Child of Promise
For the Baptism of Joshua Aria
Testament: Isaiah 9:6-7
Testament: Luke 2:21-32
On this Christmas Day when we celebrate
the birth of the baby Jesus Christ, it seems to me that there is no better
sacramental way to mark the occasion than to christen another baby, and,
as it happens, one with the same name. In a few moments we will dedicate
the infant Joshua Aria Abdi to God. And before we do, I want to help you
to reflect on the significance of what we will do. I believe our scripture
lessons will help us to do this quite nicely.
Both of our passages, the one from the
Prophet Isaiah, the other from Luke the Evangelist, fall into a particular
literary genre. Both are called "birth oracles." Birth oracles were made
by court prophets on the birth of the new heir to the throne of
Judah. There seem to be several of them
in the Bible. The Isaiah passage is not intended as a prophecy of a
Messianic king whose coming might be expected in some far off future. It
was rather Isaiah's hopeful oracle, a kind of well-wishing, on the
occasion of Hezekiah's birth. His birth boded great things, and biblical
history tells us that indeed he fulfilled them.
The idea of a birth oracle is something
like casting the horoscope of the new born to see what his future will
hold. The idea may seem strange, but that's pretty much what Matthew's
Magi do for the infant Jesus. By interpreting the meaning of a star which
rose at his birth, they know his destiny is to be king.
And Simeon delivers a birth oracle for
Jesus, too. He takes up the child and announces that his future is to be a
great one, though not without turbulence--as is the case with great lives
generally, I suppose.
Let me pause a moment to consider what
the Prophet Simeon says before he begins his oracle proper. "Lord, now
lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine
eyes have seen thy salvation." In other words, "Now I can die in peace, I
can die satisfied; I have lived, at long last, to see what you promised I
would see: the coming of the savior."
There is a great wisdom here, a
wisdom that wells up from the depth of the soul of a parent, even. deeper:
from the wellsprings of the species. Simeon could not die till the
child of promise should arrive. And then his own prophetic work is done.
Every parent knows, too, that his or
her work is done once his or her child has arrived, though in
another sense it is just beginning. Think how much of our endeavor and of
our instincts are aimed at the moment of bringing forth a child, a child
who will replace us. That goal is so fundamental that usually we do not
even notice that is what we are bending all our energies toward.
Let me give you an example. Several
years ago, Carol and I went to Houlihan's with Becky and Rey Redington.
Victoria was a newborn and we
brought her with us. Carol made some comment about how incongruous she
must seem as a mother with her baby here in what was essentially a singles
joint with young folks cruising for the opposite sex. And then Becky made
a very wise remark, wise with the wisdom of Simeon. She said, "Carol,
you've got what they're all trying to get."
Yes, that's right, all the mystique of
romance, flirting, and sex, is Nature's programming to get us dumb humans
to be about our evolutionary business: to repopulate the next generation.
We may not know it at the time, but isn't it obvious?
And then when we get that business
done, when we become reproductively mature and have children, and when we
start to care for them, what happens to us? Our powers begin to ebb. As
our babies grow, we begin to fade. As John the Baptist says of Jesus, once
he ushers him onto the public scene: "He must increase, and I must
decrease." We retire from center stage. Our lives are not about us
anymore. They are in large measure about our children.
Why do we start getting old and fading?
Nature's business is to make you attractive and alluring only into the
reproductive years. And once Nature's got you there and you've done your
bit; she has no further need of you! Nature can afford to allow you to
wear out and turn her attention instead to your kids, to make them
grow toward childbearing, and to start the cycle all over again.
And, like Simeon, we can step aside,
our business done, now that the child of promise has arrived.
Did you notice that in both our
readings, much is made of the naming of the child? In Isaiah's birth
oracle for young prince Hezekiah, he is given a whole panoply of titles:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father.
These were precisely the same titles bestowed on every Egyptian Pharaoh,
too. These are the great roles, and equally the great responsibilities,
the king is to fulfill for his people. They delineate the burden he would
Jesus, too, is given a great name.
"Jesus," or “Yeshua," means "Yahweh is Salvation." And Simeon understands
that Jesus will one day flame forth as the beacon of salvation for the
nations of the world. It is a role he is assigned.
Sometimes in the Bible a name is a
prayer. When Abraham and Sarah name their son Isaac, the meaning is
probably "May God smile upon him." But in the case of these birth oracles,
the name is more of an assignment. A name is a destiny. The path is marked
out for the infant Hezekiah and for the infant Jesus. As it happens, they
fulfilled their names.
