Monday, January 10, 2011

"Baptism cannot be shipwrecked"

Yesterday's festival of Baptism of Our Lord reveals more about Jesus than us, but it is a time to reflect on our baptism into Christ. A passage from Luther's Large Catechism speaks to our own baptism in light of God's work.

This I say lest we fall into the opinion in which we were for a long time, imagining that our Baptism is something past, which we can no longer use after we have fallen again into sin. The reason is, that it is regarded only according to the external act once performed [and completed]. And this arose from the fact that St. Jerome wrote that repentance is the second plank by which we must swim forth and cross over after the ship is broken, on which we step and are carried across when we come into the Christian Church. Thereby the use of Baptism has been abolished so that it can profit us no longer. Therefore the statement is not correct, or at any rate not rightly understood. For the ship never breaks, because (as we have said) it is the ordinance of God, and not a work of ours; but it happens, indeed, that we slip and fall out of the ship. Yet if any one fall out, let him see to it that he swim up and cling to it till he again come into it and live in it, as he had formerly begun.

Thus it appears what a great, excellent thing Baptism is, which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man; and is and remains ever efficacious until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.

For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits, that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new. For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians. But if any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy-seat, does not recede from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. If, therefore, we have once in Baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck.

The full text of Luther's discussion of baptism in his Large Catechism can be read at the online Book of Concord. May God keep us, children born of water and Spirit, faithful to our calling.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Twelve Days, Twelve Glorious Days of Christmas

Here it is, the twelfth and final day of Christmas. I know for most of us the blowout celebration on the 25th (and likely the eve before) had us spent. These twelve days, including the New Year's celebration has us recovering and looking for some sense of normalcy and quiet. I for one with three kids in the house and crazy traveling to see family following the hectic work days for me, have left me with a sense of longing for peace and quiet.

But the twelve days have been a glorious celebration. I have seen friends and family. I even had some time to myself. I do feel like we have been celebrating all along. And this continued sense of celebration led me ponder one of the great Christmas mysteries. The meaning of the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

Granted, the song doesn't really rank up there with the mystery of the Incarnation, but whenever I hear it, I do wonder about it. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a website that made the claim that this song was a secret catechetical tool for outlawed Catholics in France. Each verse was meant to symbolize some element of doctrine. The "True Love" is God. The "partridge in a pear tree" is Jesus Christ on the cross. The "two turtle doves" are the old and new testaments. The "three french hens" are the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The "four calling birds" are the four gospels. The "five gold rings" are the Pentateuch. And so on and and so on. Of course, there are no real anchors between the symbol and the meaning. So "three calling birds" could be the theological virtues of 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and love, rather than the Trinity. It is analogous to trying to bind meaning to the four candles on the Advent wreath. Hope, peace, joy, love. Or alternatively, prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Sometimes we inherit practices and traditions upon which we feel we must tie meanings even though multiple meanings could be assigned.

However, the bigger mystery for me is not about the meaning, but the gifts themselves. How many do we get? It sounds like I have been influenced by my seven-year old, I know. The first day the true love gives me a partridge in a pear tree. But on the second day? Do I just get two turtle doves? OR do I actually get what the song says. I have had this debate with people from time to time and they think I am crazy. The song, however says, "On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree." I find the "AND" to mean that on the second day, I get two turtle doves AND a partridge in a pear tree. Therefore on the second day, I have received a total of two turtle doves and TWO partridges in their respective pear trees. On the third day then I receive three french hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. So for the three days of Christmas I will have received in total, three French hens, four turtle doves (two doves twice) and then three partridges in pear trees.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I will have received in total from my true love:
  • 12 times -- a partidge in pear trees
  • 11 times -- two turtle doves
  • 10 times -- three French hens
  • 9 times -- four calling birds
  • 8 times -- five gold rings
  • 7 times -- six geese a'laying
  • 6 times -- seven swans a'swimming
  • 5 times -- eight maids a'milking
  • 4 times -- nine ladies dancing
  • 3 times -- ten lords a' leaping
  • 2 times -- eleven pipers piping
  • 1 time -- twelve drummers drumming
Thus the grand total at the end: Twelve partridges in twelve pear trees, twenty-two turtle doves, thirty French hens, thirty-six calling birds, forty gold rings, forty-two geese, forty-two swans, forty maids, thirty-six dancing ladies, thirty leaping lords, twenty-two piping pipers, and twelve drumming drummers.

What grand, gracious and generous gifts from my true love! This would be a glorious Christmas indeed. And in this scheme, the holiday grows every single day. No massive explosion that quickly tapered away to nothing. No. This giver builds upon every day.

Maybe then the true love IS God. For if this reckoning of the song IS true, and I think that it is, I cannot help but hear the echoes of the first chapter of John's gospel. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. .... From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." (John 1:14, 16)

Twelve glorious Christmas days to reflect on the mystery of the gift of the Incarnation, that God the Son might become flesh and dwell among us. And it grows leading to even more abundant gifts as Christ dwells with and in us. And now the celebration of the Incarnation need not end, even if our season of Christmas does.

One last time to everyone, Merry Christmas!!!