Last week I said “we celebrate our Lord’s adoration by the magi, his baptism and the wedding feast at Cana.” I’d been talking about Epiphany.
So how come this Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord? It seems redundant.
Basically, it’s because I’m a Catholic and an American. And because it’s been two millennia since our Lord gave Simon a new name and scary responsibility. (Matthew 16:16–19)
Quite a bit’s happened since then.
The Pax Romana ended with Commodus and the Year of the Five Emperors. (Yes, American politics could be worse.)
Constantine decriminalized Christianity. The Roman Empire transitioned from major power to nostalgic memory.1
Charlemagne was a major player in Europe when Pope St. Leo III was kidnapped.
A couple of Charlemagne’s envoys, backed by considerable muscle, interfered. Pope St. Leo III said Charlemagne was Emperor of the Romans on Christmas in the year 800.
Likely enough, that’s when Charlemagne started calling his territory the Römisches Reich or Imperium Romanum, depending on which language was appropriate in context.
Either way, it’s “Roman Empire” in my language. It wasn’t the Holy Roman Empire until the Imperial Diet of Cologne’s 1512 decree. Or 1557, when Frederick I Barbarossa’s empire was called “holy” in some document.2
Like pretty much everything else involving humans, it’s complicated.
I’ll give Charlemagne and Frederick I Barbarossa credit for political savvy. “Roman Empire” arguably held considerable mystique in the early 9th century. The same goes for “Holy Roman Empire” in 1512. Or 1557. Or whenever.
I also think Voltaire had a point.
“Ce corps qui s’appelait et qui s’appelle encore le saint empire romain n’était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire.
“This body which called itself and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
(Voltaire, via Wikiquote)
Fast-forward about seven centuries from Charlemagne.
The Renaissance was getting traction. And someone you probably never heard of painted a triptych for Jan Des Trompes — a city treasurer with even less name recognition.
(From Gerard Davic, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail of Gerard David’s ‘baptism’ triptych. (ca. 1505))
Around the time Leonardo da Vinci was working on the Mona Lisa, Gerard David painted a triptych of our Lord’s baptism.
Gerard David was an Early Netherlandish or Flemish Primitive artist. He was unimaginative. Or a mere imitator of greater artists. Or progressive. Opinions vary.
He had a successful career, died in 1523 and was forgotten. Until the 1860s, and that’s another topic.
Anyway, Gerard David put Jan Des Trompes and his family in the baptism triptych. Plus St. Elizabeth of Hungary and others. Understandably, I figure, since Jan Des Trompes commissioned the piece.
There’s a lot of symbolism and imagery going on here, but what jumped out at me was the anachronistic clothing.
The Trompes women and girls are wearing what someone at the University of Vermont called “transitional gowns” — “Moving towards the square neckline, full sleeves, natural waistline and separate bodice and skirt construction of the 16th century.”3
And they’re wearing hoods. Sort of.
Everyday Clothing and Monastic Uniforms
European men’s and women’s headwear varied from utilitarian scarves to escoffions and hennins — those things that look like birds’ nests and steeples.
Liripipes, too. And guimpes.
Apparel above and beyond reason inspired sumptuary laws. Lawmakers probably had other motives, too.
Rules about clothing and accessories have been around at least since Zaleucus wrote that a freeborn woman couldn’t have more than one slave tagging along, unless she was drunk. The freeborn woman, that is. And I’m drifting off-topic.
The Trompes headgear might be wimples, if they’d wrapped around the neck and chin. The headgear, I mean.
The ladies’ wardrobe was normal for moderately prosperous women in Europe during the early 1500s. But not the river Jordan’s banks in John the Baptist’s day. To my eye, it’s like a picture of Charlemagne in a belted tunic accompanied by someone wearing a jumpsuit.
Five centuries after Gerard David painted them, the transitional gowns and hoods look vaguely monastic.
That’s because many of today’s monastic uniforms began as everyday clothing. And everyday clothing has changed since St. Pachomius defined the Pachomian habit.
More than a dozen centuries after St. Pachomius, we’ve accumulated a vast supply of traditions (lower-case “t”) and rules. Some of them are still in use, some aren’t.
If the traditions didn’t exist, my guess is that members of a monastic order starting today would be wearing jeans and flannel shirts during the 25th century.
And that’s yet another topic.4
Jesus at the Jordan
Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about our Lord’s baptism. (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 2:21–22)
John’s gospel reports what John the Baptist said about Jesus.
John the Baptist’s description of the Spirit coming down like a dove sounds like what’s in the other three gospels. (John 1:28–34)
Some “Baptism of Jesus” pictures look like Gerard David’s. Some don’t. Artistic styles have changed at least as much as clothing.
But the “Baptism” pictures I’ve seen have one thing in common.
Pretty much everyone present is presentable. They’re the sort of folks you’d expect to see in a Bible study or church choir. Decent. Well-respected.
The Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Baptist were presentable. By conventional standards. John the Baptist offered another perspective.
“When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?…”
That must have stung.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were rubbing elbows with tax collectors, (Roman) soldiers and prostitutes. (Matthew 21:32; Luke 3:10–14; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 535)
And this itinerant preacher with scruffy clothes was calling them a brood of vipers?!
Maybe I’m being unfair about their motives. Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism might have realized that their lives didn’t match their clique’s squeaky-clean standards. And have been willing to admit it and repent.
Jesus on Nazareth was another matter. Our Lord didn’t need “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3)
So what was Jesus doing there?
I figure our Lord was identifying himself with sinners and starting his public ministry with a memorable and significant event. Our Lord’s baptism with water also prefigured his baptism by blood. And ‘fulfilled all righteousness.’ (Catechism, 528, 535–537)
There’s more to it, of course.5
Baptism, Rescheduling and Something New
Baptism is important. Necessary.
It’s the first sacrament.
My baptism freed me from consequences of a really bad decision made by the first of us.
About that: Original sin isn’t the notion that we’re garbage. (September 19, 2018)
Our nature is wounded, not corrupted. We’re still made “in the divine image.” (April 23, 2017)
My baptism was a rebirth in the Spirit. It makes entering the kingdom of God an option for me. (Catechism, 1213–1274)
Like I said, baptism is important. Necessary. For me.
For Jesus of Nazareth, Son of the Living God, not so much.
Not for the same reasons, at any rate. God’s God, I’m not. Although I accepted God’s offer of adoption, and that’s yet again another topic. (April 21, 2019)
Which gets me back to Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Celebrating that event started as part of Epiphany. Centuries rolled by, and folks in my branch of Christendom got focused on the Magi during Epiphany.
I gather that rescheduling the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord as a separate celebration happened in the 20th century.
That probably upset folks who liked the Tridentine Calendar. And the Tridentine Calendar probably upset folks who thought the Council of Trent was a bad idea.
Then, in 2002, Pope St. John Paul II added five luminous mysteries to the rosary. The Baptism of our Lord is the first of them.
The Tridentine Calendar, Vatican II and Pope St. John Paul II’s luminous mysteries changed how we worship. Changed details. But not the essential details.6
An “Indelible Spiritual Mark”
Again, I think baptism is necessary.
It’s the sacrament that makes it possible for me to enter the kingdom of God.
When I became a Catholic, I didn’t have to decide whether or not to be baptized.
My parents had baptized me as an infant, in a mainstream Protestant church.
Baptism is a one-time thing. Mine left me with an “indelible spiritual mark” that can’t be erased. Or repeated. (Catechism, 1272)
Baptism isn’t a ‘get out of hell free’ card or a guarantee that I’ll enter heaven.
I have free will. I decide to act as if what I believe is true — or not. Then, at my particular judgement, I’ll decide whether or not to finally accept salvation. (Catechism, 1020–1050; 1730–1742)
Opting out of heaven strikes me as a daft idea, but it’s possible. (September 30, 2018; March 11, 2018)
Options, Knowledge and Hope
Given how I see baptism, you’d expect that my kids would have been baptized.
Four have been. Two haven’t.
My wife and I lost Joy in a miscarriage. Elizabeth died just before birth. The family almost lost my wife that time, too.
In each case, our child was not baptized.
I’m not happy about that.
But I don’t see how I could have arranged for them to receive the sacrament.
Things were hectic both times: particularly with Elizabeth’s stillbirth. And each time I didn’t know something was amiss until after they were dead.
The rules say I shouldn’t delay baptism if an infant is in danger of death. (Code of Canon Law, Book IV, Part I, Title I, Chapter III, 867–868)
But baptizing someone who’s already dead? That’s not an option. Not for Catholics.
So, what’s happened to my two dead children?
The short answer is — I don’t know.
I’ve seen assertions that Catholics believe unbaptized infants go to hell. Maybe some Catholics believe that, but it’s not what the Church says.
The last I checked, the Church’s position on unbaptized infants is that we don’t know. And that the matter is still being discussed.
The notion that unbaptized kids go to hell probably comes from scholarly speculations during Europe’s Middle Ages. Putting it simply, the situation is not simple. Anything but.7
Looking at it from another angle, it is simple.
I couldn’t have Joy and Elizabeth baptized. They’re dead. So I must do what the Church does: “…entrust them to the mercy of God….” (Catechism, 1261)
Which is pretty much what I have to do about myself. And that’s still another topic:
1 “The grandeur that was Rome” (“To Hellen,” E. A. Poe)
2 Empires, politics and all that:
3 Anachronistic art:
4 Clothing, rules and change:
- Religious Habit
Encyclopedia.com (Updated December 9, 2019)
- My take
5 Baptism of Jesus:
6 Baptism and a feast:
7 What we known, what we don’t knonw:
- From the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Roman Curia
- From my perspective