We’re celebrating the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism. The liturgical color for baptism is white. My sister made the stole I’m wearing as a gift for my ordination. Dinah is the oldest known person in Arizona with Prader-Willi Syndrome. She’s mentally and physically handicapped. At the time I was ordained, Dinah was a part of the Art Works project in Tucson. The director of the program was a Roman Catholic nun. She helped Dinah make this very special stole.
The stole also reminds me of the day my sister was baptized. We grew up in a Southern Baptist home. In the Southern Baptist church someone is baptized only after they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior. By the time a child is somewhere around six to eight years old they’ve reached the “age of reason.” What that means as a Southern Baptist is that you’re old enough to know that you’re a sinner. And if you die without Jesus as your personal savior you will go to hell. In the Baptist church baptism is your first act of being a follower of Jesus.
Southern Baptist’s, however, would not expect someone like Dinah to fully understand the concepts Jesus, God, sin, heaven, and hell. In a sense, she would never reach the age of reason or accountability. The idea of Dinah being baptized never came up in our church.
However, it would be a mistake to think Dinah doesn’t understand something simply because she can’t talk very well. Fifteen years ago, when Dinah was forty-five, she started telling my mom she wanted to baptized. My mom asked me what I thought and said if Dinah wants to be baptized, why not? I asked Dinah why she wanted to be baptized. She said, “Jesus my heart.” On Easter Sunday, 2001, I baptized Dinah.
The best way to describe Dinah’s connection to God is that she’s a mystic. A mystic’s experience with the divine is usually beyond description. What the mystic sees, smells, hears, tastes, and feels leaves the intellect scrambling for words that don’t exist. The mystic is left with only symbols and metaphors to describe their experience. Like Dinah saying she feels Jesus in her heart. She’s using a mystical metaphor to explain her experience.
You might be wandering about what the Episcopal Church believes about baptism. Baptism is a visible symbol of what God is doing in our interior life. God’s work in our life is eternal. God always has been, is, and will be working in our life. God knows us in the womb, in our life, in our death, and for all of eternity. God’s knowing of us is not bound by human time—God is pure timelessness, which we are a part of. For Episcopalians, what happens at baptism is a mystery, beyond human words, beyond the intellect. We baptize babies as the mystical symbol of God’s work in the child’s life—in God’s timelessness. We baptize adults not because they understand what’s happening; indeed we baptize because they admit they don’t understand and never will. They’re willing to live into the eternal mystery.
The eternal symbol of the mystery is water. The symbol of water is our connection to the timelessness of God’s creation. By the symbol of water we are mystically connected to the very beginnings of Mother Earth. In the beginning the earth was covered with the chaos of water. Out of that primordial water humanity was born. And out of the water of the womb, we are born. We are sustained in life by water. And in death we will return to God’s eternal sea. The symbol of water is the spherical cycle of birth and death. Water is our mystical connection to eternal timelessness, where the past is the present and now is the future.
The symbol of water is such an important part of our life as Episcopalians. We call upon the Spirit to bless the water at baptism as the mystical symbol of our timeless experience with the Divine in our birth. At every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we pour water into the wine as a mystical symbol of the timeless experience of the Divine in our life. Every time we walk into the church we dip our fingers in blessed water and cross ourselves as a symbol that we one with the Divine. And at our death, we will be sprinkled with water as a mystical symbol that we have gone into God’s sea of timelessness.
Our tradition for the celebration of today’s feast is to bless the people with the water of baptism—a symbol of Jesus’ baptism and our baptism. I’m using a palm branch, a symbol of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—a symbol our life, death, and resurrection.
Meditate on these symbols that speak beyond words. Live into these symbols that speak beyond words. Be these symbols that speak beyond words. I know it’s weird. But these symbols will keep changing everything in your life—what you eat, what you buy, how you treat people, how you vote. More importantly, what you think about your experiences of God will change how you follow Jesus.