Preaching Baptism through Lent

Questions about the importance of baptism are in the air these days.

Some voices charge that this sacrament Jesus commanded us to “go and do” excludes people from full participation in the church. Lent is a perfect time to help the congregation you serve think about baptismal identity.

In the process, members may gain a renewed conviction about the importance of baptism. Lent is also a perfect time to refocus on the core of the church’s teachings and return to the sacrament that founds the church by God’s action rather than our own.

Let the words of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (ca. 350-387) — from his mystagogical sermon on the Roman 6 text read at the Vigil of Easter — invite you into hearing the Lenten readings this year with an ear for baptismal imagery. Cyril explains to the newly-baptized what has happened to them in the washing. “You made the saving profession of faith and three times you were immersed in the water and came up from it again. There in the font you symbolically re-enacted Christ’s three-day burial. . . . At the same moment you both died and were born; that saving water became your tomb but also your mother. . . [Y]our birth coincided with your death.”  This birth, as Cyril takes pains to insist, is as Paul writes, a sharing in Christ’s death.

From documents such as Cyril’s sermons, liturgical historians suggest that in the early church, the baptismal rite preceded explanation about it. If so, this would mean that, in fact, the liturgical action itself served as the primary theological statement. The sacrament of baptism spoke through water and the Word of God, the going under and coming up, the giving of light, the leading to the meal — all to say that the one who is baptized is now really, utterly new-born and ready to be fed the bread of life.

Each Sunday in Lent, the texts offer powerful windows into what baptism is, what it means, and how it changes the baptized, building up the body of Christ. Preaching baptism in Lent can pull from images already resident in the ecumenical lectionary, a gift preachers can never mine to its full depths. (No need to go elsewhere for something new!)

On the First Sunday in Lent, we hear stories of ending and beginning. As Jesus is baptized (Mark 1:9-15), all the waters of Earth are blessed by his presence and his astonishing identity is announced. In the flood, all the world is destroyed (Genesis 9:8-17) except for those in the ark. As the Lenten season begins, dying and rising are connected.

The second week extends this dying/rising to the covenantal tie between death and resurrection as Jesus tells of his impending suffering (Mark 8:31-38) and we hear of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:1-7,15-16) rich with new names, new identities, and a future of descendants.

The texts in the third week Jesus clears the temple and locates salvation in his own body (John 2:13-22) and God gives the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), promising, “I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, in baptism, God names God’s children, and then we eat the body we have become.

The fourth Sunday offers signs of healing through both the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) and Jesus lifted up for all to see (John 3:14-21): Baptism as ultimate wholeness.

Finally, the texts again connect dying and rising with the gift of a new law, declaring that a single grain must die in order to rise (John 12:20-33) and that God has given a new covenant: “I will put my law within them” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). With dying and rising present throughout the readings in Lent, the proclamation of God’s Word puts into our ears a theology of the cross. That precious perspective shows us that Christ is with those who suffer, that resurrection comes through first going under the waters, that there is no victory without defeat, and that dying/ rising comes before feasting.

The Epistle readings show the church its task in the light of the gospel, and that, too, can be understood each Sunday in Lent to describe baptismal identity. The imagery that most compels the focus for any Sunday, however, resides in the primary text, the Gospel, with the Old Testament reading paired to expand the themes. All of the meanings of baptism given by the church live in these texts: dying and rising, being washed, cleansed, purified, healed, forgiven, enlightened, and saved through the body of the risen Christ. 

In keeping with the ways of our ancestors, we have come in recent years to cherish Lent as a time to focus on teaching the catechism not only for raising up new sisters and brothers, preparing them for baptism at the Vigil of Easter, but also for deepening the faith of the baptized. Your preaching this Lent might aim at the baptismal character of life in Christ Jesus so that when the Vigil of Easter brings us to the baptism of catechumens or the Affirmation of Baptism for the baptized, everyone will arrive with the knowledge that this sacrament is foundational.

1Edward Yarnold, S.J., Cyril of Jerusalem (New York: Routledge Press, 2000), 174.