Today we are dedicating a young child
to his destiny. That destiny is contained in his name. He is
Joshua, again, "The Lord is salvation." He is named Aria, which
means, "the Noble, the Nobly born." He has a fair name and a noble
It is moments like this, when we pause
to take an infant in our hands and to consider his future, that I feel a
curious sense of dislocation. What I feel is that I am in that moment
living in a memory. Because I feel very keenly the fact of a destiny
already gestating in so small a package. It is as if even now that future,
that destiny of fulfilling the name, is stretching forth invisibly into
the future from a starting point that we hold in our hands. It is
invisibly real already, and thus we, standing at the beginning, are
already standing, like figures in a photograph, in Joshua Aria's past.
Imagine a day many years hence when
Joshua Aria has surpassed even the hopes Ellie and Hosman dreamed for him
today. They look back as proud parents to this day when none of it had yet
unfolded from the vital seed of potentiality. That future is so powerful
that it makes today already a shade of the past, waiting to catch up with
the future. Again, we are like Simeon, who gladly admits he is that
precious moment, utterly superseded, put well into the shade.
The future of Joshua Aria Abdi pulsates
within him, eager to be growing. And like any seed, it needs to be tended
and watered, and so our work is not done. It is the task of Ellie and Hush
more than anyone else's, but we here who rejoice with them are thereby
obliged to take our share of responsibility, especially Joshua's
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son
is given, and great things are ahead for him. Great things are locked
within him, waiting to emerge. His destiny is the path that will
reveal its contours to him as he walks boldly forward, as he follows its
twists and turns. And he will be free to follow that path or to turn aside
Tillich speaks of a dialectic in every
life of freedom on one hand and of destiny on the other.
Without either, there can be no greatness in human achievement. Our
destiny presents our tasks to us, but we embrace them freely, or not at
all. Destiny needs never to resort to compulsion. We recognize it and go
forward to meet it with delight and desire, even as Isaac ran to meet his
It is Joshua Aria's task to tread that
path for himself, but it is ours to help him recognize it, and to prepare
him to meet it.
For the Baptism of Joshua Aria Abdi
Christmas Day 1994
We are gathered together today to dedicate and to
bless this child and no less to bind ourselves in a covenant on his
And they were bringing children to
him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when
Jesus saw it he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come
to me, do not hinder them; for it is to such as they that the Kingdom of
Heaven belongs. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his
hands upon them.
[Take Joshua from parents and speak to him, saying:]
Joshua, we invoke upon you the Spirit of Truth, wishing for you a life
abundant in love and opportunity. We require of you vows of faithfulness
and noble aims that you cannot now understand.
You are blissfully ignorant of what we know about you: that you are the
bud of a full flower, that we speak in you to one like ourselves, an
individual sure to face the ambiguities and the challenges, the slings
and arrows, the thousand natural shocks all flesh is heir to.
We know what you do not know. So what we require of you we will try our
best to give you. We bind ourselves with a solemn oath today, that
living among us you will see examples to emulate, love to be warmed by
and to pass on in turn. We make a covenant with you to live with you so
that you will find us an even road to an upright life, not an obstacle
to it. To this we dedicate ourselves. And for our failures, which are
sure to come, we ask your forgiveness.
I ask the godparents: will you commit yourself to be loving friends for
this child, that he may never lack someone to respect, to learn from,
and to look up to?
[Godparents: We will.]
Will you take an active interest in Joshua's growth, knowing that you
undertake an obligation only less than that of his parents?
[Godparents: We will.]
Jesus said, "The man old in days will
not hesitate to ask a little child of seven days about the place of
Life, and he will live. For many who are first shall become last, and
they shall become a single one."
Will you, Ellie and Hosman, covenant with this flesh of yours to
provide a home of love, a haven of rest, a nest of harmony, as far as it
lies in your power?
[Parents: We will.]
Here is one as vulnerable as the hatchling in the nest. Will you commit
yourself now to protect and to nourish this tiny one, knowing that his
life is a greater gift even than your own?
[Parents: We will.]
Will you see to his needs, setting aside wrath and ill-temper, in
sickness and in health, in good fortune and in ill, recalling the word
of Jesus of Nazareth, "Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these
little ones will not lose his reward"?
[Parents: We will.]
Will you resolve to hear as well as speak, to remember that youth knows
things that age has forgotten, and that much truth has been vouchsafed
to babes and hidden from the wise and understanding?
[Parents: We will.]
Then in the presence of this community of affirmation and this family
of love I baptize you, Joshua Aria Abdi, in the Name of the
Manifestations of God, Jesus Christ and Baha'ullah. I anoint you with
the oil of gladness, with the Holy Spirit and the Glory of God. May you
grow in wisdom and in stature and in the favor of God and men.
[Return Joshua to his mom and dad.]
Today we have planted the seed of future righteousness, courage and
wisdom. Let none of us forget our duty to water that seed in due time.
[By choice this was my last Sunday at First Baptist Church of
Montclair. The parents were Iranians, one a Christian, one a Baha’i. One
set of Godparents were Baha’is, the other Shi’ite Muslims. Here you see
the way of the future.]
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