I often find myself these days praying the Apostles’ Creed and dwelling especially on that first statement: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” I need to strengthen my belief that God created our world, sustains it in being and guides it to glory.
Two different versions of the creed have come down through the centuries. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest, still in use today. It’s a summary of faith given to men and women who were being baptized in the early church to help them remember Christian belief. It summarized a faith taught by the apostles.
I like that creed because it’s so simple. In the Catholic church it can be used in the liturgy during Lent and at other times in place of the Nicene Creed. It’s traditionally said at the beginning of the rosary. Prayer books recommend we say it at the beginning of prayer. Good idea.
In a sermon preached in 4th century to prepare people for baptism, St. Cyril of Jerusalem said the creed is related to the scriptures and the rest of the things in church.
“Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, some because they have never learned to read, others because their daily activities keep them from such study, still so that their souls will not be lost through ignorance, we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles…
“So for the present be content to listen to the simple words of the creed and to memorize them; at some suitable time you can find the proof of each article in the Scriptures. This summary of the faith was not composed at man’s whim, the most important sections were chosen from the whole Scripture to constitute and complete a comprehensive statement of the faith.
“Just as the mustard seed contains in a small grain many branches, so this brief statement of the faith keeps in its heart, as it were, all the religious truth to be found in Old and New Testament alike. That is why, my sisters and brothers, you must consider and preserve the traditions you are now receiving. Inscribe them in your heart.”
The creed sums up all our belief; like a searchlight it gives power to see so much more, it leads us into the most profound mysteries, and at the same time in its simplicity it helps us find our way through an often bewildering world. The creed is something we can fall back on to go forward.
Here’s the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
who was conceived by
the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again
from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and is seat at the right hand
of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge
the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy, catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and life everlasting. Amen
In his sermons on the sacraments, which he preached to some newly baptized, St. Ambrose in the 4th century shows a keen appreciation of the power and weakness of signs. They signify so much, but we find them hard to accept. “Is this it?” he hears them say as they approach the waters of baptism.
We’re reminded that encountering God through sacraments, which Pope Francis describes in his letter Desiderio Desideravi as weakened today by our lack of a symbolic sense, has always been difficult for human beings who, like Thomas, want to see.
Ambrose calls on stories of the Old Testament: the Israelites were saved as they flee from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, the cloud that guides them on their way–foreshadowing the Holy Spirit, the wood that makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet–the mystery of the Cross.
“You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes. What is not seen is in reality seen more clearly; for what we see with our eyes is temporal whereas what is eternal (and invisible to the eye) is discerned by the mind and spirit.” (On the mysteries)
Remember Namaan’s doubt as the Assyrian general stood before the healing waters of the Jordan, Ambrose reminds his hearers. There’s more here than you see or think.
So we’re invited into an unseen world. Still, aren’t we also like those whom the saint addressed? Is this it? Maybe more so, for schooled as we are in the ways of science and fact, we look for proof from what our eyes see. We live in a world that tells us what we see is all there is.
And now it’s a world made more untrustworthy by the Covid19 pandemic. Are sacramental signs, taken from creation, now less trustworthy?
Faith is a search for what we don’t see. God desires to approach us through signs. Will he not help us approach him that way? Believe, God says.
The land where Jesus lived spoke to him and inspired so many of the parables he taught. Did the water speak to him too? Jesus went into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized Mark’s Gospel says, and he heard his Father’s voice and the Spirit rested on him. His ministry continued around the Sea of Galilee. The towns he visited were there; he taught on its shores. He traveled its waters and encountered its storms. He called disciples there.
Pilgrims today still look quietly on those waters when they visit this holy place. From the mountains above, the Sea of Galilee becomes a stage for gospel stories heard before. The waters of the Jordan flowing into it and out on their way to the Dead Sea remind them how realistic the mysteries of faith are. Fishermen, along with cormorants and herons, still fish the waters. At night, a stillness centuries old, takes over.
.Jesus began his ministry here. This land and its waters spoke to him.
The Jordan River figures in many of scriptures’ sacred stories and it’s still vital to this land today. It winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south. The direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.
The Jordan is sacred to Jews from the time they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he found safety from his enemies there.
Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from the Jordan area, told Naaman a Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.
At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee were guided by the Jordan on their way to Jericho and then to Jerusalem and its temple.
The Jordan Today
The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Jordan nourished prophets in the past. Somewhere near Jericho where people forded the river John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City. The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate, but this uncultivated place taught you to depend on what God provided.
Jesus taught this too. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, he acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is, was a holy sign of life. Like the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.
The Jordan after Jesus
Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.
Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD, left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism. Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:
“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.
“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73
A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan
Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie, described Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.
“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.
“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…
“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)
The Jordan and Christian Baptism
Today, every Catholic parish church at its baptistery celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer calling their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”
Today the most authentic site of Jesus’ Baptism, according to archeologists, is in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center has been built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.
The Jordan River offers a commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism. At one end of the river is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.
Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.
An interesting homily on the Epiphany by St. Proclus of Constantinople of the Eastern Church.
“Today’s feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas… At Christmas the King puts on the royal robe of his body; at Epiphany the very source unfolds and, as it were, clothes the river.
On the feast of the Savior’s birth, the earth rejoiced because it bore the Lord in a manger; but on today’s feast the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”
Not only the Jordan but the sea and every river, the Nile, the rivers of Babylon, even the Hudson are blessed when Jesus is baptized.
The United States Geological Survey has a wonderful site on water. Water is everywhere, not only in the seas and rivers, but in the air, the foods we eat, even our bodies. 71% of the earth’s surface is water. 60% of our bodies is water. It’s a precious gift.
