“Let us then be buried with Christ by Baptism, that we may also rise with Him; let us descend with Him, that we may also be exalted with Him; let us ascend with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Or. 40.9).”
What is the best gift you have ever received? There’s a pretty good chance you don’t remember it. I’m personally terrible at remembering gifts I’m given, which is a failing, but it does mean I’m quite easy to buy for so long as you only consider the long term. In any event, you probably don’t remember receiving the greatest gift you’ve ever been given; given graciously, and without merit.
That is to say, when you received the seal of the Spirit and, as Ambrose of Milan put it, renounced the devil and turned to meet Christ face-to-face. We today celebrate two great gifts: we gather to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, and we gather to celebrate the baptism of Seren. Or, really, one gift. On the one hand the Baptism of the Lord is an opportunity to reflect on the life of the whole Trinity, and on the other an opportunity to reflect on baptism itself. In speaking about the Baptism of the Lord on a day when there is a baptism one has to navigate carefully between the different priorities that suggest themselves. Rather than thread this needle I will start by talking about neither, and instead talk about forgetting.
Time places a great cloud of forgetting between us and between the past. It softens the edges of events, turning experience into memory, memory into story, and story into myth as the past recedes, ceaselessly, behind us. The Baptism of the Lord is subject to a peculiar kind of forgetting: it is an event which almost anyone raised in a plurality Christian country would recognise, and one which almost no serious historian denies happened. It is memorialized in art and in song and in rituals across the world. Likewise, all four Gospels attest to the Baptism of the Lord. Each, of course, is very slightly different. Similarly, we know generally where it happened, and many people will tell you that they’ve visited the site, but of course the site has been disputed for millennia. Our collective memory (and notably a hymn written by Martin Luther himself) locate it in the river Jordan itself, but in reality biblical and archaeological evidence locates it in the springs on either the East or West banks such as al-Maghtas or Qasr al-Yahud.
This idea that we can pierce that great cloud of forgetting and transmute the past into present experience is of course an utterly false one. Nothing that matters can be recovered by this kind of effort to salvage the past into the present. The proof is, instead, in the lived experience of every baptised Christian. But surely there is a problem with this claim. If you don’t remember your baptism then what proof is there to be found in it? Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that nearly every sermon on baptism, great common resources, are directed to the newly baptised – generally young adults, and often enough converts. It is probably worth noting at this point that these are not arguments against infant baptism – such sermons often enough contain injunctions that infants should receive the seal of baptism as soon as possible.
I then realised that I had been looking at this all wrong. In a sermon on baptism sixteen hundred years ago the newly baptised had infants among them, and were themselves among the congregation. Just as I too easily forget what gifts I have been given, time is without regard for age. You are as likely to forget ten as one, or one hundred. So where do we find our reminders? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that, like me, you’ve found that even after baptism you’ve sinned. If not, feel free to make yourself known after the service. When, having seen Christ face-to-face, we find that image receding into the cloud of forgetting, where do we turn when we betray that seal of baptism? Gregory of Nazianzus makes, I think, a good point here. Even Christ was tempted after his baptism. That we fail where Christ triumphed is no surprise. Gregory himself puts it best:
“If after baptism the persecutor and tempter of the light assail you (for he assailed even the Word my God through the veil […]), you have the means to conquer him. Fear not the conflict; defend yourself with the water; defend yourself with the Spirit, by which all the fiery darts of the wicked shall be quenched. It is Spirit, but that Spirit which rent the mountains. It is water, but that which quenches fire (Or. 40.10).”
The same Spirit that descended on Christ in baptism, as we heard in the reading today, is the Spirit that sealed our baptism, and will seal Seren’s today. The proof is in our ability to return to the water, and to that self-same Spirit, to be renewed and strengthened. Whatever events of the past may have been, our participation in the Spirit is not through a story, read and reflected upon, but through experience. We are given an infinite reserve of power if we should deign to depend on it.
We are not alone in this. In every baptised Christian there is the seal of the Spirit. If we choose to acknowledge the reality of our own experience then everything can change. We can choose to see those around us not as strangers, ships in the night, or aliens, but those who bear the same Spirit that descended on Christ. Another who participates in the life of the Trinity as we do. Another who participates in the same life of Christ. We will have the chance today to say that we receive Seren into the household of God. We have a chance to mean this. To believe that, despite everything that separates us, we are united to each, and to Christ, through the Spirit that sealed us all in baptism is to recognise the fullness of this day. There is more to it, of course, but this is what matters: the same Spirit that descended on Christ descends on Seren, and descended on every baptised Christian. We do not have to pierce the cloud of forgetting, because all that is obscured is a moment in time – the experience is ours for the taking, and for the sharing.