With the odd placement this year of Christmas on a Monday, the liturgical calendar did some fancy maneuvering to adjust the various feasts surrounding the Nativity of Jesus Christ. In particular, and perhaps most unsettling, was the relocation of the solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism. Rather than being on a Sunday, it was moved to a Monday observance, which means – for all intents and purposes – it was missed by the vast majority of believers.
But who cares if the Baptism of the Lord was missed? Could it provide us with any real help or guidance?
In looking at trends in Western culture today, we can observe a veiled desire for transcendental things, such as an intense drive for permanence and personal identity. As many things are transient, temporary, or unstable in our world, people are actively searching for ways to express the things of the heart that they hope are free from change and not just conditional.
This impetus can be seen in many ways but is clearly recognized in the tattoo frenzy throughout our society. Rich and poor, men and women, liberals and conservatives, it seems tattoos are everywhere, on everyone, and all over people’s bodies. From rock stars, servers at restaurants, businesspeople, department store managers, politicians, educators, medical doctors and nurses, and even some young clergy, what was once the sole public expression of military units has become a common symbol in Western culture today.
The amazing, transcendental thing is that every tattoo has a story. Ask someone why he has a particular tattoo, and get ready for a heartfelt narrative that usually ends with a desire to keep a story, lesson, or loved one as a part of him and his life. In essence, get ready for a veiled expression for permanence, an implicit cry of the heart, “I don’t want this event or this person to go away,” or a push for personal identity, a statement of sorts, “This is who I am and I want you to know me.”
In this cultural reality, the Baptism of the Lord has a flowing message for us. It offers refreshment and consolation to those who desire continuity and perpetuity.
As observed by Pope Francis, the sacred event marks when Jesus showed his own availability “to immerse himself in the river of humanity, to take upon himself the shortcomings and weaknesses of men, to share with them the desire for freedom and of overcoming everything that distances us from God and makes us strangers to our brothers.”
The event, therefore, is a call to encounter the eternal Lord and to live the graces of our baptism. These graces include what theology terms a character. Not a character as in a drama, but a character as in “an indelible sign imprinted upon the soul.”
Such an expression might sound impressive to liturgical theologians, but what does it even mean? Indelible sign, what?
Instead of relying solely on traditional definitions, how about we take the truths of our baptism and apply them to this cultural phenomena? Rather than calling the character of our baptism an indelible sign, let’s rephrase things and call it a “tattoo of the soul.”
In presenting sacramental truth in this way, people might begin to understand that there’s more offered by baptism and the life of faith than what they might assume. Imagine a tattoo that does not fade or age? One that will not decompose with death?
Baptism offers us this tattoo. It marks us as one who possesses an everlasting union with God. It also establishes an eternal relationship between us and others who have been given, or are searching for, this same spiritual tattoo. Theology calls this the communion of saints.
This communion is far more permanent and identifying than anything that this passing world can offer to any of us. This is an occasion when the skills of a human tattoo artist give way to the beauty of the divine Artist of our souls, who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
The solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism, therefore, retrieves these truths and renews the Lord’s work among us. Tattoos of the body have their place, and they can be a cherished expression of the treasures of our hearts but, in spite of any effort, they will pass with time.
And that’s okay, because we’re offered more. The mark of our baptism, our spiritual tattoo, will endure into eternity and, when lived and fanned into flame, unites us to God and to others. It rejuvenates us and offers us peace.