THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
The colossal HMS St. Lawrence was one of the largest warships of the Napoleonic era. Built in Kingston, Ontario for the British Navy, in 1814, this Royal Navy ship-of-the-line was five feet longer than Admiral Nelson’s famous battleship HMS Victory. It carried 112 cannons and a crew of 800.
It was one of the most impressive ships in the British Navy, but this great ship was not destined to join its counterparts on the high seas. The St Lawrence spent its brief career virtually land-locked, the proverbial big fish in a small pond – in this case, a huge fish in a small pond.
It was built to help the British and Canada hold back the Americans as the War of 1812 came to a close. There had been some minor clashes on Lakes Ontario and Erie, involving quite small vessels – a bit of a tempest in a teacup. However, once the Americans realized a battleship of that magnitude was going to be out on the Great Lakes, hunting them, they wisely kept their boats in port.
In any case, the war was settled very quickly thereafter, so the St Lawrence never saw any real action, and never got to join the British Navy on the oceans either. So this great battleship spent its brief career putzing around a little on Lake Ontario and then was pretty much confined to harbour. The St. Lawrence was decommissioned and eventually sold in 1832 for £25 – in today’s terms around $2000 – for a battleship! It then became the property of a local brewery and was run aground and served as a pier.
Later, after being picked apart for planks, the St. Lawrence was finally towed out into Lake Ontario and scuttled, and has become a popular wreck for scuba divers. It’s kind of a sad, even pathetic story, a rather famous case of serving a much lesser purpose than you might have – of unrealized potential – and failure to really launch.
This isn’t just a lesson in naval history. It’s a parable, because failure to launch is not just a naval issue. Just as ships are typically not built just to sit in the harbour, we are meant for something in life, and at each stage we need encouragement, wisdom and direction from the people who are around us to enable us to move out into deeper waters.
Just as the season of Epiphany reminds us that Jesus was born not just to make his parents happy, but to fulfill a much larger purpose, so we are reminded at Baptism that a child is not conceived merely as an act of self-validation or self-gratification – a child is potentially a gift to the world.
Epiphany gives us a sense of the larger context in which we live – makes us think about our impact on the world, the life we are meant for as opposed to the life we might be tempted to settle for.
Your world is always bigger than you might think, and so we require parents at Baptism to embrace this larger vision, of being part not just of a family, but of a community, to become a citizen of the world, and more than that: a child of God.
What if Albert Einstein’s parents had just accepted the advice of the teacher who suggested Einstein was probably mentally handicapped? Wouldn’t it have been a pity if Alan Turing had spent his life playing video games (or something like it) instead of using his amazing mind to break the Nazi secret communication codes? What if Stephen Hawking had been consigned to a hospital the moment he showed signs of motor neuron disease? Instead these people became great because they were encouraged and mentored – they had the right people in their corner, you might say.
One of my favourite spiritual writers, Rabindranath Tagore, using that image of an ocean as a metaphor, said: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”
Baptism is only a beginning – it’s the launch. Baptism doesn’t complete the process, it only initiates it – it sets us on a certain voyage and gives us direction and purpose and the promise of God’s presence as we go. But we are meant to go somewhere with it, and it is the people around us who must untie the ropes that hold us to the pier and release the cribbing and point us in the right direction.
We need to get to deep water. In today’s Gospel, there is something very significant and symbolic in this image of Jesus actually physically getting into the water, revealing to us something profound about the spiritual life, and about life in more general terms. It’s a demonstration for his followers that it’s not enough to stand on the edge – it’s not enough to say the words. You have to do it — you have to get in – you have to move to the depths. This is what life is about and this is certainly where Christian Baptism is pointing us.
Early on, much sooner than parents expect, children start asking very deep questions:
n Where did I come from?
n Who created God?
n Where does the sky end?
n Where did Grandma go?
n What are shadows made of?
n Why is that man lying there on the sidewalk?
According to the Telegraph in the UK, a recent study indicates that “mothers are asked more questions every hour than a primary school teacher.” The study discovered that girls aged four are the most curious, asking an incredible 390 questions per day, and boys are not far behind. Curiosity about our world is in our nature; it is the role of parents to help them explore wider and wider horizons and to celebrate that curiosity
Interestingly, a huge 82 per cent of children apparently go to their mum first rather than their dad if they have a query. A quarter of children, 24 per cent, said they go to their mother first if they have a question because their dad will just say “ask your mum.” The study estimated that a mother’s knowledge is in such demand she gets asked around 105,000 questions a year by her children!
And though the number of questions kids ask decreases with age (for example, nine-year-old boys apparently only ask 144 questions per day), as the questions decrease in quantity they increase in difficulty, so much so that 82% of mums admit they can’t answer them.
They become difficult questions like “Can I take the car tonight?”; “Why do I have to go to school?” or “Do you and Mom still … you know …?” — harder and more awkward questions for parents to answer.
Quite appropriately, given the enormity of the task ahead, the huge possibilities represented in this one child, the Church asks a lot of questions of parents, such as:
Do you believe in God?
Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community?
Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
In other words, are you serious about this or are you just kind of play-acting? These are not meant to be easy questions. We are required to answer them – and we can’t just say “Go ask someone else,” or “Let me phone a friend.” At some point to be adults is to realize the buck stops with us – that we have to be able to give a meaningful account of what our life means and how we are supposed to live it.
The questions don’t get easier as life progresses, they get deeper, especially when you have kids around. The Church has always said that we have to be developing in wisdom ourselves in order that we can lead our children into the depths – so they don’t get stranded in the shallow end of the pool rather than daring to live life out on the wider seas of life. You can only lead people as far as you have been prepared to go yourself.
But we all know that some parents choose to keep their kids shallow and sheltered.
So here’s some good questions for parents: What kind of dad do you want to be? What kind of mother? What kind of vision of the meaning of life are you going to instill in your child? Are you going to have the courage to really engage the questions your children will ask, and have the character to continue in growing yourself?
When they launch a new ship they smash a bottle of Champagne over it; when we launch new people into the world, we pour water on them and bless them, and we promise them we’ll be there to guide their way into deeper waters.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Your comments are welcome – email firstname.lastname@example.org
Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Acts 19:1-7 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.
Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”