Saturday, January 9, 2016
The Baptism of the Lord
Blessed John Henry Newman was a man who comforted Protestants and Catholics alike during an era of dried-out theology and who tenderly invited his countrymen to hear an authentic message about God and the love he has revealed in his Church.
I’m reading a good biography of this saintly scholar, whose careful study of the teachings of the ancient Church led him to embrace the Catholic Church, abandoning the beautiful Anglican tradition that he loved so much. His bold decision brought comfort to some but conflict to many.
Newman is a reminder that comfort and tenderness—which must be hallmarks of Christian preaching, as the were of his—can only go so far. When the claims of truth conflict with our settled opinions or personal desires, the truth will hurt.
God, we know, comforts his people, just as he calls the prophet to do in our first reading. St. Paul calls the Father “the God of all consolation,” which some versions translate as “the God of all comfort.” Jesus said that he longed to gather the children of Jerusalem together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and we see him comforting his disciples on the night before he died. The Holy Spirit, of course, is called the Comforter.
In other words, it is right and good that the words of Isaiah should comfort us —that we should hear God speak tenderly to our tired hearts, our confused hearts, even our sinful hearts.
And we can claim as our own the great gifts that St. Paul talks about in the second reading: salvation, a share in the inheritance of Christ, and, in the end, eternal life.
The astonishing fact that even Jesus was baptized brings our own baptism into sharp focus; and the Gospel promise of a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire makes us recall our confirmation. It’s easy today to feel thankful for the graces we received in baptism and conformation, and to renew the commitment that both sacraments require.
All of which could make for a good—and short—homily on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
But John Henry Newman would never have given such a homily. Feel-good preaching was not his way of bringing the comfort of the Gospel to the men and women of his time; he wanted them to know the whole story, to have the complete picture of the Christian life. And so he asked, in a famous sermon, what difference all this good news makes to our lives.
That is a challenging question.
Let me rephrase it. Would you live differently if you were not baptized?
Newman’s answer was, to put it mildly, pessimistic. “I really fear…” he said, that “it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died and heaven were not promised to us.”
That’s a bit tough. But throwing cold water on comfortable folks is a kindness, a sort of tenderness—a way of reviving a drooping spirit.
In another sermon, Newman tackled an even tougher question he heard people ask: why it is necessary to be holy to get to heaven? We are weak people, why are God’s standards so high? If God’s really merciful, couldn’t he have saved us without demanding holiness? Baptism alone ought to be enough.
Newman says that we really have “no right to ask this question. Surely it is quite enough for a sinner to know that a way has been opened through God’s grace for his salvation, without being informed why that way, and not another way, was chosen by Divine Wisdom,”
He further explains that eternal life is God’s gift, and undoubtedly he can set the terms on which he will give it.
There are Protestant churchgoers who doubt the necessity of baptism for salvation but who believe in the need for holiness; there are Catholics who are convinced of the necessity of baptism but who don’t quite believe in the need for holiness.
Newman tried to convince both groups of the ancient and unchangeable truth. He knew that doing what God demands could be hard at times—which is why his toughest sermon on baptism ends with a note of comfort: as we work at holiness, he preached, “it is our comfort to know… that we are not left to ourselves” but have the Holy Spirit to help us.
“It is a comfort and encouragement,” he said, “to know that God works in us and through us.”
We recognize today that we are all beloved sons and daughters of the Father; let us resolve, with his help, to do what he expects.