Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

07 September 2018

The Sign of Jonah: Baptism

“What sign can you do?” (Jn 6:30): is it the taunt of Messiah-chasers, or the hunger of the shepherd-less? As our ruthless self-sustenance proves insufficient, we simply must come to terms with having nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, however, the culture of skepticism produces the sign-seeking, angle-seeking generation (authors of “the fine print,” the “hidden agenda”)—which turns out to be every generation.

In another place, Jesus declared that the only sign given to such persons is “the sign of Jonah” (Mt 12:38-42): the “Son of Man” (Jesus’ most-used Self-description) would emerge from a three-days’-darkness lodging, in the same way the Prophet Jonah was preserved amid the deep waters by a large fish (commonly considered a whale).

We might consider this sign a “type,” or foreshadowing, of the sacrament of Baptism. The rebellious prophet tried to escape from God’s choice of him; he is cast into the waters; he is rescued from/through the waters into safety. Water is at once a sign of death and life: you can drown in water, yet you live only because of water. Incidentally, the big fish is a type of the Church, the “vessel” that preserves us amid the storm. As a bonus, the fish was an early symbol that Christians would use to mark their sacred assemblies, subjects of chronic persecution. The five letters of the Greek word for fish (ιχθυς) stood for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Baptism comes from the Greek word “to plunge.” The original method of immersion conveys the sign most vividly. The entire body makes contact with the water because the entire person—body and soul—needs redemption. Your Reverend Writer has not employed this method in his ministry, but has admired those who do.

If water is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is light. For every celebration of it we ignite the Paschal Candle that easterly proclaims the triumph of the risen Christ over sin, suffering, and death, precisely because each plunge makes that triumph clear in that subject’s life. The belly of the fish is darkness, but once evacuated, the child is, as it were, assaulted by brightness. It must be too much to bear at the outset, and indeed all life long.

If light is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is enclosure. The child’s white garment enfolds her even as her mother’s womb once did. The fearsome fish’s belly, known now as the Church, is the child’s safety net. Whoever sticks with us, has a chance in this crazy, mixed-up world. By “us” of course we mean “The Church,” but on the local, intensest level, we mean faithful parents and godparents who, by virtue of their familiarity with both the child and the Church, represent one to the other.

Reflect with me, often and gratefully, on God's most supreme gift by which He frees us from the original sin, makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, temples of His Spirit, heirs of heaven, and franchises of grace and mercy (so long as we deal in them by obedience to the Commandments).

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