Baptism takes us where we'd rather not go

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


May 18, 1998

To be baptized into the church is to be a consecrated, displaced person. What is implied here?

In John's Gospel, there is a revealing exchange between Jesus and Peter. Three times Jesus asks Peter: "Do you love me?" Three times, Peter replies that he does.

On the basis of that confession of love, Jesus tells him: "In truth I tell you, when you were young you gird your own belt and you walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will put a rope around you and take you where you would rather not go."

What has just been described is, in essence, Peter's baptism - and the dynamics of any real baptism into the church. Baptism consecrates us and consecration is a rope that takes us to where we would rather not go, namely, into the suffering that produces maturity.

This, however, needs explanation.

To consecrate means to set aside, to displace from ordinary usage, to derail from normalcy. Long before this has to do with sacred buildings, altars, chalices and vowed religious, it is descriptive of something within ordinary life.

Consider the following examples:

In the early 1960s, in New York City, there was an infamous murder. A woman was stabbed and murdered in Central Park while more than 30 people watched from their apartment windows. None of the onlookers called the police. They did not want to get involved.

Later, after this came to light, there was a debate as to how guilty these innocent onlookers really were. Were they not somehow guilty because they saw the murder and did nothing about it?

For a Christian the answer is clear. Seeing that woman being stabbed consecrated them, set them aside, displaced them, and derailed them from normalcy. At that moment, they lost their freedom and were conscripted to act.

If you look out of your window and see a person being stabbed in a park you are, in that instant, baptized and consecrated in the true meaning of those words. Up until that time, you could gird your belt and go where you liked, but now, seeing this, someone has put a rope around you and is taking you to where you would rather not go.

Tragically, that night, in New York, more than 30 people resisted their baptism. A woman died as a result.

But the best example of what church, baptism and consecration really mean is the example of having and raising children. A home is a church and, in a manner of speaking, we can say that most parents are baptized by their own children - and raised by them!

Imagine a typical scenario. A young woman and a young man meet, fall in love, and get married. At this stage of their lives they are fairly immature. Their agenda is their own happiness and, notwithstanding that they are good-hearted and sincere, they are both still selfish with the natural self-centredness of youth. Then, without realizing the implications of this for their lives, they begin to have children.

From the moment their first child is born, unless they are very calloused, they will, without necessarily wanting it, start to mature. What happens is that for the next 25 to 50 years, every time they turn around, a number of tiny and not so tiny hands will be stretched out, demanding something of them - their time, their energy, their money, their car keys, their understanding, their hearts. Whether they want to or not, they will mature.

For 25 years to 50 years they will be forced, by a clear conscription, to think of others before themselves. All those years of practice will eventually pay dividends. Normally, by the time their children are grown, parents are mature.

And, during all these years of having and raising children, they are, in the deep meaning of those terms, consecrated, displaced and baptized. They are at the scene of an accident that has usurped their freedom and made them put their normal, perfectly legitimate, agenda on hold.

Instead of their normal agenda, they are conscriptively asked to make sacrifices in lifestyle, career, hobbies, meals out, vacations and so on. Their children stand before them daily, like Jesus before Peter, asking: "Do you love me?"

If the parents say "yes" then, biblically speaking, the children reply: "Until now, you have gird your belts and walked wherever you wanted to, but now we are putting a rope around you and taking you where you would rather not go, namely, out of your natural selfishness and into self-sacrificing maturity."

Such is baptism. When St. Paul became a Christian, Ananias was sent to him with the message: "Tell him how much he will have to suffer for the name."

Love is baptismal. Immediately upon confessing it, our freedom is derailed and, painful though it may be, we are taken by conscription into maturity.