Sunday, January 10, 2016

From Baby to Bathwater

   The Baptism of the Lord   

As a youngster, I was a big fan of Farmer Boy
the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder
about the childhood of her husband, Almanzo,
just down the road a piece from here.
Being a North Country “farmer boy” myself,
I was fascinated by how things were done in bygone days.

There’s a chapter in Farmer Boy called, “Saturday Night.”
Young Almanzo loved Saturday because it was baking day,
and that often meant fresh doughnuts, still hot from the kettle.
But he rather hated Saturday night.
Why?  Because Saturday night was bath night.
At this time of year, after supper,
Almanzo and his brother would head out to the rain barrel,
break through the ice that had formed over the top,
and bring in buckets of clear, cold water
to be heated atop the woodstove.
A big washtub was brought in from the woodshed
and, one-by-one, the members of the Wilder family
would be left alone in the kitchen
to scrub away the grime from the week.
Almanzo often thought it would be enough
to just change into some clean underwear and his nightshirt,
but he was sure his mother would figure him out
before he crawled into bed.

That chapter came to mind
as I was preparing for this Sunday’s Mass,
so I made sure to read it again—
it had been quite a few years, after all.
And I was glad to see that,
as each Wilder came to bath time on Saturday night,
the old water was dumped out of the washtub
and new, warm water poured in.
I was glad to read that because, in my memory,
all the members of the family had used the same tub of water—
which wasn’t so warm, and wasn’t so fresh,
by the time the last person got to it!

This Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.
As we recalled back in Advent,
the word of God came to a man named John,
who went about in the desert, along the banks of the Jordan River,
proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Baptism is bath time—a ritual washing of the body
that points to the deeper cleansing of the soul.
Today we’re confronted with the mystery
that Jesus, too, went out to John to be baptized.
To this, all four of the gospels attest.
But why would Jesus, who—the scriptures tell us—
is like us in all things but sin (Heb 4:15),
ever ask to be baptized?
As Almanzo would be quick to point out:
one doesn’t really need to bathe if one isn’t really dirty!

Jesus is baptized in the Jordan,
not to be purified himself, but in order to purify baptism.
The divine sinlessness of Jesus
gives this Sacrament its amazing power
to wash all of our sins away.
Our older brother climbs into the washtub ahead of us,
but his bath doesn’t muddy the water;
instead, it makes it fresh and clean for you and for me.

Most of us Catholics don’t remember the day of our baptism,
since it so often takes place while we’re still infants.
I’ve only ever seen one photo of my young parents
holding little me over the font.
And yet the day of our baptism is the most important of our entire life!
It’s the day the Holy Spirit was first richly poured out upon us,
when we were welcomed as members of Christ’s Body, the Church,
and remade by grace as one of God’s own—
an heir in hope of eternal life.
We should be so grateful
that our parents took this step on our behalf—
that they were moved by their faith
to immerse us in this mystery just as soon as they could!
But now it falls to each one of us
to live out of this great grace everyday
and to be renewed in it as often as we can.

John the Baptist had been sent
to prepare the way, to make straight a highway,
for the coming of the Lord—
the appearing of our great God in our mortal flesh;
it fell to him to make earth ready
to welcome One from heaven.
Jesus, on the other hand, goes before us
that we—like him and with him—might live forever:
opening heaven to receive us who dwell on earth.
And so this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
is a most fitting end
to the Church’s Advent and Christmas season—
these festive days when we’ve celebrated
the coming of the Only Begotten, of God’s beloved Son.
He became man that we might become children of God.
God was born that we might be born again.

May those of us who have rejoiced so heartily
over the birth of the Baby
never forget the incredible grace
of taking a plunge in his bathwater!

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