The gospel of the second Sunday in Advent takes us to the desert near the Jordan River, where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing in preparation for the coming of the Christ. John preaches judgment, the need for repentance, but he also says—as recorded in all the synoptic gospels—“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
It seems to be that often we are disciples of John more than we are disciples of Jesus. We understand the part about repentance and cleansing. In the ritual of baptism, we have preserved both elements: there is the water of cleansing, but there is also the anointing with the Chrism, the oil of the Holy Spirit, that gives the individual a mission.
It is a temptation in any organized religion to focus on the cleansing part. Sinfulness is understood as a private issue, dealing with private concerns, only about moral behavior. It is a temptation to constantly discuss who belongs (who is clean) and who does not. Think about the discussions surrounding communion for the divorced and remarried, for example. We know that one of Jesus’ contentions against the religious system of his time was precisely the obsession with purity and impurity. Following this mentality, we then focus on ritual and rule, and we end up believing that our being in good standing with God is a matter of fulfilling a few measurable precepts. Many operate within this framework because it is black and white, binary, simple. Or because we have been raised this way. But ask any pastor how church attendance goes down when a feast happens not to fall on a holy day of obligation—just to give another example of a byproduct of this mentality.
Embracing mission is much more difficult, because it is not simple, not easy, not binary. Reality is not binary, it does not understand the language of purity and impurity.
As we were preaching this in church this past weekend, we were taking our faith community into a process to discuss mission that has begun with three gatherings we called “brainstorming-mission” sessions. Approximately 20% of the people who come to Mass attended either of the sessions. Many ideas surfaced, and the discussion was very good. At the same time, you could also easily see the difficulty of moving away from understanding church as a place where I am to be served—instead of becoming places of service to others. Again, a very positive first step in our process, but one that showed the difficulty of engaging Catholics in discussing mission.
After the homily, we say the Creed. I did not realize until the third Mass of the weekend that when we say the Creed, we profess that we “confess one Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins.” I smiled. And I wondered if we could also profess that we believe in the baptism of mission, of Holy Spirit and fire, that John told us this weekend that Jesus preached about.