Sunday was the observance of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, by John. Liturgically, it makes Jesus a grown-up after about two easy weeks and then closes the Christmas season. This year, it also provided a homily that I am hereby stealing and sharing with you.
Saturday night, my pastor told us: many moons ago, he was on staff at the Chicago archdiocesan seminary, Mundelein-St. Mary of the Lake. He used to lead the seminarians on their ten-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was good for him, because he got out of the buildings here at home to go breathe where Jesus did.
A highlight of each pilgrimage was the Jordan River. Father and the seminarians would dress in white baptismal robes. They got into the river and lowered themselves beneath the surface, until the water came all the way over their heads. They emerged and renewed their baptismal promises. Do you reject…? Do you believe…?
Then one of the seminarians always gave a reflection. One year, it was a seminarian whose recent field assignment had been coordinating an RCIA group at a parish. The process had a profound effect on him, and everyone participating, because the sense of community was so powerful and deep.
But the seminarian’s personal high point came after everything was “over,” about a week after the Easter Vigil. All of the initiates had gathered again to reflect on these questions: So how is it? Where are you at now? Has anything changed for you?
One man, who had been struggling for the whole program to decide if he could commit to being Catholic or not, gave the seminarian’s favorite answer.
He said: I realized, after I was baptized, that from now on literally everything I did had to be different.
Back here, in 2014, Father asked us:
What if I told you to turn to one another–it’s just rhetorically, I’m not making you do it, I saw the nasty looks you gave me just now–but what if I told you to turn to one another and tell each other how you are different, because you have been baptized? How is the world different because of you? How are the people around you more loved because of you?
None of this was spoken with any theatricality or great drama. But I was seized, in that moment, with a violent desire to become different.
And a line popped into my head from a book I once read, The Miracle by John L’Heureux: Who have you brought back to life when they were dead?
I knew the emotion would probably pass. For all intents and purposes, it has. I suspected that days later I would still be the same. And I am.
But in wanting to be different, in wanting to bring things to life that were dead, I was, for a little while, filled with light.
For centuries we have, with nitpicking ferocity and voluminous spilling of ink, tried to define what a sacrament is. What is licit? What is valid? What is right matter and form? What is grace? How do you “get some” grace? Are there different kinds of grace? Does anything have the power to cancel grace out? Who may preside? Who may receive? What words should we use?
Much of this discussion is worthwhile. Some of it is nuts. All of it, I think, would be clarified if we started here:
A sacrament–whether it is one of the seven official ones, or something that is as yet unrecognized; whether it is something you can shout out loud, or something that is too intimate to say–is that which, once it is over, makes you different. And you are different because something is now alive that could have died, or that once was dead.