Reading the news on COVID these days, I thought it was a case of ‘here we go again. But then I began to wonder what that even means. Is there any pattern to life under COVID? Over the last two years, as we have lurched from one scenario to another, as we have tried to guess what is coming next, tried to make sense of what is happening overseas and what it might mean for us, or just tried to keep up to speed with ever new rules, it is hard to see a pattern.
And all of this reminds me of one of the first things that went when COVID arrived. One of the first things that went from the Church was the holy water font. For as long as I can remember, my pattern of entering a church was to find the holy water, make the sign of the cross, and then find the Blessed Sacrament and genuflect. It is just what we did. It is just how you enter a church. And this pattern, this form, in a sense represents the great pattern, the great mystery that we celebrate today: the Baptism of the Lord.
When we use holy water, we are reminded of our baptism, a baptism that is made possible precisely by our Lord’s baptism. As the Fathers of the Church said, Christ’s baptism did not wash him. It washed the water, made it suitable for baptising us. He purified the water so that it could be used for this sacred purpose. Through the Incarnation, creation regained its fundamental purpose: to be a window into the divine life and to become a temple of God.
And when we bless ourselves with holy water, we remember the pattern of what Christ did. What Christ does. What Christ will do forever. We make the sign of the Cross to remember that he entered the waters of sin and death to be with us, so that we could be with him. His death then becomes the pattern of our life. That is why we sign ourselves. That is how we can take God’s name.
His baptism, his death, is his coming to get us. Christ goes right into not just our topsy-turvy COVID world, but into our chaotic personal lives, our wayward decisions, the lies we tell ourselves, the distorted rationalisations we make of our sinful choices, even just our basic confusion at decisions that seem too big for us at whatever stage of life we are. Christ plunges into this and brings forth out of death a new creation.
In fact, this is one of the baptismal symbols we can find in our church while we don’t have holy water. It used to be the case, following the Council of Trent, that baptisteries that were inside the Church building and not separate, had iron gates. This, I believe, was to symbolise the shackles of sin and death. When one was baptised, Christ liberated this person from this fear, the fear of death and the fear of sin, namely, no forgiveness, no mercy, no way back. We have these iron gates in the room off to the side with those wonderful baptismal windows. These are a symbol of our newfound baptismal freedom.
Baptism made one part of the new creation, the new heaven and the new earth. Knowledge of this – that one is loved by God and redeemed by Christ – changed the form of one’s life from a chaotic mess into one of infinite potential. Waters changed from fundamentally being the home of monsters, to the womb of new life. And so baptism taken seriously changes one’s whole perspective. I am no longer stumbling around in a dark room. Now I am bread that could become the Body of Christ. I think we see this in our Lady’s approach to the mysterious life of her Son. She must have been constantly overwhelmed, but she did not panic. She pondered everything in her heart.
And perhaps we see the other side of her pondering in today’s gospel. Luke adds a detail that Matthew and Mark do not have. All three have Jesus descending into the water and then the Holy Spirit descending as in the story of creation. St Luke, though, adds that Jesus is praying when the Holy Spirit came down. Perhaps then Jesus descends into the water to be with us, and we accept his invitation through prayer. We pray to be with him. Perhaps it is in prayer that our lives are transformed after the pattern of our baptism. And not just our lives, but as our Lady shows, all the things we gather up in our hearts. All the things that make up our life. All the things that confuse, that overwhelm, even the things that we get wrong. All the things that are too much for us, but are not too much for God.
In prayer, we ask God to take flesh in our waters. We ask God to enter into our lives. We ask him to make us a new creation, make us creatures of the eighth day that our octagonal baptismal font symbolises. Perhaps this is why St Paul tells us to pray constantly, because this is our participation in the work of the Body of Christ. To gather up everything and name it in God so that we can give it back to God.
Let’s pray then that we never forget to pray. May our baptism be our life.