In the Sacrament of Baptism water’s a powerful sign that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, comes into creation bringing life.
Usually around this time one of the local New York papers carries the story of the Greek Archbishop of New York throwing a cross into the Hudson River, which is then retrieved by some hardy Greek divers.
The waters of the Hudson this time of year are like the world itself now, grim and cold, but they have Christ’s blessing, however it seems.
A gesture of optimism. I think the eastern church makes the case better than the western church. The waters are holy the world over. The Spirit is at work in the world already, even before the gospel gets there.
John the Baptist is a voice that passes away, according to St. Augustine: “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever.”
John’s “voice” passes away. He no longer baptizes at the Jordan River. He cedes to the Word, and so should we. Our voice passes away; something of ourselves has to go– some of the things we hold dear, the friends who surround us, the institutions that have upheld us. Our way must give way to God’s way.
We think so little of this.
Listen again to Augustine: “What does prepare the way mean, if not be humble in your thoughts? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.
“If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.
“He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.”
Does a flower make pronouncements? Does it define itself? Does it box itself in with titles, names, and distinctions?
And yet, “not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:29)
A flower simply exists.
And its existence glorifies God.
There is no need for it to do more.
By its very existence it magnifies what cannot be further magnified: God’s Presence, God’s Glory, God’s Beauty…
“I’m a flower.”
“I’m a rose.”
“Look at me!”
Statements such as these we shall never hear.
Flowers are divinely indifferent to the world’s definitions and distinctions, to its approval and applause.
After all, it’s a person who receives the medal at an orchid show, and not the flower herself. No, her finely-placed petals would only be weighed down by such metallic-based ribbons.
What a gift it is to simply exist.
Flowers don’t cling to seasonal life.
When it’s time to go, they gracefully drop their heads and lose their pedals.
Never has there existed a man as poor as a flower.
Never has mankind so possessed the richness of fleeting, transitory, and momentary life.
It’s their genius to instinctively believe that death leads to new abundant life.
Flowers graciously receive:
Ladybugs, drops of dew. Beams of light, the relief of shade.
Flowers give and receive as if not a single thing has ever been made by man.
They welcome sun as well as rain.
They never cry over fallen fruit or a stolen piece of pollen.
They quietly applaud instead, rejoicing that their little ones have the opportunity to travel abroad—perhaps even the chance to help nurture a neighbor.
A flower, perhaps most of all, knows it place.
It never wishes to be bigger or thinner…greener or higher…it never dreams of being more like a tree.
A flower’s blessing is simplicity beyond you and me.
Christ is a flower.
He is the one true perfect eternal flower, through whom all other flowers partake, toward whom all other flowers reach.
Christ is a flower. His ways are not our own. He simply exists. Bowing His head. Dropping pedals. Feeding hungry bees. Giving and receiving. His identity is crucified—leaving nothing behind but being “qua” being.
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
—Howard Hain . . (Dedicated to Brother Jim, a man who knew how to simply exist.)
In today’s reading at Mass from John’s gospel, Jewish officials and Pharisees from Jerusalem send representatives to John the Baptist as he’s baptizing in the Jordan River near Jericho asking “Who are you?” “Are you the Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet?” “Why are you baptizing?”
“I’m not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet,” John answers. “I am the voice crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. ’” John knew who he was and who he was not, and he wasn’t afraid to be the one God wanted him to be.
John could have followed his father, Zechariah, as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, a role passed on from father to son. But John chose a different course. God led him another way.
We don’t know when, but John went down to the Jordan Valley where the road ascended to Jerusalem, and preached to and baptized the crowds going up to Jerusalem to the temple of the Lord. The clothes he wore, his style of life set him apart from everyone else.
John didn’t care how he looked or what people thought of him. He certainly didn’t choose an easy place to be, a desert place. Later, Jesus praised his strength and determination.
To know who you are, you need to listen to God’s call, and evidently John did that. To speak the truth courageously, you need to depend on God’s strength, and evidently John did that too. He became a voice for God, even if he sounds at times like a drill sergeant readying people for the battle of the last days. He said unpopular things to powerful people and faced the consequences. Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea, arrested him and put him to death.
We’re like John whenever we ask God, “Who am I?” and listen for an answer. We’re like him whenever we use bravely the voice God gives us.
At the Masses I celebrated on Easter Sunday following the homily I cast holy water on the congregation after we renewed our baptismal promises. We renounced Satan and said we believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his son, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Yes, we believe in God’s church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Then, I went through the congregation sprinkling them with water, the sign of life, the sign poured out on us at our baptism. I tried not to leave anyone out.
Of course the church was more full on Easter. Some I knew smiled when I sprinkled them generously with the water. Many I didn’t recognize, and I wondered what they thought of it all. The kids squinted when the water hit their faces. Some devoutly made the sign of the cross, some seemed a little uncomfortable.
Easter’s more than hearing something; it’s believing what we hear. Does the water fall on rock and hard ground as well as on good soil I wondered? God promises to “pour out water” on his people, the scriptures say. It’s a generous gesture God makes. Water, too, makes its way we know. It’s everywhere in God’s creation. We hardly realize how present it is in us; it’s there in every tissue of our bodies. God is there in us all, seen and unseen.
So the rite of the church says: Sprinkle them all with water, and this I did.
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.
The tower attests the importance of the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.
In the Jordan River, God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.
We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:
Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.
Churches have stories, which is especially true of St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built. At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.
The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around 320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.
Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum, because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the traditional religions. Still, the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.
Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes where they met and worshipped.
That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)
So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.
That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)
An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery, a large building connected to the church itself, worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.
Those bound for heaven are born here,
born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.
Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.
No differences among those born here,
they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.
The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.
So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.
Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.
The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.
Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.
One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.
Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.