Friday, January 20, 2012


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.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Name of names

When my wife became pregnant we decided that we wanted to wait until the baby was born to find out whether it was a boy or a girl.  So we had asked the ultrasound technician to keep whatever she could determine to herself.  For a variety of reasons, we decided to forgo amniocentesis completely.   Nevertheless, in the final weeks it seemed like everywhere we went we were accosted by practitioners of the science of determining the sex of a fetus by the shape of the woman carrying it.   They all seemed to agree it was a boy and they all insisted that they were never mistaken.  Whether for that reason or some other, we came to the onset of labor with a name all picked for the baby should it turn out to be a boy.  But our choice of girl’s names was still stuck at the final three.
As it turned out, within five minutes or so after our daughter was born, Meg and I both, independently of each other, decided on the same one of those three names as the right one.  “Risa”, like Lisa but with an “R”, was one that Meg had found in a book of baby names and put on our master list.   When we each agreed to select our top  ten, Meg had placed it on  her list, and when we met in conference to  compare and merge, “Risa” made it into  the  final round.  It means “laugh” or “laughter” in Latin, and also in Spanish, and somehow when we finally met our baby girl in person, we knew it was the name for her.  
Looking back, I wonder if some deeper wisdom had guided us to wait.  Maybe, by some intuition, we knew that we would have a girl and that we needed to see her before we gave her her name.  Because a name is important.  When we give a child a name we are giving her the cornerstone of their identity in the family and society.   We are giving her the currency to present  themselves to the world as a person, as a free and complete human being, with a unique history and personality, and  a destiny all her own.    To name a child is to say to him, “You exist, on a par with everyone else who has or who has ever had a name.”   It is to invest that child with a true and lasting significance.
If a name really carries with it this deeper kind of meaning, then it is something to be treated with respect.  And if that is true of your name and my name, it is the more true of the name of God.  In the Hebrew tradition, God’s name holds something of the power and mystery of Godself.   In the book of Numbers, Moses instructs the priests of Israel, to bless the people in with a repeated invocation of that name.  It is the same name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, the same name whose wrongful use is forbidden in the commandments of Mt.  Sinai.  Our Church translation preserves the custom of Jewish piety, when it uses a euphemism— “the LORD”.   Just as it is forbidden to depict the form of God in a created image, so it is not proper to speak God’s name.   
We’d be hard put to say that a similar kind of reverence has carried over onto the name of Jesus.  Generally speaking, the vernacular English I grew up with was one in which “Jesus Christ” in all its countless and creative variations served as a general purpose expletive for those occasions when you didn’t want to, or didn’t feel the  need to, use something really profane.   At the other end of the same stick is popular Christian culture with its mass-marketing the name of Jesus on bumper stickers and t-shirts and AM radio.
So what’s different about the way we’re talking about the name of Jesus here this morning?  By way of an answer, I’d begin by pointing out that when we sing, as we did this morning, of “the Name of names for us he bore,” we are not praising a particular combination of phonetic sounds.   We are not praising the name, but the person it communicates to us.  Jesus’ name is not a magic formula—it is not a switch, tapping into some current of supernatural force for our benefit.  Rather it is the person, the total consecration of his life to God and to others, that the name makes present.
That is why Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah is not complete until the child has received his name.  The name Mary gives him is the one that God ordained for him through the angel.   It means “God saves.”   But it is also the name of a folk hero, of Joshua, the successor of Moses.   It is a common name, a traditional name that any Hebrew woman might have given her son.  The child may have been conceived by divine agency for a unique sacred purpose, but he is born into the traditions of a human family and a human culture.
Luke reminds us that, as it would have been for every male child of his time and place, the naming of Jesus is a cultural and ritual process.  It is linked to his initiation into the tribal identity of his people through the practice of circumcision.   The holy child of God, the Savior of all humankind, is also a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and bears in his body, as in his name, the indelible imprint of his cultural and religious heritage.  This paradox is not accidental—it represents in a nutshell the New Testament’s transformation of the Hebrew tradition, a transformation which began in the imagination of Jesus and continues to be available to the world in his name.     
In our modern bureaucratic society the legal and ceremonial act of naming has been reduced to signing a form and receiving an official Certificate of Live Birth from the civil authorities.  There is a kind of vision of universal humanity implied here.   But it is one that ultimately reduces individuals to anonymity—that’s why this act, like all the really important initiations of the modern state, also requires a number.  
Yet our collective memory still holds traces of a tradition of sacred naming.  Our word “christening,” as a synonym both for Baptism and for naming, recalls the time when we received our names—our “Christian” names—at our baptism.  According to this traditional worldview, the family continuity implied in the act of naming a child is of a piece with initiation into a new covenant people, made up of people of every tribe, family, language, and nation.  The same naming that confers the status of unique individual personhood, also initiates into the shared personhood of the mystical Body of Christ. 
To speak the name of Jesus is to repeat the act of a Jewish woman of the first century, naming her first-born son.  At one and the same moment it names our hope for the future, a new kind of humanity, known to us most vividly in the man that Mary’s son became.  St. Paul sums up that hope in a single word, “adoption”—one of his great metaphors for our transformation in grace.  To  be  adopted, of  course, is  to receive new parents and a new  family, maybe even a  new name,  and the whole purpose of the incarnation of Jesus, says Paul, is to reveal us to ourselves as children,  all of us, children together with him, in one family.  
And the sign of our entrance into that new family is that we will learn a new name.   Not only for ourselves, or for each other, but also for God.  In the  place of  the old name, the proper name,  the dread name that we must not speak, we will learn to call  God  by the name  that Jesus called him—Abba!  Daddy!  And in  that naming  we will  know  ourselves  as we  have never been known before, as  bearing a life and a name that is long in the giving.  It is prepared for us and yet withheld with the greatest of tenderness  and  care, until we are truly and  completely ready to claim what was  ours from the beginning, the name of Christ.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.