Initiation into a lifelong practice of discipleship

Initiation into a lifelong practice of discipleship

Pope Francis baptizes one of 28 babies in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Jan. 8.
CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, handout

It used to be the Epiphany (shining forth of light) that closed out the Christmas season, 40 days after Christ’s birth. Lent gets as many. The Wise Men came from the land adept in science and learning, given Israel’s 587-538 experience of Babylon and its magnificent hanging gardens. We only presume there were three because of the three exotic gifts Matthew mentions. The eastern rites of our church speculated that there were perhaps a dozen, to parallel the future apostles. Great east bows to lowly west, rich genuflects to poor.

The Epiphany has a much longer history in Christianity, celebrated earlier than the Lord’s birth because of the stunning marvel of Christ the Light of the World shining out to the pagans and gentiles. If you remember that all of us spiritual Semites, as Saint Pope John XXIII called us, were allowed into an exclusively Jewish movement, you would see how amazing it was to be given entrance. In mid-first century, the newborn church had what scholars claim was its greatest controversy in two millennia, greater and more divisive even than ours of clergy abuse of minors. It was serious enough that, if left unresolved, it would have seen to our demise before the second century.

The good Jews of the first-generation church took seriously the prohibition of the Torah (the Law of Moses) to associate with heathen gentiles. Yet Paul, a contemporary of Jesus and a zealous Pharisee, overturned this by preaching about the risen Christ, first to Jews living outside Israel around the Mediterranean, but then to curious gentiles there too, who wanted to know about this Jesus, reputed to be brought to life after execution by Rome.

The initiation ceremony into membership was the washing of baptism, performed on adult joiners. Jews understood the ritual as a cleansing from sin, something consistent with placing faith in Jesus whom they saw as the Savior from sin. But our concept of this rite is far different from theirs. Since we Christians were an outlaw cult chased and martyred by Caesar for three centuries, new joiners could not tell their children about this new movement or their belonging to it. Children might innocently talk. How would you like to have to attend Mass without your children knowing or asking about your whereabouts each weekend?

We could not build churches or any other public monuments to our allegiance to the Lord, so we settled for home Masses and memorial liturgies in catacombs only on the anniversary of the hero’s birth into new life. Regular gathering there would have alerted the law. So new joiners had to provide character witnesses not only to testify to his/her worthiness, after three years of grueling training rivaling that of Parris Island. They also testified that he or she could keep secret where the group met. When the emperor Constantine in 313 took the sanction off of us, new construction started.

Infant baptism began, but only on the condition that the family or surrogates would raise the child Christian. It was not to become the version so common today whereby a festive family group would gather in a church after the last Mass on Sunday, with some needing the knowledge of when the last Mass is, followed by a happy party at home to mark the event. It was seen as an initiation into a lifelong practice of discipleship, disciple following the Master, forming a believing community in a real and visible sense. The godparents now had the function of being example figures for the child to copy, like the parents.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus now closes out the Christmas season. It comes on the Sunday after Jan. 6’s Epiphany. Different cultures celebrate it differently. Gift giving replacing that of Christmas is common. In Italy, the good witch Befana, from a corruption of epifania, visits the good children with gifts. The miscreants get coal there too.

It seems the baptism of Jesus by John his cousin is one of history’s least necessary baptisms. From what sin did Jesus need to be washed? John even argues that it should be the other way around. Jesus thanks him but says to let it be for now. John had established a reputation as a severe preacher living off the land. Jesus instead came eating and drinking, wanting to start his career of preaching the Kingdom of God.

When we attend any baptism, it is a chance for us to re-up our membership.