In his sermons on the sacraments, which he preached to some newly baptized, St. Ambrose shows a keen appreciation of the power and weakness of signs. They signify so much, but we find them hard to accept. “Is this it?” he hears them say as they approach the waters of baptism.
Ambrose calls on stories of the Old Testament: the Israelites were saved as they flee from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, the cloud that guides them on their way–foreshadowing the Holy Spirit, the wood that makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet–the mystery of the Cross.
“You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes. What is not seen is in reality seen more clearly; for what we see with our eyes is temporal whereas what is eternal (and invisible to the eye) is discerned by the mind and spirit.” (On the mysteries)
Remember Namaan’s doubt as the Assyrian general stood before the healing waters of the Jordan, Ambrose reminds his hearers. There’s more here than you see or think.
So we’re invited into an unseen world. Still, aren’t we like those whom the saint addressed? Is this it? Maybe more so, for schooled as we are in the ways of science and fact, we look for proof from what our eyes see. We live in a world that tells us what we see is all there is.
And now it’s a world made more unknown by the Covid19 pandemic; even our sacraments seem to be taken away.
Faith is a search for what we don’t see. God doesn’t take it away. Believe, God says.
In his letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that the sacraments teach us to respect and reverence creation. Water, bread, wine, oil–sacramental signs– not only bring us into the divine mystery, they also bring us to the created world, our common home.
Water, for example, the sign of the sacrament of baptism, is more than something to drink, it’s a sign of life and death. In the beginning, God moved over chaotic waters to make them life-giving;’ In the time of Noah the Lord moved over the flood waters that threatened death to recreate dry land where life could flourish. . (Genesis 1, 1-2)
Because water symbolizes the life and chaos of the world, Jesus began his ministry going down into the waters of the Jordan River. The waters of the Jordan are muddied today, I doubt they were sparkling then. The world was muddied then; it’s muddied now. .
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered the world as it is and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches emphasize the blessing brought to water by the Word made flesh. They see the Jordan, filled with the blessing of the Word flowing out to the whole world. Every river, every land, every baptistery holds the blessing of God.
Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it can be chaotic. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee knew that. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”
Jesus was revealed when he went into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. He is revealed in the waters of life. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.
Today, water plays a major role in climate change. In the last century sea levels globally have risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years have risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.
This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.
Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.
An interesting homily on the Epiphany by St. Proclus of Constantinople of the Eastern Church.
“Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas…At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source unfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.
On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”
Not only the Jordan but the sea and every river, the Nile, the rivers of Babylon, even the Hudson are blessed when Jesus is baptized.
The United States Geological Survey has a wonderful site on water. Water is everywhere, not only in the seas and rivers, but in the air, the foods we eat, even our bodies.71% of the earth’s surface is water. 60% of our bodies is water. It’s a precious gift.
In the Sacrament of Baptism water’s a powerful sign that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, comes into creation bringing life.
Usually around this time one of the local New York papers carries the story of the Greek Archbishop of New York throwing a cross into the Hudson River, which is then retrieved by some hardy Greek divers.
The waters of the Hudson this time of year are like the world itself now, grim and cold, but they have Christ’s blessing, however it seems.
A gesture of optimism. I think the eastern church makes the case better than the western church. The water’s are holy the world over. The Spirit is at work in the world already, even before the gospel gets there.
I often find myself returning to the Apostles’ Creed. There are two different creeds, or statements of faith, that come down through the centuries. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest still in use today. It’s a summary of faith given to men and women who were being baptized in the early church to help them remember what they learne when they became Christians. As you may guess, it summarized a faith taught by the apostles.
I like that creed because it’s so simple. In the Catholic church is can be used in the liturgy during lent and at other times in place of the Nicene Creed. It’s traditionally said at the beginning of the rosary. Prayer books recommend we say it at the beginning of prayer.
In a sermon preached in 4th century to prepare people for baptism, St. Cyril of Jerusalem told them he was teaching them the creed because it was connected to the scriptures and the rest of the things in church.
“Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, some because they have never learned to read, others because their daily activities keep them from such study, still so that their souls will not be lost through ignorance, we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles…
“So for the present be content to listen to the simple words of the creed and to memorize them; at some suitable time you can find the proof of each article in the Scriptures. This summary of the faith was not composed at man’s whim, the most important sections were chosen from the whole Scripture to constitute and complete a comprehensive statement of the faith.
Just as the mustard seed contains in a small grain many branches, so this brief statement of the faith keeps in its heart, as it were, all the religious truth to be found in Old and New Testament alike. That is why, my sisters and brothers, you must consider and preserve the traditions you are now receiving. Inscribe them in your heart.”
The creed sums up all we believe, Cyril says. Like a searchlight it gives power to see so much more, it leads us into the most profound mysteries, and at the same time in its simplicity it helps us find our way through an often bewildering world. The creed is something we can fall back on as well as use to go forward.
