Shortly before Christmas, I read an article by Fr. Ben Maddison, an Episcopal priest in NJ, that drew on the song “Mary did you know.” He and his wife are foster parents, and he wrote about that experience through the lens of the song. I expect many of you have heard it – it’s a series of questions addressed to the Blessed Virgin, wondering how aware she was, ahead of time, of all that her Son would go through. It begins,
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you. Mary did you know?
Fr. Ben starts out by speaking from his own perspective about how little, really, he and his wife and all parents know ahead of time: They brought the baby to our doorstep. Five days old. Directly from the hospital. One outfit. Four pre-made bottles. A handful of diapers. A package of wipes. And a packet of papers that offered no definitive judgment on the proper pronunciation of her name….
Like any new parents, we waited with fear and excitement for this call. Two months since our state licensure. One year since the doctor told us we wouldn’t have children of our own…. We wanted a baby more than anything else in the world. But the reality of foster care is that it exists because the world is broken. Child abuse. Drug addiction. Neglect. Poverty. Systematic injustice. Sin and Death. Our hope for a family, inextricably linked to suffering and darkness of this world. Our hope and expectation married to someone else’s shame and guilt…
They brought a baby to our doorstep. An answer to, but also the result of, so much pain.
As we move today from the stories of Jesus’ birth and the coming of the Magi into the stories of his earthly ministry beginning with his Baptism, if we glance back and imagine Mary holding the baby Jesus, as nervous as any new parent, we might be reminded that the Holy Family too are in situations that exist, as Fr. Ben wrote, because the world is broken. Many of the systems in which the Holy Family are embedded and from which they suffer are results of the Fall, signs of the presence of sin and evil in the world, part of what Jesus came to triumph over.
What am I talking about? Here are some examples. Economically, Mary and Joseph are poor – we know that from the kind of offering they make to the Temple at Jesus’ circumcision. They are Jews, an oppressed group in an occupied territory who not just then but through the ages have been made to suffer because of their ethnicity and their faith. They will soon become refugees, fleeing their country because the tyrant Herod is willing to unleash violence to preserve his own political power. This is the context that God chose when he decided to come into our world in person -- not a majority group, not a situation of privilege, not political stability or comfort. So Mary and Joseph definitely know what it is to hold a baby who will experience the pain that comes with living in a broken world.
Fr. Ben continues, and I remind you that he and his wife are foster parents, People love asking “are you prepared to give her back?” As if that is a normal question…. “Are you ready to give this thing you love more than you knew you could back to the uncertainty and brokenness of this world?” Are you ready for her to not be yours anymore? Are you prepared for this all to end? Well, of course not, right? No loving parent would ever want to have a child not be theirs anymore. Losing a daughter or son is one of the most difficult things anybody can go through in life.
But Fr. Ben points out that there is a sense in which none of us, in this fragile world, can ever really hold on to our children anyway. None of us can guarantee that the life of our child, or spouse, or friend, or student, will be pain free and go according to plan. We can’t even guarantee that for ourselves, much less for someone else. It’s evident as soon as we think about it. Mary, did you know that your baby boy Jesus was going to suffer and die? Well in one sense, every mother knows that. Every father knows that. Because human beings universally suffer, and we universally die.
In fact this inevitable pain doesn’t just affect Jesus’ earthly parents. Quoting again, It’s not only Mary who knew that her son would have to be given up, but [God] the Father as well. God sent his only son into the world—handing him over to the brokenness of that world—so that the brokenness could be dealt with, once for all. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
That moment of giving, of handing over, is crystallized for us today in the moment of Baptism. Today we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism, as we do the first Sunday after Epiphany every year, and at the 10:15 we also celebrate Maggie’s Baptism. When we come to the waters, we are handing every baptismal candidate over to God once for all. The candidate arrives at the font as a member of an earthly family, with an earthly life, and arises from the waters a member of a different family, a new creature with the very life of God inside them. There is a profound letting go that happens here, and a profound trust for the future.
Those who are parents and godparents are giving the candidate into God’s hands via the sacrament – and any of you who have been parents or godparents did this, giving the candidate to God. When she or he is marked as Christ’s own forever, that is the irrevocable end of one life and the irrevocable beginning of another. The entire liturgy of Baptism is about death (…and resurrection). The symbolism of the rite is of drowning, of burial, of participating in the Cross of Christ so that we may also be raised in him to a kind of life we didn’t have before.
Our own Baptism into Jesus is about death and resurrection because that’s what Jesus’ vocation was about. God the Father knew on the day of Jesus’ baptism what kind of calling he was giving him up to. Our reading in Acts today tells us – “Jesus went about healing all who were oppressed by the devil… and they put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day.” He started by confronting brokenness throughout his ministry, announcing its defeat, and then on the Cross Jesus entered as far into brokenness as anyone can go, and then he dealt with brokenness once for all by rising from the dead. And that is the journey we take, in him, beginning with Baptism.
We have no right to participate in that journey, in and of ourselves – but God brings us into it anyway. Through the work of Christ that we enter into through Baptism, God makes it possible. The Word that God speaks in today’s Gospel at the moment Jesus comes out of the water becomes God’s Word to us. It encapsulates the new life that Jesus shares with us as we come out of the water. “This is my son, the beloved.” “This is my daughter, the beloved.”
If we receive as our own that primal identity, that new self from God imbued with his supernatural life and not just our natural life, we then have something solid enough and dependable enough that we can become able to let go, to surrender into this existence that involves suffering, in this world that is violent and broken, knowing whatever we go through, nothing that happens can take away the life that God has put in us. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever, and absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That change will happen to Maggie today as she is handed over to God in this sacrament. If you’re baptized, it has happened to you as well. But, realistically, because the lies of control and self-sufficiency are so powerful, we have to over and over remind ourselves of what has happened to us. Sometimes it doesn’t come home to us as a reality until we’ve said the words a hundred times. We have to over and over renew our unconditional surrender of ourselves into God’s hands.
And in the wisdom of the church, we get the chance to do that at every Baptism – to renounce our illusions of control, to admit that we cannot make our lives or anybody else’s go according to plan, and to make a radical act of trust and surrender to God. We get to renew our Baptismal vows, in other words, every time we have a Baptism, and we are going to do that today. As Maggie’s parents hand her over, secure in the knowledge that while they can’t control her future she is safe in the loving and living hands of God, we will repeat our own handing over of ourselves. In fact, let’s do it now. We continue on page 301.