Last Sunday, we brought our church year to a close by celebrating the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost. In the Catholic tradition, these weeks are called Ordinary Time. People often say that they have a favorite church season. Usually it's Advent or Christmas or Easter. Ordinary Time usually doesn't make the cut.
So today marks an important change in our liturgical calendar. It is, for one, the first day of the church's new year. And with that new year comes a change in seasons. A change from the time after Pentecost, or Ordinary Time, to Advent. One change you will probably notice is that the green vestments, books, and fabrics have been replaced by blue ones.
Blue conjures that moment between night and morning, those few minutes when you can see the sun lightening the clouds, but can't quite see the sunrise yet. We use blue during Advent because it captures that sense of hopeful expectation, of waiting for a change that is just on the horizon. At Christmas, that blue will be replaced by white as we celebrate that our time of waiting is over and that God is truly here among us.
But it is possible, even likely, that as we change
these colors, as we cycle through these liturgical seasons, that your life will feel exactly the same. Perhaps around Christmas, you'll feel some sense of comfort or closeness with God, but chances are that it will fade pretty quickly. The whirlwind of the holidays, the traveling, the scheduling, the celebrating, the planning, will come to a stop and suddenly you'll be wondering how that last year managed to go by so quickly. And maybe you'll feel like after all that activity, after all that buildup, you're still waiting for something to change. You'll be getting your blue vestments back out of your closet. And then you'll be left with a question. How will I know when God is fully present in my life?
Today's readings give us one set of answers to that question. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence." Or listen to Jesus in today's gospel reading. "But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken."
When God acts in the world, today's readings suggest, it is so overwhelming, so grandiose,
that it is impossible to miss. Earthquakes. A solar eclipse. Stars falling from the heavens. If Isaiah and Mark are right, God is not really one for subtlety. When God is at work in the world, you will be made aware
The ways Isaiah and Mark talk about God being at work in the world probably seem far-fetched or at least foreign to most of us. They're a little hard to believe. But there's another answer to that question. And it may be just as hard for us to believe.
That other answer is that God is fully present in the world and in our lives through baptism. The baptism we celebrated at the beginning of tonight's vespers is nothing less fantastic than the vision of God at work that Isaiah and Mark proclaim. It is nothing less amazing than God opening the heavens. It is nothing less startling than the stars falling from the sky. But what is so unbelievable about baptism is not its splendor or its cosmic scale but its seeming unimportance. This is not holy water. It is not even water from the Jordan River or from some holy site. It is New York City water. The same stuff you would get out of a tap in the kitchen. It seems impossible that this water, this ordinary water, is how God chooses to be at work in the world.
That this ordinary water is how God marks us as God's own. That in this water, God shows up. And yet, despite all appearances, it is in this ordinary water and in this assembly of ordinary people that God is at work.
Those two words, "and yet," contain the entirety of the promises made to you in baptism. Your baptism will not make your life any easier. Your baptism will not protect you from losses that inevitably come. It will not make you immune from the disappointments and regrets that our lives accumulate. But it will add something very important to your life.
Your baptism is God's "and yet" to your life. It is God's way of saying that there is more going on than you can see right now. Tomorrow, when you get on the subway, when you stand in line at the grocery store, when you go for a walk in your neighborhood, no one will know that you were baptized tonight. But despite all appearances, something has changed in your life. Something no less powerful than an earthquake or any less magical than the stars falling from the sky. There is a promise flowing underneath your life. And tonight we celebrate that, through this water, God's promise has broken into your life.
Your baptism is God's way of promising that even in loss, that even in grief, that even when we breathe our last, what happens to us does not define who we are. It does not define your life because there is no grief, no loss, no suffering that Christ has not experienced before you. Christ has "touched the bottom" of the human experience, including yours. And your baptism is nothing less than sharing in that death. Nothing less than joining your sorrows to his.
But you haven't just been baptized into Christ's death. You have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. Which makes all the difference in the world. There's one story we'll hear this Christmas season that perfectly captures what baptism, what this death and new life, is about. In Luke's gospel, we hear the story of Simeon, a devout Jew who waited at the temple every day in the hope that he would see the messiah. The tradition has it that he had been promised that he would not die before he saw the messiah. That he would not die before God was fully present in the world. And once he held Jesus, Luke tells us that Simeon sang out, "Now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation."
Once you that know you can die, Simeon is telling us, only then you can truly start living. Once you know, as Mark puts it in today's readings, that heaven and earth will pass away, then every day, every relationship, every joy comes as a holy gift. Always something to be received. Always a cause for celebration. That's why remembering your baptism is fundamentally about gratitude.
But tonight's baptism is not just about God and one person. It is about everyone in this room. At the end of today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples to stay awake. To keep watch for God at work. In tonight's baptism, we all promised to do just that. By promising to support the baptized and pray for Russell in his new life in Christ. To remind him that even in anger, danger, and need that there is a promise flowing under his life. And to watch and name what God is doing in his life.
What greater joy is there than to wait together to see God at work. Not in the falling of the stars. Not in the quaking of the earth. Not in the darkening of the sun. But in the opening of the heavens in the lives of our brothers and sisters, even in these most ordinary of times.
And to listen together for that quiet "and yet."
Thanks be to God.
Joseph Schattauer PaillĂ©
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York