Baptism by Fire – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Luke 12:49-53b, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

We have a bunch of superstitious beliefs our elders have passed on to us regarding baptism, don’t we? “Kumare, pabinyag n’yo agad ang bata para hindi pasukan ng masamang espiritu. Sige ka, magkakasakit ‘yan parati.” “Kumare, pabinyag n’yo agad ang bata. Sige kayo, pag namatay ‘yang walang binyag, hindi ‘yan tatanggapin sa langit.” And the most ridiculous I’ve heard so far: “Kumare, dapat umiyak ang bata kapag kasalukuyang binibinyagan ng pari. Ibig sabihin n’on, lumalayas na ang demonyo sa kanya.” Even if the age-old teaching on limbo is finally stricken from our doctrine (thank God), many Catholics still find it disturbing that unbaptized infants should go straight to heaven. Why? Maybe because it’s taken centuries for the Church itself to realize it’s not the baby’s fault for not being baptized promptly, or at all. What puzzles me most, though, is the major role we assign to the devil regarding all of this. Our superstitions imply that we consider the unbaptized fair game for ghouls, & that God is, well, quite powerless over them unless there’s an honest-to-goodness binyag.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be talking about a different kind of baptism that he says he “must be baptized.” It’s not quite the baptism of water & Spirit, because he’s already had that care of John. Rather, he seems to talk about an ongoing baptism; and it’s causing him real anguish, and he can’t seem to wait until it’s over. You read further along the Gospel, & Jesus’ words become more and more worrisome. “Do you think I’ve come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”. Now, weren’t we once taught that only the evil spirit causes division, conflict, discord? Isn’t it strange that Jesus says he has come to bring about unrest on the earth? Is this the baptism he’s referring to? A baptism of ruin & disharmony?

Sisters and brothers, there are four major wars in our planet today; major in the sense that there are at least 10,000 people killed within each year these wars are being fought: the war in Afghanistan since 1978, in Iraq since 2003, the Boko Haram insurgency in Africa since 2009, & the Syrian civil war, since 2011. 10 other wars are gunning for number 5, but these four top the list. Well, dear sisters & brothers, these four major wars that have been turning our blue planet into red—they’re all being fought in the name of God. They are ethno-religious wars. Now, this is what I think of whenever today’s Gospel comes around—the division, conflict, & discord that are “caused” by God or by Jesus. But see, it’s not that God machinates human forces so that they erupt in wars that bear his name, no. Rather, it is on account of God that men band together to slaughter (and here I use the word “men” deliberately because no war has ever been incited by women). Men band together on account of faith in God to purify the earth by setting it on fire—literally, and to cleanse it of its “impurities” (which means people of another race & faith), & to wash off of the face of creation the “sinners” (which means everybody else except themselves). To purify, to cleanse, to wash off…now, doesn’t that sound like baptism? That men band together in the name of God to baptize—to wash, purify, rid the earth it of sin—in the most bizarre, warped, and cruel ways of all. Actually, I don’t know which is worse these days: people who have turned cold and lost their faith in God, or men afire with God but who have lost their minds.

If you remember, Jesus himself would suffer under such a baptism. The men of Judaism & the men of pagan Rome—they would band together and purify, cleanse, and rid their religions of this blight walking amongst them, this self-declared son of God. Pero bago sila nagtagumpay na ipako siya sa krus, nagpatuloy nang nagpatuloy si Hesus na gumawa ng kabutihan. Sa kabila ng nakalutang na panganib na mahuhuli siya’t mapapatay—patuloy siyang nagpakain sa mga nagugutom, nagpagaling ng may karamdaman, nagtaboy ng masasamang espiritu, nakiramay sa namimighati. While the men who had lost their minds went about cleansing the world with their bizarre, warped, and cruel baptism, Jesus went about conquering evil with goodness, insofar as he could. He just went on and on and on, conquering evil with goodness, despite his anguish, despite the overhanging sense that he wouldn’t be around long enough to finish the job. He just went on and on, conquering evil with goodness.

This is the ongoing baptism you and I would like to be blessed with, that you and I would like our country to be blessed by, especially these past few months. We wish to be part of the ongoing baptism that Jesus is talking about, the baptism that cleanses and purifies everyday life of its ever-present evils—not by countering it with evil, not by rubbing out malefactors, or not by exorcising by gunfire—but rather, by a persistent, if teeth-gritting, white-knuckling deliberateness to still do the right thing, the humane thing, the Godly thing. I know; how great is our anguish until it is all accomplished.

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