15 February 2010

The Best Valentine's Day Card Ever

What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with baptism? That's what the Donato family did this year with the baptism of Zachary Dylan, our second boy born 30 November 2009. Nor can I think of a better lens through which to view Valentine's Day than the waters of baptism: Along with the Word and the Word made visible in Holy Communion, nothing says "I love you" more than those precious waters.

Why not, then, reflect a bit further on this most gracious work of God through Christ by his Spirit, and why not do so through another (though lesser) means of grace—poetry?

George Herbert, seventeenth-century Anglican poet, will show us the way:

"H. Baptism (I)"

As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,

Which is above the heav'ns, whose spring and vent
Is in my dear Redeemer's pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,

Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime:
You taught the Book of Life my name, that so,

Whatever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.

So, then, Holy Baptism is the best Valentine's Day card ever, because it's from the triune God who says, "I love you," as he washes, sanctifies (sets apart for holy use), and declares that all the blessings of his holy covenant are the recipient's in Christ. For both infants and adults, it is the public declaration of that person's membership in this "better" covenant (Heb. 8:6) and thus identifies that person with Christ (see, e.g., Rom 6:1–12).

It is for this reason that whenever the baptized finds himself walking in shadow—cold, hollow, distant—in a "dark and shady grove" (l. 1), he must needs look "beyond it on the sky" (just as any traveler does who finds himself in a gloomy wood). Faced with the depths of our continuing struggle with sin, our condition as simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously put right with God and yet sinful, or, put differently, at one and the same time declared not guilty and yet still dabbling in criminal activities), Herbert suggests he (and thus we, the baptized) look backward and "to that water fly" (l. 4). In other words, remembering our baptism helps us in times of doubt, providing assurance of God's favor. How? Because baptism (and Holy Communion) are graceful signs (not mere witnesses or memorials) of the objective promises of the gospel. That is to say, baptism and the Lord's Supper, as the visible Word, convey the finished work of Christ. This is why Martin Luther could answer, "I am baptized," when faced with doubt; he understood that through the sign of baptism the objective, completed faithfulness of Jesus was promised to him (no doubt individually authenticated by God's Spirit).

The water of baptism points to and has as its very source our "dear Redeemer's pierced side" (l. 6), precisely because the rite of baptism itself could never effect—apart from faith—the blessings of which Herbert speaks. Possibly, the poet has in mind the now less popular interpretation of 1 John 5:6–8, where the testimony of the "water and the blood" is deemed a thinly veiled reference to the waters of baptism and the blood (wine) of the Eucharist, which finds its source in the blood and water that flowed from Jesus' side on the cross (John 19:33–35). In this view, the very energizing moment of the Christian life by God's Spirit is found in the outpouring of those "blessed streams" (l. 7) pouring out of Christ's side while hanging dead on the cross. Thus, our resurrected Lord either graciously restrains the baptized (i.e., baptism serves as a deterrent to sin as we contemplate what it means), from constant and unrepentant sins (ll. 7–8), or else he gives repentant "tears to drown them, as they grow" (l. 9)—which suggests, properly, that the benefits of baptism do not serve those who sin "with a high hand." Herein lies the mystery of salvation—the "one-way love of God" (to borrow a phrase from Paul Zahl), that is, the love of God for human beings who have done nothing to deserve it.

And this love isn't a one-shot deal, which is part of the point of looking back to our baptisms when we face doubt, struggle, detachment, and brokenness. It's not finally dependent on us; it's not conditional. Such redemptive love is a free gift that covers the entire life of the baptized—it "measures all my time and spreads the plaster equal to the crime" (ll. 10–11). That is to say, our continuing sinfulness no longer defines us; it cannot remove us from the love of God in Christ, precisely because God has promised, and he's the only person able to keep it (by ever-faithfully applying to us the "[medicinal] plaster," the waters by which our sins are sent away, Acts 2:38).

The goal of eternal life in Christ—for all of creation, not least God's people—rests on the utter faithfulness of our covenant Lord. Baptism (along with communion and the Word) is God's way of showing that faithfulness. He is the one who writes the names of his elect on the heavenly register (the "Book of Life," l. 12), so that all "future sins" (l. 13), our post-baptismal sins, cannot enslave us once again to that evil taskmaster, or life under that old man, Adam (see again Rom 6). Our identification lies with the second Adam, even Jesus the Messiah (Col 3:3), and so in baptism, which "discredits all" those sins (l. 14, for babies, it's their "first acquaintance" with divine grace), God actually sets apart a people who are thus called to start living like humans once again. Therefore, to live in accordance with our baptisms is to fulfill the destiny for which we were created—the theocentric (God-centered) life that participates in the very mystery of God (becoming "partakers of the divine nature," see 2 Pet 1:3–4).

On each Valentine's Day, and indeed every day, let us strive to embody our destiny as lovers who love because the God who is love first loved us and poured love for him into our hearts (1 Jn 4:8, 19; Rom 5:5). Let us strive to remember, and not diminish, God's Valentine's Day card to us—our baptisms—and thus live now, as best we can in this present darkness (this "dark and shady grove"), like it's the future we've inherited—the very future of our triune God, the blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Evan said...


Chris Donato said...

Thanks, Evan!

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