John Keble: Holy Baptism

As today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and also the day of the week in which I like to post some poetry, it took a while for me to find something that fit both criteria. Just before I was about to give up, I remembered that John Keble’s Christian Year has a poem entitled Holy Baptism, which, although it doesn’t pertain directly to the Baptism of Christ, it does touch on that subject in that the Sacrament of Baptism is deeply linked to the Baptism of Our Lord. In our Baptism, we are buried into the very death of Christ, that we may in Him die to our sins, and are also raised with Him to new life (c.f.; Romans 6:3-14) – we are united to Our Lord so much so that we can now say we are ‘in’ Him and are part of His Body (c.f.; Ephesians 4:4-6), incorporated into His very life so much that our sufferings become one with His (c.f.; Colossians 1:24; Acts 9:5).

Jesus submitted to baptism Himself in order to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15) – i.e.; so that the link between Old Covenant and New would be made perfect through His humble submission to all that those who would become His disciples would submit to. Just as He submitted Himself to the Law, so must He submit to all aspects of the New Law, that He may be ‘made like his brethren in every respect’ (Hebrews 2:17, c.f.; also 4:14-5:10). In doing this, He sanctified the waters (notably in the Jordan, the crossing of which by the Israelites into the Promised Land prefigures our entry into new life in Christ) and consecrated a rite that had until then only had a proclamatory and temporary effect – by uniting Himself to this rite, He made it efficacious for the salvation of souls, through union with Himself and His atoning death:

In his Passover Christ opened to all men the fountain of Baptism. He had already spoken of his Passion, which he was about to suffer in Jerusalem, as a “Baptism” with which he had to be baptized. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the crucified Jesus are types of Baptism and the Eucharist, the sacraments of new life. From then on, it is possible “to be born of water and the Spirit” in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1225

                The above section from the Catechism goes on to quote from Saint Ambrose of Milan, who sums up the importance of Baptism for us, and makes even more certain the connection between our being baptised, the Baptism of Our Lord, and His sacrificial death on the Cross – ‘See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved’ (ibid). In our Baptism therefore we are united to the whole mystery of Faith, and this profound union was made manifest by Christ’s undergoing Baptism himself – His immersion in the Jordan, and the subsequent proclamation of His identity (c.f.; Matthew 3:16-17) made clear the links between this moment and the whole grand narrative of our salvation, and made it a way for us to enter into that narrative.

All this is present in the background of John Keble’s poem, which takes for granted the efficacious nature of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the reasons why it conveys such awesome grace. He marvels at the fact that what looks like mere water to others is to us something made holy by words connecting it to the great mystery of our salvation – in the drops of water sprinkled upon the head of the baptised are contained centuries of history, moments of epiphany, acts of renewal and reconciliation, and all drawn together by the meeting of man and God in the Incarnate Christ. All this we are admitted into through our Baptism, and it is not surprising that it takes us a lifetime to work out and make real the implications of the ‘adopting Father love’ that we receive therein. In Christ we have been placed, and in Him are all the mysteries of God and man brought together in union – the holy water of the font is a gateway into this, and that is a humbling thing to consider:


Where is it mothers learn their love?—

   In every Church a fountain springs

      O’er which th’ Eternal Dove

         Hovers out softest wings.


What sparkles in that lucid flood

   Is water, by gross mortals eyed:

      But seen by Faith, ’tis blood

         Out of a dear Friend’s side.


A few calm words of faith and prayer,

   A few bright drops of holy dew,

      Shall work a wonder there

         Earth’s charmers never knew.


O happy arms, where cradled lies,

   And ready for the Lord’s embrace,

      That precious sacrifice,

         The darling of His grace!


Blest eyes, that see the smiling gleam

   Upon the slumbering features glow,

      When the life-giving stream

         Touches the tender brow!


Or when the holy cross is signed,

   And the young soldier duly sworn,

      With true and fearless mind

         To serve the Virgin-born.


But happiest ye, who sealed and blest

   Back to your arms your treasure take,

      With Jesus’ mark impressed

         To nurse for Jesus’ sake:


To whom—as if in hallowed air

   Ye knelt before some awful shrine—

      His innocent gestures wear

         A meaning half divine:


By whom Love’s daily touch is seen

   In strengthening form and freshening hue,

      In the fixed brow serene,

         The deep yet eager view.—


Who taught thy pure and even breath

   To come and go with such sweet grace?

      Whence thy reposing Faith,

         Though in our frail embrace?


O tender gem, and full of Heaven!

   Not in the twilight stars on high,

      Not in moist flowers at even

         See we our God so nigh.


Sweet one, make haste and know Him too,

   Thine own adopting Father love,

      That like thine earliest dew

         Thy dying sweets may prove.


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