The unanimous and consistent teaching of the universal church from early times is that baptism is enlightenment. It is a mystical initiation. It is a symbolic death and a spiritual rebirth into a new life of grace, of freedom, and of consecration to the mission of God in Christ.
But it might be hard for us to believe that when we baptized 18-month old Karina Klein last Sunday the event meant that for her. It’s always interesting to see how children behave at their baptism. I don’t know if you noticed but Karina, who had been quite restless and vocal in the service up to that point became quiet and still. It seemed like she knew something was happening. But we are hard put to say that she experienced enlightenment. But maybe that’s because we don’t understand what enlightenment is.
Last Sunday Karina may not have had a consciousness-altering experience, but it was the beginning of a relationship with Jesus. We believe in the actual fact of that relationship because we were there on Jesus’ behalf to call her into it. We take it seriously because we know that now, and for the foreseeable future, we will be responsible for fostering that relationship for her in the practices, the sacraments and the fellowship of the church. Whatever sense she ends up making of that event, and whether or not she “saw the light,” depend on this— that we saw her in the light of our life together in Christ and the power of his grace to bring her life’s purpose to fulfillment.
Having an intellectual understanding of what her baptism means, or even the memory of some ecstatic moment, will be less important for Karina than the overall long-term of experience of being loved and included, of being seen by us as God’s beloved and invited by us to participate in the mysteries of our membership in Christ’s body. She will learn what it means to bear the light of the world in her heart by seeing others receive the same baptism that Jesus did and that she did too. She will learn what it means to bring that light to others by seeing the world from the vantage point of this place, by turning toward the world from this center. For this is where she will learn that she is God’s beloved, receiving the body and blood that are the tokens of that love, and seeing her family and all the rest of us doing the same.
Often when I call on members of our parish who are sick and shut in, I am confronted with the limits of my capacity to help. I can see the struggle and the suffering that people are experiencing and so often there is really nothing I can do about it. But I am tempted to try. I am tempted to try to be an amateur social worker, or nurse, or psychologist, and help them find a solution to their problems. But what I always find is that these visits go better if I stick to the things that I know how to give—a listening ear, a prayer, a reading from the scriptures, Holy Communion.
I’m not sent to tell them how to have faith or what to believe. I’m not there to advise them about the practical matters of their situation. What I’m sent for is to been seen by them in the light of Jesus Christ and his mission in the world. Usually I don’t know what that means for them. I don’t know their faith stories— what they learned from parents or Sunday school teachers or other pastors they have had; I don’t know what their spiritual experiences have been; or what religious commitments they may have made over the years. I don’t know these things, but they’re not really my business. I’m simply there as a reminder of baptismal grace. Seeing me they remember Jesus. And with that recollection comes the promise that the relationship that was begun at baptism is not forgotten. He still loves them as his own, is still committed to the relationship they’ve had, and their present suffering in fact only takes them deeper into the mystery of it. I don’t have to say this in so many words—in fact it’s usually better if I don’t—my merely coming to visit communicates it.
I usually end up seeing that people are capable of finding their own meaning even in the most difficult situation. In the midst of darkness, they see a ray of light, and it is a light that comes from Jesus. From some stirring of love at his name, some presence of wisdom and peace in a word from his teachings or in an incident from his life, comes a breath of hope, a gathering of strength, comes the faith that no matter how frightening and overwhelming the present circumstances may be, all is not lost. And seeing that happen my own faith is strengthened, by own heart and mind are enlightened with baptismal grace.
I reflect on these two aspects of our life as a church, the baptism of the toddler and the visit with the shut-in, because, although they seem to be opposites, each of them illustrates what we mean by enlightenment. It has something to do with seeing and being seen and the light that travels between us. Another word for “enlightenment” is “epiphany” and we are in a season of the church year that takes Epiphany as its theme. It is a word that means to see something that shines, to have a vision of something that radiates or reflects light. And for the church that vision is of a human face.
Following his own baptism, Jesus began to gather the first of his disciples, and the theme of seeing and being seen is a recurring motif in the stories of these encounters, especially in the Gospel of John. In the passage we hear today Philip invites the skeptical Nathanael to come and see whether in fact anything good can come from Nazareth. The exchange that follows preserves something of the extraordinary impact that meeting Jesus had on people’s lives. That Nathanael was converted so suddenly and completely cannot be simply because he was impressed that Jesus could tell him where he was before they had met. Something about the way he was seen and the way he was known enabled Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was.
This story represents becoming a disciple of Jesus as a process of being seen and then seeing, of seeing a little but being promised more. We may not know at the beginning exactly what we’re looking at. We may never have some dramatic epiphany. We may never experience ourselves as being enlightened. But we are not the source of the light that is in us. Our vision may be dim, but we are not lighting our own path. However feeble our flicker, even the tiniest spark is still the one true light, the Epiphany light, the star that guided the wise men from the east and the brilliance more dazzling than the sun of the Transfigured face of Christ. No matter how dim and narrow our vision may be, it is not our vision that guides us, but a reflection of the vision of God.
And it does seem to be true that if we trust the little circle of light before our feet, it gets a little wider. It does seem to be true that when we hold the light for others, we see a little further. It does seem to be true that if we look for the light in others, what we see expands our vision of ourselves. And it makes you wonder how far the light could really go. It makes you wonder how vast the vision really is. And I can’t speak for you, but that makes me want to follow someone who knows.