestly expected something like this to happen to me, for the voice of God to come down. Maybe not with those exact same words, but something good like this. But when the Reverend Louise Conant sprinkled the water on my head, and I rose up as a member of the body of Christ, I listened for that voice. And it didn’t come.
And so, I think about that when I hear the story of the baptism of Jesus. And I notice it not because the voice did not speak to me. But I notice it because it did speak, so clearly, to Jesus. And more than that, it spoke to John the Baptist, and it spoke to the people who were there, gathered at the river. And it spoke to the world. And it speaks to us.
It is a call, like a finger pointing us to the presence of Jesus. It is a herald announcing that he who had been a Child, who had been preparing, who had been growing and maturing, is now ready, having received the blessing and the stamp from God. He is ready to go into the world and meet us. And change us. And change the world. Which is what comes next. From here, next week, we’re going to hear Jesus calling disciples and doing amazing things. This is just the beginning. It begins today, with Jesus’s baptism and the acknowledgment of this voice.
And I think that’s why Jesus was baptized, for this moment to be fulfilled, this moment of blessing to be real. And so that this voice of God could tell us and announce to the world that the Savior is here.
In a way it reminds me of something I learned about how church was in the middle ages. You know back in the middle ages, in Cathedrals like ours, the Mass was different from the way it is now. Today our services are very ordered. We use bulletins so we are all on the same page. We try to make sure the congregation knows what’s going on, that you can hear and see us. Our livestreaming ministry is an extension of that, as we try and get you the sound and picture of what we are doing so you are part of it.
But back in the middle ages, especially in the big Cathedrals, it was much more chaotic. During the Mass people would be coming in and going out. They’d be sitting there with their backs to the altar. Different things would be going on in the nave. People would be socializing with their friends. There were children everywhere, and lots of noise. And there were no bulletins, in part because most people could not read. The lighting was poor. And the poor priest would be there up in front of the congregation with all of this going on, talking away in Latin, which most of the people did not really understand.
And then came this important moment, which we still have today, during the Eucharistic Prayer, when the priest calls for the Holy Spirit to come down and sanctify the bread and turn it into the Body of Jesus Christ. . But with all the noise and chaos and the disconnect from the Mass, nobody in the congregation really saw it or knew that this important thing happened.
And so the custom came that at that moment of the epiclesis, the moment of the sanctification, when the Holy Spirit came down, they would use a bell, or bells, called Sanctus bells, to let the people know when exactly Jesus became present among them in the form of the Holy Eucharist.
The practice of Sanctus bells began to let the people know: something important and holy is going on at this second and Jesus, in this form, is now here. At some churches, they even used their tower bells. In fact, the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican today still uses their tower bells as Sanctus bells which go off at the moment Jesus becomes present in the Holy Communion at the Mass, so wherever you are near the Vatican, you know Jesus is here.
What I see in the Gospel at the moment of Jesus’s baptism is the same thing. As Jesus is baptized and becomes fully present and ready to go forth to be the savior of the world, the voice of God comes down from heaven, like a Sanctus bell, to tell the world that he is here. And that it has happened. And the whole world, which is in a chaos like the congregation in a medieval Cathedral, the whole world can turn from whatever they are doing, from being scattered and distracted and wandering and struggling and scurrying around out there, and they can become aware of this moment, and the holiness, and the presence, and the possibility of life with Jesus Christ.
Those bells sound for us. The voice of God comes down for us. Not for Jesus. He knows he’s here. He knows he’s beloved. We’re the ones who need to hear that, and we need to hear it again and again.
So as we think about our world today and all that’s going on out there, and the many ways we are pulled away from the presence of Jesus Christ, it has never been more important for us to hear those bells, or to hear that voice from heaven reminding us of the presence of Jesus Christ among us.
It’s become something of a stereotype to talk about “Covid Fatigue,” but I think that’s what real Covid fatigue is – that because we’re all separate and we are very preoccupied with ourselves and our health, and we’re isolated and are not here together facing the altar of the Lord and engaged the way we used to be in the presence of Jesus.
