Sermon preached by the Rev. Dominique Peridans on the Feast of Saint Agnes
January 23, 2022
She was an incredibly beautiful girl, irresistibly beautiful to some. Her hand had several times been asked in marriage. Her faith was such, however, that she always declined, making it known that she already had a spouse by the name of Jesus.
Other suitors persisted, ill-intentioned. Yet, awed by her strong presence, they left her untouched—save one suitor who attempted to violate her. In so doing, he was miraculously struck blind. Her faith was such that she prayed for his blindness, and he was healed.
One of her suitors was Procop, the Governor's son. He tried to win her with promises and rich gifts, but the beautiful girl kept saying, “I am already promised to the Lord of the Universe. He is more splendid than the sun and the stars, and has said that He will never leave me!”
In great anger, Procop denounced her as a Christian and brought her to his father, the Governor. The Governor too promised her rich gifts, if only she would deny Christ. She refused. He tried to change her mind, to no avail. He put her in chains. He sent her to a brothel. At the last, she was condemned to death. Yet, she was as happy as a bride on her wedding day. Of her Divine Spouse she said, “He who chose me first shall be the only one to have me!" She then prayed and bowed her head for the death-stroke of the sword.
The day: January 21. The year: 304.
Her name: Agnes, derived from a Greek adjective meaning “pure, sacred”. Her age: 13.
She is the patroness of our parish, our strong sister along the way. When we come to church, it probably does not really cross our mind that she awaits us. She does.
She journeys with us, per the movement of the Holy Spirit, intervening insofar as we let her. Let her.
This gospel reveals one of her traits, which the Lord would like to forge in us: child- like-ness. This is revelation about becoming like children.
What happens in this gospel?
There is an interesting progression. The disciples, entrusted with great responsibilities, approach Jesus about greatness. “Can we all be board members for life?!?” Worldly and limited, sadly, is their perspective. They do have a good instinct, however. As Church Father, Origen (d. 254), exhorts,
“We ought to be imitators of the disciples: when any question of doubt arises among us, and we find not how to settle it, we should, with one consent, go to Jesus.”
The disciples rightly go to Jesus. When any question of doubt arises for us, personally or as a parish, we ought to go to Jesus. The disciples are entangled in concerns about greatness. And, as St. Jerome (+420) remarks,
“Jesus heals their ambitious strivings, by arousing an emulation in lowliness. He calls a child, whom he puts among them.”
And, with a living metaphor before their very eyes, Jesus cuts to the chase: Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Or, perhaps, case opened…
Child-like-ness. This is revelation about becoming like children. What is it about children that makes it possible to enter the kingdom of heaven, i.e. enter the life of the King? St. Hilary (+367) tells us
“Jesus calls infants all who believe through the hearing of faith; for infants follow and love their father and mother… do not bear hate, or speak lies…and believe what they hear to be true.”
Saint Jerome (+420) rephrases this:
“Unless you have innocence and purity of mind, you shall not to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And so we must ask, for example, regarding the life that we are called to live together here, as sisters and brothers: do I believe and trust or do I somehow sow seeds of doubt and division?
The revelation continues: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. The Holy Spirit wishes to transform our hearts, making us child-like, thus making us welcoming of the most vulnerable among us, in whom Jesus awaits us. Mysterious, liberating business this is that goes deeper and deeper.
About such children the vulnerable in whom He awaits us, Jesus speaks very strongly. He always does so when he lays His heart on the line.
If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
This was common Jewish punishment of the greater criminals. But, why is fastening a millstone and drowning better than putting a stumbling block? Perhaps because putting a stumbling-block before one of the little ones leads to death of the heart?
The Holy Spirit wishes to transform our hearts, making us child-like, then to become welcoming like we have been welcomed. I am safe in God’s lap, including the childish parts of me, and, from there, am now able to welcome whomever He brings across my path, into my life. By this mysterious fire of love at work in us, to which we much choose to yield each day, we can welcome the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.
Baptism: “Going Back Home”
Sermon prepared by the Rev. Dominique Peridans on the Baptism of Our Lord 2022
Four churches in a small Indiana town: Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic and Episcopal. All four, oddly, are overrun with pesky squirrels.
The Presbyterians, after much prayer and consideration, determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and didn’t want to interfere with God's will.
The Methodists had to deal with the squirrels inhabiting the Baptismal font. Theirs was a very practical approach: cover the font. The squirrels, however, managed to move it and there were twice as many squirrels the next week.
The Catholics decided that they didn’t want to harm any of God's creation. So they trapped the squirrels and set them free outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.
The Episcopalians had the most effective solution. They baptized the squirrels and registered them as parishioners. Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.
Speaking of Baptism, today we celebrate that of our Lord. Two questions, however, immediately arise for me, both of which may have a same answer.
We could at least have some chronology, even if Jesus’ childhood and adolescence are very largely hidden: the presentation of 40-day-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the finding of 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple... a soccer game or two…
The jump in time is actually not a problem because we are not recreating history, but, rather, celebrating the mystery of Jesus. This is another manifestation, a revelation.
Why is Jesus even being baptized?
