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The First Sunday of Lent
February 18, 2018

     Catholics like Lent. We may not admit it but we do. We like the ashes of Ash Wednesday and we even like sacrifice and self-denial. We don’t always do them so well, but we like the thought of them!  We like Lent. But Lent is more than ashes, sacrifice and self-denial, fast and abstinence. In the early Church, Lent was about preparing for baptism. It still is. And for those of us who are already baptized, Lent is the ideal time for us to get in touch with the meaning of our baptism.

     I talk a lot about baptism from this pulpit. That’s because I am convinced that if we were really to awaken to our baptism –who we are because of our baptism and what our baptism calls us to do - everything would be different.  Everything!

     And we are lucky that there are powerful reminders of baptism all around us in this Cathedral. I’ve often observed that it’s hard to escape baptism in this cathedral.  It is.

      The Baptism of Christ is prominent on our great bronze doors; and the baptistery stops us in our tracks as we enter the cathedral; and that glorious central stained-glass window up there in the east apse is the baptism window with its images of the Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the chosen people coming through the Red Sea, and at the top, the Baptism of Christ. And there’s more: during Advent and Easter, our Masses begin with the sprinkling of baptismal water, and each month we baptize a bunch of babies at Sunday Mass. It is hard to escape baptism in St. James Cathedral!

     And I would add that we Pacific North Westerners have a head start on understanding baptism. We know a lot about water.  We have beautiful lakes, raging rivers and majestic waterfalls. And we have rain!  We have destructive floods, landslides, soggy days and leaky roofs. We know from experience that water has two very different meanings: water means death and water also means life. And that gives us a head-start on understanding baptism. It does.

     For many of us, our baptism is a moment not even remembered, a moment we know only from family stories, or from photo albums or videos, or from a dog-eared piece of paper with names and dates and the fading signature of a parish priest.  But remembered or not, there was for each of us a moment in time when water (probably cold enough to make us cry) flowed over us and at that moment, we experienced a kind of death: a beginning share in Christ’s saving death, symbolized by those drowning sacramental waters.  And, of course, at that same moment, new life became ours, the life of Christ. We became new creations!

     My friends, the Church wants us to think of these things during Lent. The Church gives us six full weeks to think long and hard about our baptism - and not just to think about it: to wake up to our baptism, for the church knows that, viewed with the eyes of faith, nothing more important has ever happened to us than our baptism.

     The Church also, as you know, focuses during these grace-filled days of Lent on those who are preparing for baptism. They are full of excitement and anticipation because their Lenten journey will culminate when they walk into the baptismal pool at the great Easter Vigil.

     Baptism.  Preparing for it or waking up to it - that's what Lent is all about. We may more typically think of Lent in terms of ashes and abstinence, of desserts denied or drinks declined, and that's OK - in fact it's good - as long as those penitential practices bring us in touch with our baptism.  Think of them as the dying part of baptism -- the drowning waters, if you will, the death to sin and selfishness.  Think of them as our sharing in what Jesus once called his "baptism", referring not to the waters of the Jordan but to the impending ordeal of his passion and death ("I have a baptism with which I am to be baptized," he said.  "And how impatient I am that it be accomplished!").

     Baptism! It is important to remember what we heard in today’s gospel: the same Jesus who one minute found himself basking in the baptismal glory of being God's beloved son, in another minute found himself in a lonely desert wrestling with the forces of evil through forty long days and nights, struggling mightily against Satan's enticements to sin -- insidious temptations that must have seemed so sensible at the time - struggling mightily but never giving in.

     That was Jesus' story. Is it our story?  I believe it is the story of each one of us - the story of every follower of Christ. With this difference: all too often, we part company with Jesus by forsaking the struggle and taking the easy way out.  We would like our baptism to be some sort of inoculation against sin and life’s painful struggles. It isn’t, of course.  Our baptism is a passport to glory but it is no shortcut to glory. What baptism gives us is the Church: this community of believers to walk with us and support us on our journey and, of course, it gives us the assurance of God's grace, more powerful by far than even the most discouraging of human weaknesses.

     My friends, water does tell the story.  Water that drowns and destroys, water that cleanses, refreshes and gives life.  The story told by water is our story - the story of good mixed with evil, of sin washed by grace, of failure and triumph, of life and death.  No, I should have said "death and life" because in this particular story, no matter how it may seem to us now, in this particular story life - not death - always gets the last word!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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