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Monday, February 18, 2013

Election and baptism

There is so much richness in the liturgy of Lent. Even for us at St. Anne, where for only the second time in my nineteen year tenure we don't have catechumens this year, it's still a good experience for the candidates and us.The origin of Lent is in the final  preparation of the catechumenal community for baptism at the Easter Vigil. Lent developed as a time of spiritual purification and enlightenment within the community, so as the catechumens prepared to be initiated into the Paschal Mystery through baptism, confirmation, and eucharist at the vigil, the rest of the community prayed for them as they themselves prepared to renew their baptismal vows at Easter. Years like this one, where we're without catechumens, maybe help us see what we're missing, focus on the other aspects of community transformation, and widen our perspective.

This first Sunday of Lent is the proper day to celebrate the Rite of Election. In this rite, celebrated with the diocesan bishop, the catechumens are brought by their godparents, who are publicly part of the initiation rites for the first time. Their godparents are questioned about the catechumens' readiness for initiation, based on the four charisms of the community found in Acts (do they pray, do they associate with other Christians, do they know and preach the gospel in their lives, and do they do works of mercy). Having heard the testimony of godparents and the rest of the assembled diocesan community, the bishop declares them to be "chosen by God" for the Easter sacraments. So, contrary to what we sometimes hear election means, the heart of the Rite of Election is not a matter of catechumens choosing to be baptized, but a matter of the bishop announcing, publicly, formally as bishop, that God has chosen them to be baptized.

It was always kind of a mystery to me how the readings of the first Sunday in Lent, in which the gospel is one of the three synoptic accounts of Jesus' temptation in the desert (in Year A, it is coupled with the story of the Fall, from Genesis, and a homiletic passage from Romans), had to do with Election. It was actually reading Rita Ferrone's great little book on the Rite of Election, On the Rite of Election: Forum Essay #3 (Forum Essays), that I came to a new appreciation of the breadth of the liturgy's vision on this day, and how really rich the tradition is.

The thing is, God has always chosen the human race to be his own, right from Eden. In several stories that cascade through the first part of Genesis, the imagination of Israel grapples with the question of sin, and how it is that things have gotten so bad in a world that was created good by God. The tree in the garden, Cain and Abel, the flood, Abram and Lot: in each case, people sin against God, God gets angry and punishes, then God relents with some kind of restoration, making clothes for the first parents, giving Cain a protective mark, saving Lot's family from Sodom and Gomorrah, and Noah's in the flood. But in the final episode, the story of Babel, people again want to be "like God" building their tower, and God confuses their language and scatters them. God does not abate his punishment in this last story as God did in the others. Or, according to some rabbinic interpretation, the entire story of the covenant with Abraham and the creation of the people of Israel is God's amelioration of the Babel disaster. For Christians, the culmination of that story is Jesus Christ, and ultimately, in the Paschal Mystery, the reversal of Babel at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Church, and people from all over the world hear the gospel in their own languages.

It is this God, this God whose project among the beloved is to save us from ourselves and teach us to be equal and happy, this God who chooses the catechumens for the baptismal waters. 

After the baptism by John in the Jordan, the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, where he was tested by God for forty days. This story reminds us of the years Israel was tested in the desert, Israel who is God's beloved child. The scriptures remind us that Israel, a symbol of the human race, worries and complains, testing God in the desert, failing to trust in the One who called them out of slavery into freedom. But Jesus, fresh out of the Jordan River where he heard the voice of God call him "beloved," remembers that voice and is faithful when tested by the tempter. Israel cried out for manna; Jesus believed that God would see to his needs in God's own way and time. Jesus remembered that he belonged to God, and relied on God's love for his life and sustenance. Furthermore, he remembered who this God has been for Israel, the God of the covenant, the God of the exodus, the God of the prophets. He learned the ways of God, and returned to Galilee healing, forgiving, preaching good news to the poor, driving out demons. Living in the reign of the invisible God, he lived peace and equality in his word and at his table, a path the led him finally to pour himself out utterly, dying a criminal's death.

Today, I'm trying to realize that I am, in fact, in a desert, which is probably why I feel so dried up inside. Lots of things out there offer the quick fix, the willingness to turn carbohydrates into glycemic happiness, for instance. I'm trying to remember the music of my name when it is said by the Holy One, to turn away from my doubt and be healed of my paralysis by the Spirit of Christ, offered to me in my baptism and in the Eucharist, offered to me in my friends in the church, and everywhere I turn when I remember to look with my faith-eyes. I need to learn to expect something new, not to just keep on keeping on.

But "at my back I always hear/ Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near." I have less time for all this than I used to. Is God worth waiting for, this God who always seems to show up after the enemy has wiped us out, carried us into exile, flogged us and nailed us to a cross? To appropriate Tevye's prayer, "I know we're your chosen people, but once in a while, couldn't you choose somebody else?" But it's that fire inside that provokes me, that good news that is so very good, that promise that if we just start acting like it, the world can be a banquet where everyone can eat and drink as equals, and justice and peace will reach from earth to heaven and kiss. Success is not the prize. The journey is the destiny. 

So I need to remember that I was elected. I didn't choose God first, I was chosen. And, apparently, in part, to provide some traveling music for this peculiar, upstream journey. I thank God we have something to sing about, and I thank God for calling me into this chosen people who, at the Red Sea, were born singing.

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