Taste and See: The glory of Baptism

IMG_1623 Baptism of King Ethlebert by St. Augustine

When we were baptised in Christ Jesus we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.
But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him: Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more. When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:3-4,8-11

The Second reading at Mass on Sunday reacquainted us with the wonder that is the sacrament of Baptism.

St Paul has a profound recognition of what life in Christ/Discipleship is about. We are baptised into Christ, into his death, and so we share in his life.

This is not a simple matter of association, that we become members of the club: it is a matter of identity with him. He lives in us and we live in him. This is his gift – the gift that God seeks to offer to all of humankind.

But it is not achieved in us, fulfilled in us, simply through the pouring of water, and anointing with oil, and saying ‘I baptise you’…

It takes, bears fruit, when we live our ‘yes’ to that gift.

At the time of Paul, the expectation was that this gift was beginning to be lived by a disciple before he or she came to baptism, so that it could be recognised that at least a real and mature desire for the promised gift and change and growth was already there. The was concern to ensure that before the rite, those to be baptised knew Jesus and believed in Jesus and were ready to commit to him, and so ready to enter into baptism and the quality of life that flows from it.

For us, today, mostly it is a bit more complicated. Mostly we were baptised as children, and generally before we knew anything about Jesus and what life in him might be. So the gift is given to us on trust, and it is something we have to grow into, learning in Christ to turn from sin and turn to life, to live compassionate and caring, looking beyond what suits us and what is needed for others; living life now as though now we were in heaven. God’s will be done in us on earth and though we were in heaven.

This is not though something we achieve through our own efforts, but by cooperating with the grace of God. This grace is shared with us in so many ways but mostly in ways we cannot see, or test or measure… it is shared with us really, truly but relies on our trust that what God invites us to he will help us to.

One way of putting this is be that we are encouraged to ambitious for holiness: holiness as demonstrated in love. As St Paul says there things last: faith hope and love and the greatest of these is love.

Detail of fresco by Sergei Fyodorov in Rochester Cathedral (Baptism of King Ethlebert by St. Augustine). (c) 2012, Allen Morris

Taste and See: A new way?

St Augustine, St Austell

The first reading at Mass on Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, has the prophet acknowledge fault and failing, and look for a radical renewal of the chosen people.

In the Book of Isaiah this confession and lament and expression of hope comes after the section that looks forward to the restoration of Jerusalem – ‘Console my people, console them.’

There is a danger in reading a book such as Isaiah simply as a sequential response to historical events, but one could read the text below as acknowledging that in exile or in restoration Israel struggles to be faithful. And the Church reads this Hebrew text and knows her own failings too.

You, Lord, yourself are our Father,
‘Our Redeemer’ is your ancient name.
Why, Lord, leave us to stray from your ways
and harden our hearts against fearing you?
Return, for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your inheritance.

Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!
– at your Presence the mountains would melt.

No ear has heard,
no eye has seen
any god but you act like this
for those who trust him.
You guide those who act with integrity
and keep your ways in mind.
You were angry when we were sinners;
we had long been rebels against you.
We were all like men unclean,
all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing.
We have all withered like leaves
and our sins blew us away like the wind.
No one invoked your name
or roused himself to catch hold of you.
For you hid your face from us
and gave us up to the power of our sins.
And yet, Lord, you are our Father;
we the clay, you the potter,
we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1,3-8

      The lighting of Advent candles is a rebuke to the darkness that surrounds us, and that even dims our own hearts.

May the lighting of candles be accompanied by the earnest desire to learn afresh from the Lord and, in our frailties, to surrender ourselves to him in humble trust.

Photograph of stained glass from the church of St Augustine, St Austell, Cornwall.  (c) 2006, Allen Morris.

Taste and See: this saving Bread…

Augustine of Hippo (1)

The Communion Antiphon on Sunday was concise and startling:

The bread that I will give, says the Lord,
is my flesh for the life of the world.
Cf. Jn 6: 51

Like the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, to the eyes a little bread, a little wine, but in very truth something astonishing.

St Augustine spoke of the sacrament in famous words the newly baptised in his Church of Hippo – towards the end of the Great Vigil of Easter….

‘What you see on God’s altar, you’ve already observed during the night that has now ended.

But you’ve heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report.

But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood.

Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter.

As the prophet says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, “You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand.”

Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the Virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God’s right.

So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?”

My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.

So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27]

If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true!

But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17]

Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.”

Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread.

So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God” [Acts 4.32]. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated.

All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them.

So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen!

The Bread and Wine are truly Christ, and by his grace we are truly members of Christ. As Augustine says elsewhere, not only Christians but other Christs.

  • What is it about the Eucharist that is most important for you, at present
  • What aspect of Eucharist is most often highlighted in you parish celebrations?
  • What element is most neglected?

Image of St Augustine (and St Monica) from here – visit the site to read reflections on St Augustine from Pope Benedict XVI.