Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign—I Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-13, 29-38; Ephesians 5:6-14
We are now only three weeks away from Easter. The Church’s principal celebration of our Lord’s resurrection is, of course, the Great Vigil of Easter, on the night before, and, in many places, with an ensuing party that extends just into the small hours of the morning. At the Easter Vigil, there are ideally baptisms—infants and children, to be sure, but especially adults. There are a lot of very good reasons to reserve most or all adult baptisms to the Easter Vigil; the Prayer Book implicitly assumes as much. So it’s only fair to ask: Why make such a big deal about it? Why have these baptisms on such a public occasion? Why celebrate them on such a grand scale?
When baptisms are completed, it’s customary in many places for the celebrant to walk around the church sprinkling the congregation with water rom the baptismal font while the choir or the whole congregation sings an appropriate text, of which there are several, about water or new life or resurrection or the divided waters of the Red Sea. One might ask, once again, Why all the fuss? Isn’t this just liturgical overkill? Aren’t we making the proverbial mountain out of the proverbial mole hill?
Now, the reason I even bring up the subject of baptism at all is simple, but perhaps not so obvious. The season of Lent, which we are currently in the middle of, is not about giving up coffee or beer or meat or coming to church on a weeknight. It’s not even primarily about feeling sorry for our sins and promising God we’ll try to do better in the future. It may legitimately include all those elements, but that’s not what lies at the heart of the season. At the heart of Lent lies baptism. That’s the reason Lent was invented. In the ancient church, all baptisms were reserved for the Easter Vigil. Most of the candidates were adults who had completed a three year process of Christian formation. Lent was the home stretch of that process. It was a season in which the community of the faithful would pray with special intensity for those about to be baptized, and, as a sign of solidarity and support, to fast and pray themselves. There was a universally understood deep connection between Lent and the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil that somehow faded and disappeared during the Middle Ages, and that’s why the whole thing has seemed like an innovation to veteran Episcopalians in the 30 years or so since it was introduced.
These early Christian communities, for whom Easter baptisms constituted the highlight of their year, understood four passages from St John’s gospel, three of them being extraordinarily long, as being especially potent with baptismal significance, densely packed with interpretive meaning. When the three-year ecumenical lectionary was compiled in the decades following World War II, these passages from John were appointed to be read on the last four Sundays in Lent, Year ‘A’. Two weeks ago, we eavesdropped on a nocturnal conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who learned about the necessity of new birth through water and the Holy Spirit. Last week, we met the Samaritan woman at the well, who discovered Jesus to be the source Living Water welling up to eternal life—a baptismal sign if there ever was one. Next week, we will encounter Jesus’s close friend Lazarus, dead for three days, but called out of the tomb alive, still wrapped in his grave clothes, by the sound of Jesus’s voice—a powerful sign of the Eternal Life of which baptism is the entrance portal. Today, we hear the dramatic account of a man who, though blind from birth, receives the gift of sight from Jesus.
Please note the instrumental means Jesus uses to heal this man: He makes a paste of mud with the dust of the ground and his own saliva and smears it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash it off in a particular pool. It is a very sacramental act on Jesus’s part. He could have healed without even speaking a word, let alone by employing such material means, but he chose not to. The result, of course, of Jesus’s sacrament-like action, was that the blind man could see. He could perceive the presence of light for the first time in his life.
And here’s the tie-in with baptism: One of the euphemisms for baptism in the early church was “illumination.” Christians often referred to themselves as the “enlightened ones.” That may sound a little arrogant to our socially and politically sensitized ears, but they weren’t trying to assert their inherent superiority over anyone. They were just announcing their faith that Christ is the light of the world, that they have received that light when they were united with Christ in baptism, and that it was their aim to live and walk in that light. As members of the church of Jesus Christ, we are children of light.
Of course, it is possible that even my making that simple statement may be raising your anxiety level. Maybe you don’t remember your own baptism, and you would be hard-pressed to describe any difference it has made in your life. You certainly don’t feel “enlightened.” Maybe you do remember your baptism, and your reaction is the same. You didn’t see any flashes of light or hear any voices. No dove came and landed on your head. So why all the hype? Why can’t we get back to some old-fashioned Lenten guilt? What’s the big deal, anyway?
This must be how the young David felt after the prophet Samuel anointed him King of Israel. King Saul had been, in the eyes of God, misbehaving, and the Lord told Samuel that he was going to raise up a new king. So he said, “Go to the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite, and take your flask of oil with you, and there I will tell you which of his sons I have chosen to replace Saul and become the next King of Israel.” So Jesse lined up the seven oldest of his eight sons and presented them to Samuel. At first glance, there appeared to be several likely candidates in the group. But as he looked at each one, Samuel never got the green light from the Lord to proceed with the anointing. So he said to Jesse, “Is this all you’ve got?” To which Jesse replied, “Well, there’s David, the youngest, but he’s out in the field looking after the sheep while we’re all here.” “Go get him,” Samuel says. So they went and got David, who was still just a boy, and not, by any ordinary human estimation, a viable candidate for the throne. But when Samuel looked at him, he finally got the divine nod he was waiting for, and out came the oil, and David was anointed king.
