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Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Baptismal Love Letter on the Feast of the Epiphany

Dear Nicholas,

Well, I don’t expect to hear bells or whistles or sirens when I announce this, but in the almost six years I have been here, yours is the 60th baptism it has been my privilege to preside over. You are also the 997th baptism to be recorded in the records of this church, which means that we are rapidly rounding the corner to mark 1,000 souls who have been baptized here. Now, for that, Vana White just might make an appearance and provide that baptismal candidate with a ‘brand new car’. (Not!)

At this point, everyone knows that I’ve written every single one of these 60 baptismal love letters in the hopes that parents will take a copies of it and put it away in your baby books. Hopefully, your parents will take this letter out again for you to read as you prepare for your Confirmation. These are very important vows that your parents and godparents are taking for you today. In order to confirm these vows for yourself, you will need time to study and prepare yourself in Confirmation Class.

It is wonderful, Nicholas, that you are being baptized on The Feast of the Epiphany – or, ‘Little Christmas’ as it is called by the Irish. When I was a child, there was always tension in my household around this. My grandmother grew up in her Western European country (Portugal) celebrating Christmas as a strictly religious holiday - no gift exchange.

The Feast of the Epiphany, however, was ‘dia dos Reis’ (day of the kings) for my grandmother, when the Magi came bearing gifts to the Newborn King. It was then that her family exchanged gifts. She would always bake us a Bolo Rei (‘King cake’) that had a large hole in the center, so that it resembled a crown, and was covered with crystallized and dried fruit and sugared nuts which made them look like gems in a crown. And, the best part – there was always a silver toy or coin inside. Whoever found the hidden silver was the Reigning Monarch for the Day and got to use the Blessed Chalk (more on this in a minute).

I have a very clear childhood memory of the priest in church, dressed in white vestments, blessing the Epiphany Water (which recalls the miracle of the Baptism of Jesus and the Miracle at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine), frankincense and gold (two of the gifts of the Magi) and chalk. Yes, chalk. Every family took home a piece of chalk so that the one who found the hidden silver in the King Cake got to write the first initial of each of the three wise men “Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar” over the doors of the church and our homes. The secret was that the initials “C.M.B.” also stood for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates “may Christ bless this house.”

My grandmother was absolutely disgusted that her children capitulated to the American cultural norm of exchanging gifts at Christmas and not at The Feast of The Epiphany. To her, it represented everything that was wrong with this culture, which did not understand the great virtue and value of patience. For my grandmother, being Christian meant being decidedly counter-cultural. She took some comfort in that, as her immigrant status already gave her a harsh, often cruel experience of not being part of the American culture.

The miracle of the Feast of the Epiphany is not just about Kings, and cakes and presents, Nicholas. These are just outward and visible symbols of a deeper, more spiritual meaning. The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation” or “showing”. In the Epiphany, we celebrate the “light of Christ” which came into the darkness of a world broken by sorrow and turmoil and war. We celebrate the hope of Jesus, the potential of the fullness and power of his divinity, now vulnerable and meek, clothed in human flesh and lying in a manger.

In that way, my grandmother had it right. To be a Christian is to be a counter-cultural person. To be a Christian is to be a living, breathing, Epiphany – an outward and visible manifestation of hope in a world that is broken by impatience and self-absorption.

To be baptized into the life of Christ means that you are a ‘showing’ of what is often hiding right in plain view. It means that you recognize that you have the potential to do something great, to be someone who makes a difference, even against great odds. It means that you, Nicholas, recognize the source of your own spark of divinity, and begin to understand the possibilities you possess to change the imbalances in the world and take your place with other Christians who have committed themselves, through baptism, to be agents of reconciliation and peace.

It sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is. Then again, we don’t call The Twelve Days of Christmas and the Octave of the Epiphany ‘The Season of Miracles’ for nothing. From Christ’s birth to the visit by the Three Kings, to his Baptism and the first miracle he performed by changing water into wine at the Wedding Feast in Cana, to all of the healing he performed in his life – and even his very resurrection – is all miracle, Nicholas. All of it defies human understanding and makes manifest the great mystery that is our God.

And don’t think for a minute that you are not one of God’s miracles, too. Just ask your parents. There is only so much in life that one can explain through logic and reason. At some point in everyone’s life, we all look up and look around and understand that we’ll never understand it all. That some things defy understanding. That some things can only happen because of the risk of love – like the risk your parents took when they fell in love. And, when two people fall in love and make a covenant to be with each other, miracles happen. We call that miracle a family.

To be a Christian is to be one of God’s epiphanies – an outward and visible sign of the miraculous power of God’s incarnate love which we know in Christ Jesus, to heal this broken world. Your birth is one of those epiphanies. Your baptism is another epiphany.

May you be the miracle your parents know you to be, Nicholas. May you be the miracle this world desperately needs you to be. May your life always be an epiphany of the miracle of God’s incarnate love, which is worth more than frankincense and myrrh and much more even than fine gold. Because, as those who have been wise throughout the centuries have always known, the real epiphanies in life, Nicholas, are always about Love.

(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton

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