One of my seminary classmates told me of a nice tradition his religious community maintained. Each priest had his own copy of The Rite of Baptism of Children. Written on the front inside cover was the name of the priest and the first child that he baptized. The simple notation in the Rite book was the start of two stories: a priestly vocation and a story of Christian beginning. Stories that unfold as the weeks become months become years.
In our gospel we have a 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 proclaims 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. That story will unfold as we turn the pages of the gospel week after week. Just as our stories unfold, week after week.
I remember the first child I baptized. It was in Kenya, in the slums of Kibera. I was a lay missioner serving in the local parish. I had been called out in the middle of the night to a neighboring home. A child had just been born. But 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 were wise in the ways of birthing and knew. They politely said, “No.” This child’s story would consist of only a page or two.
They knew medicine could not help the child, but that salvation was through the waters of baptism. That is why they summoned me. They wanted me to baptize the newborn.
While it was a short story of beginning and end in a single day, it was also a story of vocation. Even in that short life given, that little one brought a lay missioner to see the 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 wonderful families. The ceremony begins quite 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.
The parents affirm the claim and begin their vocation of handing on the faith in the simple gesture of their signing the cross on the child’s forehead. 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.
The Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season and the transition to Ordinary Time. We turn the page of the gospel to see the story of the Messiah unfold. In its way, we mark the beginning of Jesus’ vocation and our salvation.
It is the tradition of many families to write the name of the child in the family bible marking a beginning of the Christian journey, a beginning of the story of this newborn. A story still a work-in-progress, with chapters unwritten. A life unfolding. Shepherded by loving parents. Part of the flock of believing people who proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The one who forever bound himself to us in his life, baptism, ministry and death. The one who claims us as his own.
Baptism: beginnings and belonging. Stories that will unfold as weeks become months become years. Pages turning, good news being lived. May each of our stories read well; may they inspire. And at the turning of the final page, may your story read “You are my beloved [child]; with you I am well pleased” Amen