Column: Christian baptism builds on the baptism of John

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

The strong winds that often inflict themselves upon our state of Kansas can be very annoying.

It is difficult to rake leaves in the midst of a hurricane-strength gale. If we have an ice storm, the wind can pull down tree branches and electric lines.

On the other hand, it is possible to harness the wind, to put it to work. The wind can turn giant windmills to generate electricity. With some planning, we can convert the wind from a bothersome, sometimes destructive, force into a largely positive one.

There is nothing new about this. For centuries, human beings have attempted to make the wind serve them. The wind has filled the sails of ships to propel them across the ocean. The wind has dried clothing hung outside on a line.

The wind has even been used to separate the chaff from grain. This process, called winnowing, provides a powerful image in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 3:10-18. John the Baptist describes the role of the long-expected Messiah:

“His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The winnowing fan was a large, three-pronged wooden fork, the size of a pitchfork. The farmer would use it to toss the threshed wheat into the air. The wind would carry away the chaff, while the grain fell to the ground.

This image of winnowing describes the process of separation of the good from the bad. It fits in well with the stern theme of judgment enunciated in John’s preaching. At the same time, the image of winnowing helps to clarify the phrase “the Holy Spirit and fire.” In Greek (and in Hebrew), the word for spirit is the same as the word for wind.

John contrasts himself with the Messiah yet to arrive: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We distinguish the Christian sacrament of baptism from the baptism performed by John the Baptist. The Christian sacrament incorporates the person baptized into the church. It puts a permanent seal upon that person and claims him or her as an adopted son or daughter of God.

In contrast, the baptism by John expressed the repentance of the person baptized and did nothing more. While this was significant for the person’s spiritual life, it fell short of what the sacrament would accomplish. Because of the words ascribed to John in our Gospel reading, we often look upon the Holy Spirit as the missing ingredient in his baptisms.

At the same time, we should remember that Christian baptism builds upon the baptism of John. The sacrament washes away sin, but also presumes a spirit of repentance. It reminds us that the Christian life involves a continual self-examination, to make sure that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, that we live according to his teachings. That is what John the Baptist is calling us to, as he exhorts us to repent.

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