We don’t get that regular, powerful reminder that Jesus is here, alive and among us. We can’t hear the sanctus bells because we’re not together, and we’re not here in the Cathedral to witness the moment of the Holy Spirit coming down. And we can’t be together to reach out and touch Jesus in our friends at the service, those with whom we share Christ in our baptism.
And so this isolation and separation take a toll on us. They takes a toll on our faith. I don’t think you can just automatically have your faith be strong without being reminded regularly that you are in the presence of Jesus. I know at least I cannot. I think our faith is like a fire inside which needs to be stoked and kindled on a cold night. And these are cold nights.
And in this time our fires have perhaps burned down to just the coals. And we realize that we’re sometimes just drifting out there without purpose. Which is what I think Covid Fatigue is, us drifting in what seems like this endless time of waiting for this to end, without the purpose we used to have in the ministry and presence of Jesus Christ.
Some people go crazy. As we have seen, some people begin to believe conspiracy theories and they look for someone to follow, like a dictator. They get angry and upset at those they perceive to be their enemies. They look for someone to blame. And they storm the capitol. Isolation and separation can lead to extreme actions.
Others go crazy in our own way – we become anxious and fearful and short tempered and angry. We become distracted like the congregation in a big, medieval Cathedral with our back to the altar, not paying attention, and disconnected from things that are godly. I think we’re all struggling. I think we all need an epiphany.
We need the voice of God telling us that we are in the presence of Jesus. And reminding us that he is here. We don’t need a big, huge moment like in the Gospel. Back when I was baptized, I thought that’s what I needed.
But since then, I’ve found that faith is not in those big huge moments as much as it is in the little ones. I have learned that I was not baptized into some abstract concept of the big moment of God, but I was baptized into a church, which is, as the Catechism of our Prayer Book says, the living body of Christ. Which is people, which is you and all those with whom we share faith. I was baptized into you. You were baptized into me.
I may not have heard the voice of God come down to me at the moment of my baptism, but since that day I’ve heard the voice of God come to me in my office, as I sit speaking with people who are struggling in their lives and reflecting about their faith. I have heard the voice of God in coffee hours, in adult forums and Bible studies. I’ve heard the voice of God in casual conversations, as people share their joys and concerns about life, as people share their desires, as I’ve seen human struggles, I’ve witnessed beautiful, human faith. We are a testimony of the life of Jesus Christ, as we share of our own lives. Listening to people is amazing.
This week I was on a phone call with a young man who lives in Colorado who is connected with one of our parishioners, who asked me to call him. And this young man’s family is going through some difficult times because his mother has cancer and she is not expected to live very long. So I spoke for a while with her.
And then she asked me to speak to her son, who is 20 years old. And he is struggling, as you might imagine. And as we spoke, at the end of our conversation, I promised him something that I believe with all my heart: that in his life, no matter what happens, he will never be alone, but that God will be with him and Jesus will be at his side, and that I will be there too, when he needs it.
I realized that this is part of what we get and what we can can promise through our baptism, this presence and connection with each other and with Jesus. This is what God’s announcement at the river Jordan said, that the whole world hearing this voice is now united, through this belovedness, and the gift of this savior, Jesus Christ. It is a unity which cannot be broken. It has been announced. It has been certified by this voice coming from above.
And during this difficult and challenging time, we should never forget the truth that I think best speaks to our covid-fatigued lives in isolation: that we may be separate and may not be together at this moment, but we are never alone.
In that spirit, this week I invite you to call someone and reach out to another member of the body of Jesus, someone with whom you share this bond. I guarantee you, and you will get your money back if it does not happen, I guarantee you that if you call someone from the Church or someone with whom you share faith, something good will come. And that you may not hear a big voice come from heaven. But you will still hear, on the other end, the voice of God. And maybe you’ll say: Now I remember what Jesus Christ looks like. And now I remember who I am and who I belong to.