Unconquerable Beauty

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January 10, 2016

This morning finds us pouring water over several peoples’ heads. Why?

One answer is: Tradition! Like kissing under mistletoe and wearing beads at Mardi Gras: something gets started and it sticks. Mardi Gras is nouveau. I do not know when kisses under mistletoe got started. Our pouring water over peoples’ heads is a very old tradition, going all the way back to Jesus in the Jordan River. He was baptized and instructed us to do the same.

I hope we can appreciate that here we are part of something ancient and enduring. Since Christians began baptizing, empires have fallen and new worlds have been discovered. Time rolls on and it seems that everything about the way that human beings live has changed—but not this. From the days of chariots to hover boards, we baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Ask me for a definition of a Christian. I’ll say its someone who’s been baptized. How is that important?

One answer is: Identity! Think of all the identities we claim: “Arkansan;” “African-American;” “Republican or Democrat;” “Kappa Kappa Gamma;” “Sigma Nu.” We choose some of our identities. Others are bestowed by birth or accident, or are of someone else’s doing Christian identity has been like that—given by our parents— through generations, but less so lately. Some of our identities we wear lightly, while others become crucial to our sense of who we are. Christian identity runs strong in some. Episcopalians often wear it lightly.

In our social set, baptism does not inspire the ferocity of, for example, rush week. Around the font we see smiles and chuckles rather than ecstatic screams or anguished tears. Nor is Christian identity typically as strongly felt as racial, sexual or national identity right now—at least not here in the United States. Flags stir more emotions than the cross. Why?

I suspect it has to do with evolution. Some of our identities are fed by natural instincts tuned to our survival. There is safety in them and so we’re drawn to them like moths are drawn to firelight. There is no shame in that. Our drive to survive is a natural appetite, God-given, according to Aquinas. Its ferocity is helpful, mostly.[i]

But a church guided only by our natural appetites has lots its way. Going back to Jesus, this water comes with instructions. The instructions decouple baptism from instinct and those more passionate identities if fuels. We are not baptized white or black, gay or straight, SAE or Kappa Sig. Baptism reaches upwards to a truth over and above these intense commitments. That is what St. Paul said in a famous passage from his letter to the Galatians:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

Baptism raises our sights. Its water bestows an identity forged from a truth our instincts may not recognize nor necessarily appreciate. There are many such truths under heaven. Instinct doesn’t know, for example, that the earth revolves around the sun. Nor does instinct see the human rights enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. Like baptism, our American tradition lifts us higher than our natural appetites. Let’s pause and think on that for a moment.

Instincts are jealous. Our Constitution puts a bridle on them. They buck and try to throw the bit. We have seen that throughout U.S. History and, I think, lately in both the Donald Trump phenomenon and the Black Lives Matter campus uprisings in New England and Missouri. When the American house instinctively divides against itself, it makes for loud meetings and ugly pictures.

Things for our country could be much worse. They were worse when I was a teenager forty years ago and dragging in on Sunday mornings here to acolyte. Those were the days of George Wallace and rioting in Watts and Newark. Walker Percy was writing his novel Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. He told his good friend Shelby Foote that he was working on a novel about the goodness of God and an America “rent almost hopelessly between the rural Knothead right and the godless alienated left, worse than the Civil War.” The novel opens on July 4 and begins like this:

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last? . . .  Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

History’s answer to that question was no. The blessing wasn’t over. As the next half-century unfolded, it would turn out that reports of the United States’ demise had been premature. As the Soviet Union collapsed, we found our feet. Thank God for the Constitution, which tempers our tantrums and holds our house together under pressure from within. Percy’s novel ends with mass at Christmas. Children shooting fireworks play outside. “Hurray for Jesus Christ! they cry. “Hurrah for the United States.”  

America raises us above our instinct. Baptism wants to take us even higher. The sacrament speaks to the truth above the Constitution. If that sounds slightly seditious, it should not. That there is truth higher than the Constitution is a fact the Constitution’s authors confidently believed, having called it “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence. I wouldn’t go that far because I think we need faith to see it. Then, from the well of this faith, we draw the Spirit, who comes to us as joy and hope in our convictions, and in whom we find the courage and wisdom to address the challenges before us. Thus, Christian faith has fueled the American experiment.

Baptism is our entrance to the realm we can depend on. We cannot rely on nature, nor on history. Our natural realm is vulnerable and changing. Historically, we developed technology to shield ourselves against the changes, but technology has side effects that can compound our problems. For example, the fuel we use to keep us cool through summer has made the planet warmer. History is rife with tradeoffs and dilemmas.

Baptism anoints us stewards of the natural world and history, making caring for this world a ministry. We minister within the here and now as citizens of a higher kingdom: The “kingdom of God,” the Bible calls it—older than the universe. When our lesser identities—black/white; left/right; Chi Omega/Tri Delt have long since faded into nothing—our identity as children of this larger realm endures. We say the mark of baptism is “indelible” which means it cannot be erased and will not be forgotten. Baptism is forever.

According to the Prayer Book:

In the water of baptism we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. We are cleansed from sin and born again into the risen life of Christ our savior.

Notice the revision of the natural order. Birth®life®death is natural. Death®birth®life is our entrance to that larger kingdom.

It is Christ’s death rather than our own that gets us started. His death is his gift to us. It was a kind of death we hear about in stories, where a hero stays true to her friends or some noble purpose come what may. Harry Potter gave himself up to the evil Voldemort. Nuns in Memphis stayed in town through a yellow fever epidemic and succumbed to the disease. Soldiers by the thousands fell at Normandy to save our country.

Christ’s death is like that—self-sacrificial. It was not that Jesus wanted to be arrested, whipped and crucified, but that he found himself where this would be the price of faithfulness. He paid it, turning his life over to a greater good.

His cross is more to us than an example. It was an Epiphany—a revelation. About those other noble sacrifices that we hear about in stories, we now know that they are of God. In being drawn to them for hope and inspiration we are being drawn to God. Those children loving Harry Potter are more Christian than they realize.

From Christ’s epiphany we learn that our own self-sacrifices, large and small, are not in vain. They are signs and expressions of the realm of unconquerable beauty.

[i] Some academics point to that survival instinct as the explanation for religion. David Sloan Wilson studied Calvin’s church in Geneva and said it was a “mighty engine for collection action” whose underlying rationale was getting people what they need or want. Imagine Trinity Cathedral as a mighty engine for collective action. You would need a better Dean than I.