At certain times and places, we use holy oils in worship. They are three principal oils set aside for use at different times. There is oil used to anoint Catechumens- those who are preparing for confirmation or baptism. There is the oil used in the anointing of the sick- Oleum Infirmorum. And the last one is Holy Chrism- Sancta Chrisma or Oil of Gladness- it is used at baptism where the sign of the cross is traced on the head of the newest Christian with the words, “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
When Jesus joined the crowd at the river Jordan, there wasn’t any oil we are told of. His cousin John has been baptizing people with the “water of repentance” he tells them. Remember John? The seemingly crazy madman in the desert tells those who gathered at the river that the one who is “coming is mightier than he- that he was not even worth to hold his sandals- he was baptizing with water ofr repentance, but the one who was coming would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. John challenged the religious leaders of the day calling them a brood of vipers!
Baptize with fire?
Someone so great, John won’t even hold his sandals?
Someone who will wield an ax to cut down what? The curse of the Roman occupation?
Listening to John’s prophetic voice, I wonder whom they thought would show up.
Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. He is there to be baptized like everyone else. Only John recognizes the greatness of the Messiah. I need to be baptized by you, he says, and now you come to me? Here in this moment of baptism there is no grand show, no parade of horses, no axe, no fire- nothing different. Yet.
In Sunday school and even now as adults we have asked- “Why did Jesus need to be baptized? He doesn’t sin- he never sinned- why would he need it? Well forgiveness of sins is only one part of the grace of baptism. Even more, baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church.
So Jesus, in being baptized, was showing his solidarity with his community- he was showing is willingness to be counted among the people of God. The Incarnation- the eternal Word that became flesh and dwelt among us was content to come among the people and live like them. This was all just he beginning 0 marking the start of Jesus’ time of ministry- the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descends like a a dove along with the voice that declares- this is my beloved, my Son, which whom I am well pleased. More will come- temptation in the desert, healing, raising the dead, his passion and resurrection.
Various Scritpure passages bring into our mind baptism. The reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus began in Galilee after Chrsit’s baptism. We know there are other stories of baptism- such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip (Acts 8) and the baptism of the prison guard and his whole household by Paul (Acts 16) and of course the baptism more than 3000 after Pentecost (Acts 2).
For too long we taught and understood baptism as only being the sign that original sin was washed from our souls. We would baptize infants in fear for their immortal soul and for centuries people put off baptism until moments before their death, believing that with baptism their sins were washed away and they were guaranteed heaven regardless of what kind of life they led. Fortunately, the liturgical renewal of the 1950s onward restored our understanding of baptism as an initiation - a recognition of our status as children of God.
When we consider our baptism we might think more consciously about that beautiful verse in Genesis 1: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Yes, we believe baptism cleanses us from sin, but even more, it gives us power and grace to realign ourselves with our creator and accept our own ministry and mission as offered to us by God.
It’s tempting to compare our baptism with Jesus’ baptism and for us to come up short- wanting more.
He was anointed with power and the Holy Spirit.
He went on to preach, teach, heal, and collect a vast number of followers. He suffered, died, and rose again.
He was, after all, both human and divine. But what about us? Our baptism surely must be less. We aren’t divine. There’s no audible voice declaring OUR blessedness. Some of us don’t have a memory of when we were baptized- others baptized when they were older. Shouldn’t we accept baptism and then go on to live ordinary lives, moving forward and allowing the moment of our rebirth to be a distant memory. forgetting perhaps even the day of our baptism?
Absolutely not. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That should be a clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day. That is why we put water into the font and have it available for us to dip our fingers into the bowl and touch the waters of our rebirth. We make the sign of the cross to celebrate the fact that we too were baptized with power and the Holy Spirit - the same Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove. We might never have gotten the visual of the dove and the sky broken open, but we are equally graced, filled with the Spirit, adopted as God’s own, and given a ministry and mission for our lives. It is just that important.
Baptism should be life changing. And it is.
Imagine what the church might look like if every baptized member took hold of and used the power that is freely given us by God in our baptism.
In Isaiah today we heard these words,. God Says, “I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Powerful words of hope and promise. Though they were used in Isaiah’s time for his community, we now use them to talk about the Messiah, but we must understand that they are meant for us too. Baptism doesn’t insulate us from the hardships of life. Jesus constantly tell his followers, and us, that we as disciples must take up his ministry and continue spreading the good news? We are called to care for the poor, build up the weak, and spread peace? In the examination, each baptized person makes five promises. Each of us promises to God five things that, if we take them seriously, could change the world. Can we recite those promises by memory? We should be able to. It’s just that important.
Can we change the world or do we give up in despair? The tradition in its wisdom gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, maybe in the hope that it will make us think again about our own baptism. Maybe that memory will ignite the fire that smolders in our souls. That fire is there. Baptism gives it to us, and it never goes out. We often call the people who let that fire burn brightly “saints” But again, imagine what our church would look like if we all let our fire burn. Remember the words to the hymn: I sing a song of the saints of God ... and I mean to be one, too.
We are created in the image of God. All of God’s people are loved beyond measure -We are loved beyond measure -. Imagine our congregation. The power of the Spirit moves in and through us spreading a peace and joy that is both ours and our gift to the world. God says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
This is our anointing. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.