One of my seminary classmates told me of a nice tradition his religious community maintained. Each priest had his own book, The Rite of Baptism of Children, and written on the front inside cover was the name of the priest and the first child that he baptized. It was their way of remembering the ministry to which they were called and that they were always called in service of others. The simple notation in the Rite book was the beginning of two stories: a story of vocation and a story of Christian beginning.
It seems to me that well summarizes today’s gospel story. The story of beginning as Jesus is introduced to us: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The voice of God the Father proclaim to all who would hear, to all who would believe – here before you is the fulfillment of all my promises: the Good Shepherd, Emmanuel, Prophet, Priest, King, and above all Son. With these simple words, so begins the story of Jesus of Nazareth as he reveals the Kingdom of God come to us, among us, and for us. As the story unfolds in the weeks to come, Jesus’ vocation will come to the fore. The vocation as teacher, preacher, wonder-worker, Word of God, Savior and Redeemer.
Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan – and are called to think about our own baptism – also a story of vocation and Christian beginning. As parents we pause to think about the baptism of our own children. And as a priest, perhaps, to recall that first baptism.
The first child I baptized was in Kenya, in the slums of Kibera. I was a lay missioner serving in Parokia Moyo Mtakatifu – which interestingly translates to “Sacred Heart Parish.” I had been called out in the middle of the night to a neighboring home. A child had just been born and it was the wisdom of the birth nurses and grandmothers that this child would not survive until the sunrise. As a “let’s take action” westerner I wanted to get the parish truck and take the child to the Catholic hospital. The grandmothers politely said, “No;” they were wise in the ways of birthing and knew. They had called for me because, while they knew medicine could save the child, they knew they could “save” the child and wanted me to baptize the newborn. As you might imagine, the moment was quite sad and yet, at the same time, so joyful.
While it was a story of beginning and end, it is also a story of vocation. Even in that short life given, that little one brought a lay missioner to see power of God in the sacraments, to see the support of ritual in times of sorrow and uncertainty, and the comfort of community. In her own way, she contributed to a vocation in progress and in that way her own story continued.
Since that night long ago I have been privileged to celebrate children’s baptism with many of our wonderful families here at Sacred Heart. And it strikes me how poignant and powerful each celebration is.
The ceremony begins quiet simply with the question, “What name do you give this child?” and then moves to one of the most powerful parts of the ceremony. Every time I celebrate the sacrament with a family, there is one particular moment when I clearly hear the echo of that night in the slum of Kibera. It is when I say the word, “Child, this community welcomes you with great joy, and in its name I claim thee for Christ by the sign of the cross – and invite your parents and godparents to also trace the cross on your forehead.” Nikudai kwa Kristu. I claim thee for Christ. The verb kudai is a powerful word in Kiswahili. It is a word that the tribal chief and the magistrates use. It is a word that binds solemnly, forever connecting the child to the family, the community, and to Christ.
So many times I have seen the image of parents, child enfolded in their arms, speaking the words, “I claim thee for Christ” as they begin the handing on of the faith in the simple gesture of the sign of the cross. It is a moment when it is as though they are looking down upon their child and saying “This is Andrew, my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” “This is Andrea, my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” “Your true identity will always be bound to the identity of the faith.” Nikudai kwa Christu. It is a story of beginning and the promise of vocation.
It is like the moment when the heavens opened up and revealed the true identity of Jesus. As though the words were “I claim thee as the Christ.” The words binding Jesus to his sacred mission of salvation, forever connecting Him to this earthly family and community – across all time and space. Connecting Him to Andrew and Andrea. In that same moment the heavens are also opened and just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, so too is the Spirit given to our children. It is a moment of beginning. And from that beginning come the vocation of the Christ from which comes our story. A story still a work-in-progress, with chapters unfinished. A story that hopefully share some of the Good News of the Jesus, the Christ.
Umedaishwa kwa Kristu – you have been claimed by Christ. That is the beginning. What will be your vocation? How will the Good News of _______________ (your name) read?
May it read well and may your story end “You are my beloved [child]; with you I am well pleased…