Josef Ratzinger, later known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, was born at 4:30am on Holy Saturday, April 28, 1927. Later that same morning, at 8:30am, the future pontiff’s father took the infant to the local parish church where the Easter Vigil liturgy had just been completed. The baby was happily baptized with the freshly blessed holy water, so emblematic of the new Easter season and of Christianity generally. Only four hours old and solemnly baptized! Great events lay ahead.
Previous generations of Christians lived with a realistic fear of infant mortality. Two hundred years ago the child mortality rate was extremely high around the world – more than 40% of all children died. Since then the child mortality rate has declined to about 4%. Hence speedy baptisms were the understandable norm throughout most of Christian history. Within recent memory however, infants were regularly baptized certainly not on the day of birth but still within three or four weeks from birth. Lately, alas, baptisms are often delayed a matter of months or, quite sadly, never scheduled at all. Baptisms, like funerals, have become a celebration of life – earthly life. The date selected is often the day which family and friends will find most convenient to attend the festivities. Speedily relieving the newborn of the encumbrance of original sin hardly enters into the picture. The sense of urgency that motivated previous generations has lapsed. The sense of sin that fostered that need for swift baptisms has also unsurprisingly lapsed. Heaven can wait.
At first reading this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage from St. Luke may appear to be concerned about the evangelical virtue of poverty. The evangelist writes, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another.” St. Matthew is equally severe in his record of Christ’s directions: “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” Likewise St. Mark: “He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick—no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”
But the meagre resources suggested by Christ were not advised to project an image of poverty. After all, pretending to be poor by leaving these assets at home would have been hypocritical. No, it is not poverty that concerns Christ, it is urgency! Leave behind anything that might encumber you — too much baggage would slow the pace. Forget anything that might draw attention to you — brigands would gladly eye a money bag or full sack. Do not be fussy about food — eat what is served. Do not idly socialize from house to house — heed the matter at hand. Jesus strongly insists that his disciples get down to business. Full speed ahead!
To confirm the urgency of the disciples’ evangelization efforts, the usually benign Jesus has some rather harsh words for those who will resist the call of the Gospel extended by Christ and his band: “Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.” This is a severe indictment on anyone unreceptive toward the Christian message. And it also adds an increasing sense of urgency upon those to whom the spreading of Christ’s saving word is entrusted. Again, “Get a move on” is Christ’s word for the day.
Unlike the Ratzinger family’s urgent need to baptize the infant Josef, religious obligations today are very easily shifted to the back burner in the midst of the secular generation in which today’s believer is found. Attendance and participation at Mass, reception of the sacraments by oneself as well as by a younger generation, the support of parish and diocesan efforts to extend the Gospel message and to promote justice, personal involvement in Christian education, the authentic preparation and celebration of Christian marriage, and the full rites of Christian burial are clearly laudable practices in urgent need of attention within the present day Christian community. Secular society is not going to care one bit whether one’s religious obligations are fulfilled. Religious freedom has spawned religious indifference. And, over time, the grandmothers who now try to keep the present generation religiously alert will be gone. The times are more urgent than ever!
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