He is the author of Baptism because the “author of our salvation”. He is “full of grace” (John 1:14), and grace is what we believe Baptism confers. This is another manifestation, a revelation. Notice “the heaven was opened”, the mystery of God revealed. The Holy Spirit, like a dove, that is to say, full of gentle love, descends, confirming the divine origin of Jesus. Then, “a voice came from heaven”, expressing divine delight: the Father. Son, Holy Spirit, Father. This epiphany is not only of Jesus but of the Trinity. It is the first explicit New Testament revelation of the Trinity.
There is another reason for Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus is to make use of John’s Baptism, the Baptism of repentance at the threshold of the New Covenant, to institute a Baptism that confers grace, the Baptism.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, 13th century, says
“Jesus wished to be baptized with a baptism which He clearly needed not, that those who needed it might approach unto it.”
Thus, in being baptized, Jesus makes a promise: to use the simple element of water to communicate divine life in a special way. A guaranteed encounter with the Triune God. (James Boylan soon will have this!) An encounter so guaranteed, that it led Saint Isidore, ancient Christian philosopher, Bishop of Seville, Spain, who died in 636—and who, by the way, invented the period, the comma and the colon—to say that “Baptism is not the work of man but of Christ, and this sacrament is so holy that it would not be defiled, even if the minister were a murderer.”
Those Baptismal waters led American singer-songwriter, Nina Simone, to sing
Take me to the water To be, to be baptized
I'm going back home, going back home Gonna stay here no longer
I'm going back home, going back home
Baptism confers grace to us, and grace grants us a share in God’s life, home. Indeed, the Baptism of Jesus reveals this. Jesus comes to be Baptized in the Jordan, through which the Israelites entered the Promised Land. By grace, and thus through Baptism, we enter the “Promised Land”, nothing less than God’s very own life, home.
Today, we celebrate
Jesus is the Beloved, in whom, we are the beloved. Each of us is a beloved child of God. God has given us everything, so that we be born again and share in His life
—which means a happiness deep in the heart that no one/nothing can take away. We must, of course, cooperate with grace. We do so by seeking God and letting ourselves be found by God and by stepping out in faith to love our neighbor. Loving neighbor is intrinsic to our relationship with Christ. Worry not, however. Christ makes this possible: “grace upon grace”… (John 1:16)
In his Catechism, published in 1538, John Calvin asks,
“How do you know yourself to be a child of God in fact as well as in name?” Answer:
“Because I am baptized in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The feast of the Epiphany, officialy celebrated starting in at least 361. “Epiphany”, Greek epi “upon” and phainein “bring to light, make appear”. We can say manifestation. We celebrate God incarnate, the Word made flesh, made manifest, here, to the world beyond Israel, in the persons of the wise men. The first to visit the Christ-child were the
shepherds, simple and lowly, who were Jews. The second to visit the Christ-child were the wise men, these other figures, wise and powerful, who represent the learned pagan
world. The first reading (Isaiah 60:3) speaks prophetically of them:
“Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The two visits are a response to a mysterious, powerful attraction. The shepherds and the wise men are drawn. There is no commandment; only an attraction. The exact identity of the wise men, or Magi, is difficult to specify. From where did they come?
Who exactly are they? We can only guess... The term Magi comes from a Persian
term, “mag” for “priest”. Whatever the case may be—pagan priests, kings, astrologers, they are traditionally portrayed as coming in full regalia, with gifts. They come with all their learnedness, rather moved in their minds. Theirs is an attraction of which we may not often think. The simplicity of the shepherds, moved in their hearts, seems more accessible. The Magi are mysteriously moved in their minds. They come reading a star, which, for them, indicates the birth of a king. These mysterious figures come and they find God enfleshed (!?!?). How much did they grasp this? It’s difficult to say, but they do ask,
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising.”
It seems that they come because they have been given a gift, before even seeing Christ: faith. They are given faith, not because of privilege, but because they are seekers. God likes seekers. God extends Himself to those who seek. Faith is a gift, given freely, which entails a very subtle attraction to God, which enables us to “look” beyond appearances, to discern mystery from above. This discernment is beautifully described in a commentary attributed to Saint Augustine, (+430),
They had been taught that this Child was one, in worshipping whom they would certainly secure that salvation which is of God. Neither His age was such as attracts men’s flattery; His limbs not robed in purple, His brow not crowned with a diamond, no pompous train, no great army, no glorious fame of battles, attracted these men to Him from the remotest countries, with such earnestness of supplication. There lay in a manger a Boy, newly born, of infantine size, of pitiable poverty. But in that small Infant lay hid something great, which these men, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had learned not of earth but of heaven.
With the eyes of the body, they see a fragile baby. With the eyes of faith, they see God. Only faith can bridge the apparent abyss between child and God. They indeed find what they were seeking in faith, and they are “overwhelmed with joy”. “Overwhelmed” suggests God’s very own joy. One of the Church Fathers tells us that
“a person rejoices truly when he/she rejoices on God’s account, who is the true joy.”
“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”(v 11)
Adoration is always the first, fundamental act in the presence of God. They then offer gifts, gifts in keeping with the reality of this child, gifts that reveal Jesus to us. Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory the Great, 6th-century and others tell us:
This is very much like our situation regarding the Eucharist. Only faith can bridge the apparent abyss between bread and God. If we come seeking in faith, we will be “overwhelmed with joy”. Let us adore. Let us offer the gift of ourselves to Him who gives us His heart, with meekness and vulnerability, in this way.