Baptism…By Fire

Augustus, Sofia and Callie (ASC, for short) were baptized by me. (Not Christian names but that’s a different sermon.) Actually, I mean those three were baptized by all those gathered at that early 8:00 a.m. Mass here at St. Sebastian Catholic Church back in November 2016. So very young attentive eyes staring up at me while I poured water on their growing hairs, three times; one for each person of the Trinity.

The other day I received a cute picture of a young kid talking on the phone saying, “So today, in church, a guy in a dress tried to drown me. And, I kid you not, my family just stood there taking pictures!”

Parents and Godparents beaming with joy as I place the oil on the crown of their heads proclaiming them to one day act as “priests, prophets, and kings.” Their beautiful white garments are then acknowledged with the word, “dignity” when presented into eternal life; occurring at a hopefully far—far-off date. We all offer a welcoming clap and then we are re-sprinkled to remind ourselves of what we may have forgotten or were told about how many years ago.

Baptized. These three are now freed from that leafy-clothed couple that haunts and under-scores our whole religious lives.  (I thought an “apple a day kept the doctor away!”) Baptized now and soon to be living in a world that few of us will witness.

ASC will never hear a revolving record skip (or the sound of the needle at the end of the song going “sshh,sshh,sshh.” Will they have self-driven cars? ASC will never wait for a neighbor to finish a telephone call before making their own. In their time, they will only touch their chests to activate the implant to receive an incoming telephone call and then see the person they’re talking to in their glasses. ASC will probably never wait for a bus, replaced with some super-studded transport system. ASC will not need to take their shoes off at the airport because newer disasters will lead to newer measures. And, the best of all, ASC will never know that it’s time to go home when the street lights come on.

The first “Black” president and first “woman” president”? Forgotten footnotes to them because so many will have come and gone since our time.

ASC will need to care for their parents as their parents cared for them. Nursing homes during their time will look more like a golf resort if they can afford it. Or worse still, collective housing in “that side” of town, right next to the noisy railroad. Or worsier still, medical methods will be commonplace to ease suffering and of course, quietly rid ourselves of our aged burdens. (Yes, I used the word “burdens” to describe parents in the future.)

Will there still be that awful title, “Third World” or will we have finally solved poverty and hunger? Will there still be “those guys” on 76th and Capital and North Avenue and Highway 100 wishing us a “Happy New Year and Anything Can Help” on his cardboard sign? And, the most piercing question about their adulthood will be, “Is ‘I Love Lucy’” still playing every minute of every day somewhere in the world?

Baptized with water. That’s John the Baptist to Jesus. (From now on, I want to be called “Joe the Priest.”) Baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit? Now we’re talking about Jesus Christ. Baptized. A one-time event? Yeah, right!
When does (or better yet, “when did”) Jesus Christ fully baptize you with that fire and the power of the Holy Spirit?

1240 WOMT radio in Manitowoc. Seventeen years old. It’s 6:30 on Saturday and the previous announcer whisks himself out the door leaving me all alone until midnight. All alone. My first time on the radio, junior in high school. Two turntables and lots of rock songs to play. I forget to turn the microphone on the first time and begin talking. True story! The Vietnam War continues and with my stuttering problem I could not say, “Strategic Arms Limitations Talks.” I used the acronym “SALT talks.” Redundant but still. Because of me, folks in Manitowoc thought there was a shortage of salt.

Friday night I watched “Lilies of the Field” in honor of Sidney Poitier. His professional life was an authentic baptism by fire for a Black performer back then and the movie illustrates it as well. A strong German nun convinces him, every step of the way, to build a chapel when he constantly says, “No.” I tear up each and every time. (Amazon Prime and it’s free!) He even frees himself from the nuns but in three weeks returns to be faithful to those baptismal promises.

We never know when a very scary or a very wonderful exhilarating opportunity presents itself in our lives. Or a daunting obstacle stands in our way. Or a severe challenge presents itself in our lives. Or, we feel tested and tired beyond our controls when baptism has no perimeters. Here’s my short list but feel free to add your own.

A new mom with a colicky baby. Your first speech in front of the class and you swear that you are, indeed, not wearing pants. A mother of two youngsters loses her husband to cancer. A parent is the last to leave the cemetery after burying her son or daughter. A fresh nurse at the hospital is asked to work an additional shift – in the ER. Your husband who always seems to be two drinks ahead of you. Waiting for your doctor’s call about your prognosis caused by your diagnosis. (Or my favorite of all) The sixty-year-old daughter becomes the parent to her eighty-five-year-old mother. “Eat your vegetables!” The daughter-now-a-parent demands. “I don’t wanna!” The former parent replies. Fiery Baptisms. Full of fire and the power of the Holy Spirit.

I said some of this back in 2016. ASC don’t remember that day, only what their parents told them on its anniversary; if they even remember the date. “You were so cute and you didn’t cry,” will be repeated until ASC think they actually remember it. The baptism was performed by a priest whose name will escape the parents. I don’t mind. “What was that guy’s name? Sounded Polish. And, he thought he was funny!”

“Baptism by fire,” when the real of life makes life … real for us. When the water, fire, and the Holy Spirit unite within us providing the fortitude and strength to see us through absolutely and anything. A phrase I often use now as I get older, “what we do to life and what life does to us.”

Just like those three callings of Baptism years ago, we were all commissioned to be a “priest, prophet, king,” each in our own way, for the way of our times. As priest: honoring the “now” for any time is sacred. As prophet: keeping a Christian’s wide eye and a listening ear, for the Godly right and the oftentimes wrong – to what the future may be because of what happens now. As king: to serve the least among us and be constantly conscious for the common good of all, especially the less fortunate.

Tall orders for three infants wondering why their heads are wet on that early morning in 2016. And, also a tall order for us tall people who felt the same sprinkling from John the Baptist and then throughout life rely on Christ’s fire and the Holy Spirit. We slowly (sometimes even reluctantly) but gradually and gladly assumed those same Catholic Christian responsibilities.

Here’s how I ended that November Mass over six years ago. Being good Catholics when time is more important than prayer – three baptisms and a great sermon. This 8:00 a.m. Mass ended at 9:02.

About Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS.

A Roman Catholic priest since 1980 and a member of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians). Six books on the Catholic church and U.S. culture are available on
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