I am moved this morning to write a letter to our grandchild who is being baptized today. In a way it is to all our grandchildren, all ten of you, or to each of you, marked by this day of Scottie’s baptism, the youngest of you. Some of you are in university and high school and mature enough to write this yourself, and others of you it may be sometime before you understand, if it is worthy of being remembered. And for everyone else, I hope this speaks to you as well and not exclusively to one family or child.
Dear Scottie and all. First, I want to honour this being Mary’s Sunday. The Fourth Sunday of Advent tells Mary’s story as we are introduced to her in today’s Gospel. The story of Mary being visited by an angel named Gabriel, a name sake of one of you, the angel’s greeting, the encouragement not to be afraid, the news she would have a child who would be God’s child, a response to her questioning how this could be, and that she wouldn’t be alone in her pregnancy because her elder relative Elizabeth was pregnant too, for nothing is impossible with God.
I cannot hear these words without the sung version from Holden Evening Prayer coming to memory. An angel went from God to a town called, Nazareth, to a woman whose name was Mary… I hope you hear and sing this often, by candlelight as your parents have, and that it and Mary’s song is part of your memory too. Because I hope and pray you and all of us would remember and emulate Mary’s reply and her song of justice. Mary’s “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” or the sung version, “I live to do your will.” is as faithful and fearless a response to God’s call that you could witness. And her song proclaiming a great reversal of human ways of power over, and the hope of lifting up those who are brough low, pushed down, whoever they are, and for whatever reason, whether the colour of their skin, their religious or cultural practises, sexual or gender identity or expression, abilities or disabilities, economic or social status, or any other difference that we think divides us, Mary sings, they will be fed, and the rich, that can include us, will be sent away empty.
This way of being in the world, Mary’s way, God’s way that became enfleshed in Jesus, this life-giving way or living to do God’s good and gracious will, and the great reversal of power, division, and hate, into equity, communion, and love, this is the way of baptismfor you today. A few words and water and a community gathered around you and all the saints before us, you are washed, bathed in, held in this death and new life way of being in the world. My hope and prayer for you, Scottie, my hope and prayer for all of you, is that by God’s grace you follow this way. And I say this is my hope and prayer, knowing it is not the easier way. It is the way of suffering with and for those who suffer. It is the way of the cross of Jesus, but a cross and suffering and death that leads to new life. The way that Mary and Jesus and so many others have followed. A harder way of vital hope and real joy in a world that can be short on both.
You are being baptized into a world of many challenges and crises, for the earth and its climate and sustainability on every scale, social and political division and growing economic disparity, change, fear and uncertainty. Are the challenges greater than other times, maybe yes, maybe no. In Mary’s time, the immediate challenges of survival and mortality were greater than yours. Not more so than for many in our world caught in war and violence and hunger and insecurity now. But you have more opportunities and privileges than most. And to use that privilege to join in lifting up the lowly as you can, as God desires, and as your parents strive to do, that is God’s calling to you and a life worth living, sharing and celebrating.
On the day of your baptism, Scottie, you have Mary to look up to, and all of us with you, and her example of faithful and fearless response to God’s call for the great reversal, for the redeeming of a broken and hurting world. There are many images of Mary to see, but I hope you see a woman of courage and strength, of humility and wisdom, a woman who believes anything is possible because nothing is impossible for God. And that she and you receive all the grace needed to follow this way, God’s way, Mary’s way, Jesus’ way,your whole life.
And a word about the church and communities of faith. Baptism joins you to the body of Christ in the world. That mysterious language does not translate into “you will go to church” or that those who are not baptized are not part of the body of Christ. Not at all. But the church as flawed and as beautiful as it can and has and will continue to be, the best and the worst of humanity, can be an expression, again by God’s grace, of the body and way of Jesus in the world. Sometimes we lose our way, Jesus’ way, completely, and others and creation suffer for it and from it. We need to confess that truth and seek redress and reconciliation and to live renewed lives. And other times, and in other ways, the church is a vessel, cracked and misshapen, but a vessel for this grace to be shared, and for the work of lifting up the lowly and loving the unlovable to be realized with others, all with and through the working of God’s Spirit. So, don’t put all your faith in the church or maybe much at all, but don’t lose all hope in it either. And keep working at being the body of Christ in the world with others, the word made flesh, including in your tender growing infant flesh with ours as with Mary, as with Jesus.
And about the Spirit. In your Baptism we will say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, anointing you with the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil. It is a sacramental way, meaning a holy truth made tangible, of affirming that God’s/Jesus’ Spirit is in you, fills you, is always with you, as with Mary and so great a cloud of witnesses before you. That Spirit will carry you through all the changes and challenges and crises of your life, that I pray will not be more than you can bear, and never alone. That Spirit will shine through you for others to see. That we already know just looking at you, and each of you with your cousin, and each and every one of you also. That is the gift of God’s promised Spirit. She is in you and fills you and is always with you such that you can trust in the courage and strength and faith to respond to any and every call of God, in the myriad ways that call may come to you and all of us, to say, “Here I am, the servant of my God, let it be with me according to your word, I live to do your will.”
There could be much more to say, but I will end with a quote from Martin Luther, as flawed and gifted as any follower of Jesus,and namesake of this community in which you are baptized, which was not to his liking and is not an exclusive claim on you in any way.But because Luther did have some good things to say – only by God’s grace, he would add. He wrote in a Christmas book: St. Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and humankind should be joined in this Child; that a mother should remain a virgin; and that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her. The last is not the least of the three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become human is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin had been chosen to be the mother of God. Had she not believed, she could not have conceived. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day to day. This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that he is the son of the virgin and of God, as to believe that Son of God is ours. God feeds the whole world through a Baby nursing at Mary’s breast. This must be our daily exercise: to be transformed into Christ, being nourished by this food. [Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, trans. Roland H. Bainton (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1948), 22-23.]
This is who and whose you are now, Scottie and all of you, her cousins, and all of us with you. It is amazing and wonderful and terrifying and hope-filled all at once, as we clearly see in you. Here you and we all are, servants of God, let it be with you and with all of us, according to your word, we live to do your will. God bless you! Let it be so. In all our relations. Amen.