Homily for January 9, 2022
First Sunday After the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord
Were it possible to invite St. Luke the Evangelist and the early twentieth-century French social activist and mystic Simone Weil to dinner, I would. For while St. Luke and Simone Weil share much in common—both were committed to “lifting up the lowly,” as Luke puts it, to the care of the poor; both had great appreciation for the Holy Spirit—it was Luke who gave us the Feast of Pentecost, and Weil once wrote of the Holy Spirit that she “ felt… a presence more personal, more certain, more real than that of a human being”; and both loved poetry—Luke gave us Mary’s “Magnificat,” for example, and Weil tells how once, when meditating on George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome…” that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me”—they also have stark differences.
For example, some describe Weil as an anarchist, but Luke was a lover of order: “I…decided…to write an orderly account for you,” Luke writes of his Gospel (1:1). While Weil’s writing is uneven and somewhat impetuous, Luke was a master of his craft who “investigated everything carefully,” he says (1:3). While Weil expressed solidarity with the poor by eating no more than the government’s daily allowance of food for the unemployed, Luke filled his Gospel with feasts and eating (e.g., 14; 16:19–31; 24:30). And while Luke was a “company man” through and through, devoted to the Church, Simone Weil wanted nothing to do with the Church—“I have never for a second had the feeling that God wanted me in the Church… God does not want me in the Church,” she insists.
Which brings us to what might be Luke’s and Weil’s most significant difference, which is: Luke believed Baptism to be extremely important, while Weil despite repeated invitations refused to be baptized. I wonder how the evening would unfold, were they to discover this difference. I imagine Luke, story teller that he is, might regale those present with tales from the early Church, of how “those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:41), or sharing his story about Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26–40). And I can hear Weil respond, “But, Luke, I know from my time working with people in factories and laboring alongside them in vineyards that many consider themselves to be unworthy of the sacraments.” “Indeed”—and here I quote—“I consider myself to be unworthy of the sacraments…. [for] I recognize within me the germ of all possible crimes.” To which I can hear Luke respond (quoting from his Gospel), “But, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost’” (19:10) and then maybe telling us his story of how the father welcomed home the Prodigal. To which I can hear Weil say (and here I quote), “[But] I cannot help still wondering… if God does not want there to be some who have given themselves to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church.” And then Luke—for whom (as we can see in today’s lesson from Acts) the gift of the Spirit is connected to Baptism—might say, “But we are both committed to bearing witness to Christ, and without the help of the Spirit, which is received at Baptism, how can one bear witness?” And Weil—reportedly never one to back down—might respond (and again I quote), “[But some of us, like me, might] have the essential need… the vocation… to merge into the common paste of humanity and disappear among them…” so that there may be no “marked barrier…between a practicing Catholic and an unbeliever,” the better to witness to them.
To host St. Luke and Simone Weil for dinner would indeed make for a memorable evening. And I’d like to think that, despite their differences, they might each recognize and appreciate that, for both, Baptism is important, something either to do or intentionally not to do.
But enough about St. Luke and Simone Weil; what about you? What does Baptism mean to you? Today of all days—the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, a day on which we renew our Baptismal vows—is a timely day to ask. What does it mean to you (as we will say shortly) to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” What does it mean to you to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Or what does it mean to you to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” What does Baptism mean to you?
I admit that these questions we are about to be asked are not questions I ask myself on a daily basis. And, like most of us, I was baptized as an infant with no choice in whether or not to be baptized. But having been baptized—and having discovered (as Pope Francis says) “that with Jesus life becomes richer” (Ev. Gaud., 264)—here is what my Baptism means to me: I am going to keep coming each Sunday for the Eucharist, which is the “repeatable part of Baptism.” I am going to keep on being here, among us in this ἐκκλησία, because I need the help of a community. I am going to keep asking God for a felt, interior knowledge of Jesus’ love for me because I’ve discovered that I do better when I feel his love for me. I am going to keep asking for forgiveness, because I know I need forgiveness. I am going to do my best to pay attention to the many gifts God gives and to be grateful for them, for I do better when I recognize and thank God for God’s gifts. I am going to keep on giving to God and God’s work, because I’ve discovered that such giving orders not merely my finances but life in a healthy way. I am going to keep looking for opportunities to serve, because I’ve learned that serving Christ is deeply satisfying. That is what my Baptism means to me. What does your Baptism mean to you?
Because it was significant to Simone Weil, and because it expresses many of the dynamics of Baptism, I am going to leave us with George Herbert’s poem, “Love (III)”:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.