The Epistle. 1 St. Pet. ii. 11f The Gospel. St. John xvi. 16f
When I was very young, a mere teenager, I had a good friend who was color-blind. It was during a very sunny afternoon that I, as a passenger in his car, saw how dangerous it is to dispense with an idea just because it is old. Stop lights, in case you have not noticed, are always lined up the same way from top to bottom. The red light at the top, the yellow light in the middle, and the green light at the bottom. Furthermore, they have long visors that cast enough of a shadow that even a very sunny day cannot hide which color light is on. But, some very clever person had managed to redesign the stop light. The ugly visors were gone, and the light was not hanging up and down, but sideways, horizontally. Because the light was horizontal my color-blind friend was becoming panicky- was the light green or red? He figured the middle was still the place where yellow would be, but what about the rest of it? He could not see green from red; and now he could not rely on the vertical system that all color-blind drivers have always used. But, I could not help him; because without the visors, on a sunny day, it was impossible for anyone, color-blind or not, to see which light was on. We escaped with our lives. Others were not so fortunate, and in a few accidents some people were killed.
The lesson is simple: Anyone who wants to change a tradition should be forced to answer a question, and forced to answer it correctly. Correctly, that is, instead of according to his prejudices, especially prejudices against things he thinks old fashioned. The question would be, why does the tradition exist? Why, for example, do we teach children to read using what is called phonics? An old idea, admittedly. All the more reason to keep it, since it is time tested and proven. For some reason we are being subjected quite a lot to new ideas which are still theoretical, still untried, still experimental and subject to failure, in preference to the tried and true. If the traffic light designer had been forced to answer why the lights hang vertically, and to answer why the visors are there- whether or not he finds them to be attractive- lives would have been spared.
So, remember that rule. No tradition should be overturned unless you know exactly why the tradition exists; and I mean the real reason why, not based on logic plus assumption, but based on logic plus fact. Furthermore, you had better be sure that your experiment is worth the abandonment of the tried and true, time tested and proven. You had better be very sure that your wisdom exceeds that of many generations and of their experiences.
It is a joy to baptize anyone, and a rare joy for some to witness an adult baptism. You will notice that we had two witnesses up here in addition to our server and myself. The rubrics say that we should do this when using the baptismal font. Why?
Before I answer that question, I want to tell you something I learned from a Rabbi named Harold White back in Maryland. He told about a family in which a young mother kept alive a tradition that had been passed down from her grandmother’s time. When cooking a roast beef, she would cut it in two and roast it in two small pans. One day, at a family gathering, the question was put to her why she did this, and she replied that her mother had always done it that way. When asked why she had always done it that way, the mother was able to refer the question to the elderly grandmother, who was present herself at this gathering. She said, “The reason I cooked it that way was because we were so poor we could not afford a large roasting pan. But we had two little pans.” And then Rabbi White asked me a question: “Now then, upon learning this, does the young mother stop this tradition and use one large pan, or does she continue the family tradition?” I disappointed the Rabbi, because my immediate reply was, “If there is really no need to go to the trouble of cutting the roast in two, why not use just one pan?” “No. She continues the family tradition,” he told me. “Now it has special meaning: We were once so poor that we had to cook it this way. God carried us through that time.” I thought about that, and saw that this is a valuable lesson from a mind trained in Judaism. I thought of passages in the Torah where Moses tells the people of Israel that after they enter the Land of Promise, they are to observe certain traditions, and that is in order to teach their children: “We were once slaves in Egypt, and God brought us out by a Mighty Hand”
So, why do the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer tell us to have two witnesses for an adult baptism? Because we were once criminals in the Roman Empire. In the early centuries of our Faith, the Church was persecuted by the Roman authorities. The sentence of death hung over the head of every Christian any time he might be caught. To gather together in Church every Sunday was dangerous, because to be found out, coming together for this Eucharist, would mean not only arrest, but certain trial and execution, with a trial so brief as to make the sentence of death a summary judgment. And, the only way to escape execution, carried out the same day, was to renounce Christ and offer a sacrifice to Caesar as a god. During those centuries the Church spread and grew, even though hundreds of thousands of Christians were put to death for their Faith.
However, as willing as Christians were to die for their Faith, they were also practical. To invite martyrdom when it was avoidable and unnecessary, was something that the Church condemned as a form of suicide. If caught, if interrogated, the Christian dies rather than renounce His Savior. But, he does not invite it, or cause it to come about that he has to be caught or interrogated. He dies if he must; but he lives unless martyrdom becomes the only way to be faithful to the One Who died for us, Jesus Christ.
In those years, most of the people being baptized were adult converts turning to God from paganism. Even after a time of preparation as catechumens, it was not until their baptism that they entered into the hidden and secret places where the Eucharist was offered. The presence of witnesses, which historians are more likely to call sponsors, was a practical way of knowing at least something about the identity of the people being admitted for the first time into the general gathering of the church. If an unknown person could sneak in he could be an informant, and hand over the whole church gathered there to the authorities. So, every convert coming to be baptized was recognized and sponsored by witnesses. It was simply a means of trying to have some kind of practical security.
So, we have the two witnesses when baptism occurs here in the church at the font. They are not needed to make the sacrament valid. All we need for that is the Form, the Matter and the Intention of the sacrament of baptism. But, taking a lesson from our parent religion, Judaism, we look to the past and use our traditions as a way to teach. We were once criminals in the Roman Empire, and many of our fathers, and mothers too, gave their lives as martyrs. The Church- the same Church that we belong to, to this day- survived and thrived nonetheless, thanks be to God. The sight of sponsoring witnesses reminds us that the Church was not suicidal, but that it did thrive in the midst of danger. This danger lasted from Nero to Constantine, roughly two and a half centuries. And, even today Christians are being turned into martyrs for their Faith. The earliest generations of the Church knew that the faith of Christ is worth dying for; and for all we know, the day may come that we will need to know that as well, even here in America. We were once criminals in the Roman Empire, as the people of Israel once were slaves in Egypt. From the tradition, even this little rubric, learn a valuable lesson.
In the recent weeks, leading up to Easter, we kept getting closer and closer to Passion tide and Holy Week. In our liturgical tradition we lived through the troubles and fears of those ancient disciples; the five hundred disciples and the apostles who were closest to the Lord. Think again of the words He spoke to them: “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father…Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”
In Passion tide we hid from our eyes the things that remind us our Lord’s presence, all under purple veils. When you walked through the door on Easter the veils were gone, and you rejoiced at the presence of the Risen Christ. For a while you did not see Him, then you saw Him, and your joy could not be taken from you. Think about what the disciples had gone through; their Lord was dead. They had placed not only their love, but also all their hope, in this one Man. He had said that he was One with the Father, that He would be the salvation not only of Israel, but the light to the Gentiles, the hope for all nations. Several times He told them how it would be. He would be handed over and crucified, and rise the third day. But, like most of us, they could only hear just so much.
And, instead of watching Him take an earthly throne and seize the power that justly belonged to the Son of David as King in Jerusalem, they saw that he was humiliated, unjustly condemned, and given to the Romans to die the worst death of all, the death of the cross. Their hope was shattered. They mourned and wept while the world rejoiced. But, after three days He appeared to them alive again. He had not conquered Rome; he had conquered the real enemy. He had overcome sin and death. He had been the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah the prophet; now he was the man who died, and would, as the prophet had said, after dying “prolong His days” as the one in whose hand the will of the Lord would prevail.
Their joy no man could take from them.
In a few weeks we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. In every way our traditions teach us and remind us of those most important events that changed the world forever, because we are able to walk through our salvation history.