One day in a class on the sacraments, a woman from the West Indies said, “My people ask me to be baptized again and again. I know the tradition tells us that once is enough, but that doesn’t fit what I hear on the street. An old man looking back on a relationship he betrayed… a middle-aged mother eager for a new start… a banker who fell off the wagon… a college student packing his trunk… a 28-year-old back in the neighborhood after prison… All of them are starting over in some way or another, and they ask the church to help them begin and to hold them accountable to their promises. What do we have to offer that resonates today with folks who want to make good choices, but who have no illusions about how hard that will be?”
Baptism is a strange ritual if you think about it. It has Jesus and us go down into the watery depths to find ourselves, to embrace the dark in order to see the light clearly, to die so that we might rise. It says that pain and broken promises are not aberrations, but common to all of us. It embraces the fact that the dark night’s struggle of loss or fury is not the bad luck of some, but the experience of a humanity that longs for its best self, but only intermittently achieves it. No wonder my friend heard her neighbors asking for a recurring way to find their way home: most of us get lost more than once.
Jesus understood that. He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief,” (Isaiah) and yet has anyone’s light ever shone brighter? His wisdom was to embrace his pain as the cost of consciousness, as his access to courageous loving, as the way to being compassionate. He taught us that the truest model of human life is cruciform, which is to say that our access to God comes through reaching out to others and digging deeply into our selves… experiencing spiritual height is somehow the consequence of going into the depth of our individual and common pain. And to bury our struggle or to ignore someone else’s is to choose not to grow from it or through it or with it. Each of us has work to do.
The world needs a good baptism right now, and the United States along with it. Our leaders need to take a moral inventory of themselves and their actions, and inspire us to do the same. When any of us condemns the other because of perceived differences instead of seeking ways to stand on common ground, we belie the interior, spiritual work that we have not yet done. However, when we lift up those who have been cast down and draw to the center those who have been relegated to the margins, we have begun the work of mutual accountability, and we have embodied the Spirit that made each of us equal and sets all of us free.