If your experience has been similar to mine, you may recall that when you were incorporated into the life of Christ and the life of the church through the sacraments of initiation, you were called a "soldier for Christ." As such, we were expected to be staunch defenders of the faith.
Later -- and in affirmation of the idea -- we learned "Onward, Christian Soldiers." We belted out this classic English hymn with as much ferocity as our 7-year-old hearts could muster, no holding back for us, no half measures. While I am certain that I was taught about the other blessings that accompany the sacrament of baptism, the notion of being a soldier impressed me most poignantly.
|The Baptism of the Lord|
|Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Psalm 29 or 104
Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
Luke 3:15-15, 21-22
Today, however, as we recall and celebrate the baptism of Jesus, there is no talk of soldiering or putting up a good defense. Nor is there any idea that our own righteousness has brought about our salvation. On the contrary, the focus is on God, on grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and mercy.
Deutero-Isaiah speaks of comfort for his exiled contemporaries. He could have said, "I told you so," or listed the many reasons why they deserved their sad and shameful circumstances. But the prophet spoke for a God who does not kick us while we are down.
Rather, speaking tenderly as he was directed by God, the prophet assured his people that God is strong and powerful, yet God chooses to love and care for sinners as a shepherd gathers his flock to his bosom, because God is first and foremost a God of mercy.
This quality of God is affirmed by the author of the letter to Titus. Herein, one of Paul's disciples reminds readers that all God has done for us in Christ, everything grace has accomplished, all the graces that accrue to believers in the bath of rebirth -- these things are due to God's mercy. Because of God's mercy, we are justified, and we have become heirs in hope of eternal life.
In our celebration today of Jesus' baptism, and in gratitude for our own many experiences of God's mercy, we might do well to consider the quality of mercy more carefully.
Although there are many words for mercy in the Hebrew Scriptures, the most frequent is hesed, which defies precise interpretation. Hesed can mean loving-kindness, love, loyalty, faithfulness and/or covenant love.
As John L. McKenzie has explained, hesed is not only the love exhibited in virtue of the covenant; it is also the movement of the will that initiates the covenant and every other overture of love that God extends to humankind ("Aspects of Old Testament Thought," The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1990).
Indeed, the entire history of the encounter between God and humanity can be summed up as one ongoing act of hesed. More than any other attribute, hesed reveals God's personal identity and the key to understanding God's character.
God's love for us is not only the love of a Creator for what has been created (Isaiah 43:1-7, 21), but is essentially the love of a father (Hosea 11:14; Isaiah 1:4; Jeremiah 3:19, 31:20). Indeed, God's love for us is even greater than that of a mother for her child (Isaiah 49:15, 66:13).
If such is God's mercy or hesed or love, what should be our response to God -- we who are so loved? It seems our response should include our most diligent effort to be a more sincere reflection of the God whose mercy creates and sustains us.
Shouldn't people look at what we do, listen to what we say, see how we live our lives, and immediately be able to discern to whom we belong? Our promises of renunciation and belief should be evident in the lifestyle we cultivate. Since, through baptism, each of us is initiated into the life of the one God, Father, Son and Spirit, doesn't that make us brothers and sisters to one another?
That relationship makes each of us responsible for the other. Am I my brother's keeper? Am I my sister's caretaker? Yes! If another has need, is homeless or hungry, is sick or lonely and afraid, and I am aware but do nothing, then my baptismal vows are false; my faith is a sham.
We who are signed with the cross and washed in the blood of Jesus, we who are seasoned with salt and fired with the light of grace, are charged to renew daily the baptismal promises that make us who we are. Through daily prayer, we are to follow Jesus' example in integrating the faith we profess with our lips with the faith we express in our daily lives.
The late Raymond Brown, whose baptismal commitment was evident to all who knew him, often stressed the significance of Christian baptism by insisting, "The day a person is baptized is more important than the day when a person is ordained priest and bishop." Amen.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]