A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel
Year B, Sunday 27. Mark 10: 2-16
Our Gospel for this evening’s Vigil Mass is about family life, it is about the marriage bond and its indissolubility, and it is about the love and welcome owed to children. Parents bring their children to Jesus for him to touch them, the disciples turn them away, but Jesus rebukes them and takes them into his arms, and in love blesses them.
Gospels were formed from the memories of early communities of what Jesus said and did, and the four that are in the New Testament are those that the whole community of faith that is the Catholic Church came to acknowledge. But any memory of what has taken place – indeed all history – is selective. All that has transpired in the last seven days is history, but only a small part of it will be remembered and recorded. Indeed, it has been noted that all four gospels could be read out aloud in the space of 16 hours. So what we have read this evening is a selection representing a particular interest.
These remembered pictures of Jesus, welcoming children, taking them into his arms and blessing them, were remembered because they expressed and reinforced the practice of living, contemporary communities. And the Catholic Church, the Body of Christ, continuing to express the love and welcoming of Christ for children, welcomes and has always welcomed the children of believing parents in baptism.
The baptism of children was universal in Christian history and practiced both by the Catholic Church as well as those groups that departed from its unity in schism in the early centuries. Indeed, one only needs to visit those early Christian cemeteries in Rome and elsewhere that are popularly called ‘Catacombs.’ There are thousands of epitaphs inscribed in memory of children who have lived for a few hours, a few days, or a few years in a world in which death was a too common experience for those who are young. And the compassion of Christ, who gathered the children in his arms, and who claimed that they were part of the kingdom of God, with indefeasible logic, compelled the reception of children and making them sacramentally a part of Christ’s mystical body.
And in the early Church, in fact for the first 1500 years, approximately, of Christian history, the baptism of young children was never challenged to the extent that it was rejected. It was only at the Reformation, with the rise of ana-baptist communities, that the slogan ‘for baptism believing adults only’ was heard. And inherent in the intellectual movement of the Reformation, however intellectually confused before it became the Enlightenment, was an obsessive individualism. The universe was composed of individual, indestructible atoms that combined together into molecules and organic wholes. Human societies were created by individuals, like individual atoms, who came together and drew up a social contract as an agreement for mutual benefit. Churches were created by individuals coming together, lead by the Spirit, with the Bible in their individual hands. And the baptism of so-called ‘believing adults’ expressed that individuality. And ‘believing adults’ became so as the result of a wondrous conversion experience, a god-like miracle of grace, that made one once and for all a redeemed Christian. Personal experience of Christ’s grace, personal experience of his overwhelming love and sacrifice, is indeed a wondrous thing to be treasured. But to make it alone sufficient for redemption and a prelude to the sacrament of baptism is the product of 16th century, European individualism.
As our holy Father, Pope Emeritus Benedict has taught us, the European Enlightenment was indeed a good development leading to intellectual, moral, and artistic progress. But its individualism was flawed. We do not arrive at a true picture of the world by inhabiting a desert island, escaping the distractions of society, and alone by oneself forming a veridicial picture of the world. As the later Wittgenstein, in Cambridge our Wittgenstein, taught us, truth is explored and discovered in community, as we explore it in those developing language games in our university that are our academies of science and the humanities, of art and history, of physics and biology, of religion and philosophy. We play our language games in which in community we seek to find the truths of our multifaceted human world.
I always wonder at the historical phenomenon of the practice of Christian baptism. That practice never originated from St. Paul, St. John or any other Christian theologian providing a theology of individual conversion and devising a rite using water and themes of death and resurrection to express that theology. That was not the way it came about. Tertullian, the North African, Latin theologian around AD 170, in one classic passage noted that the Catholic Church in its universal practice baptises infants. But then Tertullian asks why? Baptism is for repentance from sins. Well, yes, the majority of those baptised were adult pagans, children of Christian parents were a minority. But why baptise children who had committed no sins of which they needed to repent? It was St Cyprian who was to begin to develop an answer that only St Augustine was fully to give. Cyprian formulated embryonically a doctrine of Original Sin.
The sacrament and its practice came first and expressed the human understanding of the unfolding mystery that is living as the Body of Christ. But we celebrate sacraments because we are the Body of Christ: we cannot help but do this. Theological justifications come afterwards, and are always provisional: theology is a man-made creation for interpreting a divine mystery, though in the Catholic Church we are granted the grace of the Petrine ministry that we will not fundamentally err in our task.
Jesus welcomed the children into his arms, loved them and blessed them. May we find grace to always do the same.