I recently read Hannah’s Child, the autobiography of American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas comes from a working-class Texan family and qualified as a bricklayer before going to university. It is a moving book, honest about his own failings.
As he tells the story of his life he wrestles with what it means to be a Christian today. He highlights the importance and challenge of baptism. How, he asks, can people who are baptized into Christ kill one another? Baptism gives a new identity, because to be baptized into Christ is to be made a citizen of the new age in this age.
‘It is hard to remember’ he says ‘that Jesus did not come to make us safe, but rather he came to make us disciples, citizens of the new age, a kingdom of surprise’ (p 246).
You do not have to agree with everything Hauerwas says, but it is thought-provoking when he describes what should be the life-changing importance of baptism. Too often baptism tends to be reduced to something sentimental, like a service of thankgiving for the safe arrival of a child. Well, it is that, also, but it is much more than that. Each person who is baptized enters into the life of Christ. It is a gift of grace that unfolds as Christians enter into their many commitments: as parents and friends, as citizens and workers, as neighbours and stewards of creation.
Today’s readings invite us to think about our baptism. The early Church looked back at the Hebrew scriptures and found many parallels with baptism in the events there. The crossing of the Red Sea, for example, at the Exodus, was often thought of as like a baptism, from an old life of slavery to a new life of freedom. So too the story of Noah was considered to point to baptism (Gen. 9.8-15; 1 Pet. 3.18-22). Those who survived the flood did so by entering the ark. Early Christians saw the Church as like the ark, carrying us to salvation through the waters of the flood. So perhaps Hauerwas overstates his case: baptism is at least in part about being kept safe through the storms of life.
But it is much more than that. When you read the ancient account of the covenant that God established with Noah and his descendants, what leaps out at us today is that it includes ‘every living creature to be found with you … every wild beast … everything that came out of the ark’ (v 10).
God’s promise to cherish humankind extends to the flourishing world of nature in all its exuberance. This implicitly challenges humans in their turn to love likewise the world around them that God has brought into being and brought into the covenant along with them. We are to care for the environment.
Our baptism means that we need to engage with society also. A friend of mine told me of her brother’s response to visiting Auschwitz.
‘For the first time’ he said, ‘I began to understand the challenge of the baptismal promise to renounce evil.’ It is interesting that our gospel today (Mark 1.12-15) has Jesus driven into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Indeed, we are told that it was the Spirit that drove Jesus out from the comfort of everyday life into the loneliness and temptations of the desert. It was a testing time. The exalting moment of his baptism, when God affirms him, is followed immediately by the hidden cost of having to confront evil – and overcome it. Our baptism challenges us also to live up to our calling. But as it does so our baptism also gives us the supreme gift of grace, and reassures that ultimately the victory is won, because God has taken us into the resurrection of Christ, in whom we have life.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest at St Mary's in Finchley East, north London. Fr Terry's latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing and is available at Amazon.