In his novel Roots, Alex Haley chronicles his family’s history across seven generations, beginning with his ancestor Kunta Kinte who was captured from his village in Gambia and sold into slavery in America.
The story begins with Haley’s recounting the African naming ceremony that takes place eight days after Kunta Kinte’s birth. The name is both a gift and a challenge: the entire village comes together to pray that God will give, the child a long and happy life, the love of a wife and children of his own someday, and the respect of his village and tribe – and, finally, the-strength and the spirit to bring honour to the name he was about to receive.
Haley describes the gathering of the tribe at which Omoro gives his firstborn son the name Kunta: “Omoro lifted up the infant and as all watched, whispered three times into his son’s ear the name he had chosen for him. It was the first time the name had ever been spoken as this child’s name, for Omoro’s people felt that each human being should be the first to know who we are and whose we are.”
Then Omoro solemnly carried his son to the edge of the village to complete the naming ritual. There he lifted his baby-up with his face to the heavens and said softly to the child: ‘Behold, the only thing greater than yourself”
In baptism, we become part of the “only thing” greater than ourselves: God. The same Spirit that “descended” upon Jesus as he was baptized at the Jordan descends upon us as we are raised up from the waters of this font and will remain with us every day of our lives.
In baptism, we are given the name of Christ. In Christ, we come to realize who we are and whose we are: sons and daughters of God. In baptism, we take on the work and responsibility of the name of Christ we receive: to live for others rather than ourselves, to seek the will of God in ail things. But this baptism is not just a naming ceremony – it is the beginning of a commitment that continues every day of our journey to the dwelling place of God.
Baptism calls us to declare, without hesitation or equivocation, that we are disciples of the-Jesus of the Gospel of justice, reconciliation and servanthood.
The Christmas season officially comes to an end today at the banks of the Jordan River with Jesus’ baptism by John. But the Messiah remains. Jesus is no longer the child in a Bethlehem manger but the adult Redeemer making his way to Jerusalem. The good news spoken by the angels continues to unfold; the most wondrous part of the Christ story is yet to be revealed. As God expresses his pleasure in his Beloved Son at Jesus’ baptism in today’s Gospel, God speaks his same joy and love in our own simple and ordinary attempts to imitate Jesus’ compassion, justice and reconciliation. May the Spirit we received at our own baptisms continue to move us to do the work of Jesus’ Gospel, to “tear open the heavens” and give voice to the love of God in our homes and schools and communities and churches.
Let our prayer on this feast of the Baptism of our Lord be:
Raise us your children, up out of the waters of baptism, O God,
and send down your Spirit to dwell within our hearts.
May we live a life of humble gratitude and integrity,
always aware that your love is a power greater than anything we possess of our own;
may we struggle to live faithfully the Gospel of your beloved Son
make us worthy of our calling to bear the name of being a Christian.