In today’s reading at Mass from John’s gospel, Jewish officials and Pharisees from Jerusalem send representatives to John the Baptist as he’s baptizing in the Jordan River near Jericho asking “Who are you?” “Are you the Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet?” “Why are you baptizing?”
“I’m not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet,” John answers. “I am the voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. ’” John knew who he was and who he was not, and he wasn’t afraid to be the one God wanted him to be.
John could have followed his father, Zechariah, as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, a role passed on from father to son. But John chose a different course. God led him another way.
We don’t know when, but John went down to the Jordan Valley where the road ascended to Jerusalem, and preached to and baptized the crowds going up to Jerusalem to the temple of the Lord. The clothes he wore, his style of life set him apart from everyone else.
John didn’t care how he looked or what people thought of him. He certainly didn’t choose an easy place to be, a desert place. Later, Jesus praised his strength and determination.
To know who you are, you need to listen to God’s call, and evidently John did that. To speak the truth courageously, you need to depend on God’s strength, and evidently John did that too. He became a voice for God, even if he sounds at times like a drill sergeant readying people for the battle of the last days. He said unpopular things to powerful people and faced the consequences. Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea, arrested him and put him to death.
We’re like John whenever we ask God, “Who am I?” and listen for an answer. We’re like him whenever we use bravely the voice God gives us.
At the Masses I celebrated on Easter Sunday following the homily I cast holy water on the congregation after we renewed our baptismal promises. We renounced Satan and said we believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his son, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Yes, we believe in God’s church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Then, I went through the congregation sprinkling them with water, the sign of life, the sign poured out on us at our baptism. I tried not to leave anyone out.
Of course the church was more full on Easter. Some I knew smiled when I sprinkled them generously with the water. Many I didn’t recognize, and I wondered what they thought of it all. The kids squinted when the water hit their faces. Some devoutly made the sign of the cross, some seemed a little uncomfortable.
Easter’s more than hearing something; it’s believing what we hear. Does the water fall on rock and hard ground as well as on good soil I wondered? God promises to “pour out water” on his people, the scriptures say. It’s a generous gesture God makes. Water, too, makes its way we know. It’s everywhere in God’s creation. We hardly realize how present it is in us; it’s there in every tissue of our bodies. God is there in us all, seen and unseen.
So the rite of the church says: Sprinkle them all with water, and this I did.
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.
The tower attests the importance of the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.
In the Jordan River, God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.
We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:
Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.
In the easter season the Risen Christ comes to us in signs and sacraments. The Sacrament of the Eucharist is one of his signs, but let’s not forget the Sacrament of Baptism, another gift we receive from the Risen Lord. He blesses us in water.
Water is a sign of death and of life, says Saint Basil the Great.
“Like a tomb, the water receives the body, symbolizing death; while the Spirit pours in the quickening power, renewing our souls from the deadness of sin into their original life. This then is what it is to be born again of water and of the Spirit, the water bringing the necessary death while the Spirit creates life within us…
“ Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the status of adopted children our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory – in a word, our being brought into a state of all fullness of blessing both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us. Through faith we behold the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, but we still have to wait for the full enjoyment of them. If such is the promise, what will the perfection be like? If these are the first fruits, what will be the complete fulfillment?” Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit
To listen to today’s homily just select the audio file below:
On May 25, 2008 NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander dug into the cold surface of Mars looking for water, a necessity for life. Seems water is there, all right, so life on Mars is possible. Now scientists are planning to set up a colony there.
Here on earth water is also the key to life; it’s increasingly a concern as our climate changes.Our food production depends on it; water and life go together. For that reason, it’s not unusual that water plays an important role in all the great world religions.
Water cleanses the body from dirt and whatever might prevent us from functioning in a healthy way. Water also nourishes life within us. We can’t live or grow without it.
The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River marks the beginning of his public mission. It tells us that he, the Word of God made flesh, brings all creation to the waters of life. He will take away sin, which can destroy us, and gives us new life, which is a share in God’s divine life.
In our liturgy the feast of the Baptism follows that of the Epiphany because the Word invites all people, not just the Jews, to share in the gift he brings. The Magi who came to honor the King of the Jews recognized him as their king too. ” The Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars.”
“Today Christ enters the Jordan to wash away the sin of the world…Today the ‘voice of the Lord is heard over the waters.’ What does the voice say? ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’
Today the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters in the likeness of a dove. A dove announced to Noah that the flood had disappeared from the earth; so now a dove is to reveal the world’s shipwreck is at an end for ever.” ( St. Peter Chrysologus)
A beautiful phrase, “the world’s shipwreck is at an end.” Water, bread and wine, water turned into wine, the human become divine. These are life-giving signs of Jesus Christ, the Word of God bringing life, not death.