Now, if you and I were Hollywood script writers, we would have the young king David immediately gather a band of followers and head straight for Saul’s headquarters, picking up throngs of loyal subjects along the way. Saul, when faced with such a demonstration of the popular will, would politely abdicate on the spot, and the reign of David would begin. But it didn’t happen that way. It was several years before David began to function in the role to which he had been anointed. He had to endure trials and tribulations which would bring him to within an inch of his life several times. Saul did not go anywhere politely. It took his death in battle to make way for the popular acceptance of David’s rule. During those intervening years, David must have been tempted many times to think, “What a crock this all is! I could have been happy tending my father’s sheep, but now I’ve got lunatics throwing spears at me and hounding me all over the countryside day and night. I wish Samuel had called in sick that day instead of coming over to anoint me. Who needs it? What the big deal about being a king, anyway? Certainly nothing that I can see!” What can we say about this crisis of expectations? Being a king doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Being baptized doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
I am old enough to remember the tail end of what is known as the “McCarthy Era” of the 1950s. I can recall a sensationalized TV documentary special broadcast during that time entitled, The Spy Next Door. The concept was what is known in the intelligence trade as a “sleeper.” The Soviets would recruit a couple who could look and act and speak just like typical Americans, and then “plant” them as John and Mary Suburbanite, minding their own business, working, going to church and PTA meetings, leading a Cub Scout pack, and generally blending in. Perhaps they even came to enjoy their false life, and think, “What’s the big deal about being a spy? This is a piece of cake.” Then, at an opportune moment, they would suddenly receive a coded message from Moscow, and they would be “awakened” from their “sleeper” status and ordered to provide some strategic information that they would presumably then have access to. They were, in fact, Soviet spies all along, but they did not function in that role until they were awakened at the proper moment. At that moment, it became a very big deal indeed.
As we know, being a king eventually did become a big deal for David. He politically unified the nation of Israel, established a capital at Jerusalem, and founded a dynasty that lasted hundreds of years. There is a footnote to the account of his anointing that is easy to overlook. Perhaps David wasn’t even aware of it at the time, but the author tells us, “…the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” Something big apparently did happen that day at Jesse’s house. It was more than oil that Samuel poured out over David at that anointing. More than David or anybody else knew. It only became evident, fully revealed, much later.
My friends, baptism is to a Christian what anointing at the hands of Samuel was to David. A popular euphemism for baptism at times has been “christening.” What a powerful word that is when we stop and think about it: When we are baptized, we put on Christ. We are “christ-ened—en-christed.” Our life is bound up with his and his with ours. It is also an anointing, an anointing with the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who “came mightily upon David” at his anointing. We may not feel the power of that mighty coming right away. It may be years—years of struggle and doubt, perhaps—before we see the fruit of the indwelling Spirit. But the “sleeper” has been planted. The baptized Christian may blend in with the world, doing what the world does, thinking the way the world thinks. But one day, at the opportune time that only God determines, the order will come: “Wake up! I’ve got something for you to do, a service for you to perform.” And the soul on whom the Holy Spirit came mightily in baptism years before becomes a combatant in the battle to extend the Kingdom of God.
After the man who had been born blind was healed, and gave his testimony before the Jewish authorities, and then met Jesus again, able to look at him for the first time, there was a poignant exchange between them. Like the Samaritan woman last week, he wanted the right thing, but wasn’t exactly sure why. Jesus says to him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The formerly blind man shows faith, but lack of understanding, when he responds, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Then Jesus provides spiritual enlightenment to go along with the physical enlightenment that he had already delivered: “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” Can’t you just see the light bulb click on over this guy’s head? Now he “gets it.” He simply says, “Lord, I believe,” and then he worships. His vision was now 20/20, in every respect. He had moved from darkness to light.
In three weeks, at the Easter Vigil, as the Church throughout the world adds to the offspring of Abraham by celebrating the sacrament of Holy Baptism, you and I will have the same opportunity for growth in our sight. We will have the chance to lay hold, once again, of the fact that we have been “en-christed,” christened, that we have clothed ourselves with Christ, that we have been anointed and that God’s Holy Spirit has come upon us mightily. We may even hear the coded message that we’ve forgotten to even listen for, as St Paul quotes an ancient hymn in his letter to the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”