“Beneath the Eaves”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: John 3: 13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
For five years I studied all things in regard to death and dying. It was quite an adventure. It was very fascinating. There were small things like the image that is pressed on the communion wafer in the Roman Catholic church. I didn’t know the image is there so the wafer resembles a coin. The coin symbolized the ancient Roman practice of giving the dead money to pay the boatman at the River Styx. Didn’t know that.
It was interesting to track the development of burial in America. How our tradition was to gather in our homes, in the main room, or parlor, and then proceed with the body to the grave. I never connected this to the funeral industry, and how they called their places of business funeral homes or a funeral parlor because homes and parlors were our burial custom.
I studied Egyptian embalming and how it was a lost art until the Civil War in the 1860s. Embalming was rediscovered because sons and fathers needed to be embalmed before their bodies traveled North to New York and New Jersey. This had not been done since ancient Egypt. I studied the Greeks and their practice of double burial and how closely the ossification of the body matches the time of the heart’s mourning. It took our modern researches a great deal of time to see what was known since Homer.
So many things in our everyday, things that are invisible, became visible. Take the cemetery out here. The tombstones and gravestones rising from the ground. In the late 19th century this was replaced by the smooth flat stones so cemeteries from a distance would resemble a grassy field, keep the image of nature. Hence names like Woodlawn or Forest Hill cemetery. This also makes it much easier to mow.
Of great interest was how we, Christians, were the first to bring our dead into places of worship. This was a shocking development, something unique to our faith in the first century.
Yet, of all the stories or practices I studied the one that always sticks with me, lingers as it were, is the practice of burial beneath the eaves. Church yards or church cemeteries were restricted to Christians. In order to be buried at the church you needed to be a Christian. This is fine. You needed to be baptized in order to be buried in the church yard. That was the rule. Again, fine. It was fine except for the still born. The child who dies before baptism. They were not allowed to be buried in the church yard.
In the medieval church the practice of the families who suffered such tragedy was that they buried their children beneath the eaves of the church. They would come at night and bury the child beneath the eaves of the church so the rainwater falling from the roof would forever baptize the little one. There was no marker, no stone, only the water from the eaves and the path it cut in the earth.
This story lingers with me partly because of its beauty. Somehow the thought of a perpetual baptism, a continuous blessing beneath the eaves somehow speaks to the profound pain of such a loss, such heartbreak. The beauty and the loss commingle.
This story also lingers because of shame. It is a shame when our rules and our doctrines and policies are so far from life, so inhuman. There is no excuse in such moments, only shame. Grieving families needed devotion at that moment not doctrine.
The doctrine of baptism, like most doctrines of the church, has a beautiful beginning that has too often gone awry. Doctrines, all of them, begin with a beautiful truth, but then we try to determine belief, enforce them, control others by them. In this moment doctrine becomes rather pernicious. Hence, people speak of the hypocrisy of the religious or have disdain for religion. This is what most people mean when they say I am a believer but I am not religious. They are trying to distance themselves from doctrines gone awry, policies chosen over people, holy orders become very unholy.
I want to say the other reason why the image of burial beneath the eaves stays with me is the way it reaches to the very beginning of the doctrine of baptism. Somehow this denial of burial because of a lack of baptism reveals what baptism really means. At its heart, baptism is identity. This is our image of who we are, we one who is loved, a beloved. It is being identified as one of God’s children. To say the still born is not one of God’s children is so deeply wrong it takes us to the greatest truth: we are all brothers and sisters, children of God, made in the image of love. This is our true identity, what it means to be made human.
There is no clearer, more direct understanding of our reading today than identity, who we are, how we are identified as a beloved. Say it with me, “This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Doesn’t get much clearer than that. This is about identity.
And then, over time, we tend to lose this clarity. Things get murky, muddy. We try to determine what baptism is. Was the baptism trinitarian? In whose name were you baptized? Was the baptism by confession? Was the baptism done by a pastor? Was the baptism done by immersion? Are the parents of the child members of the church? Are both believers? With such questions we fence the fount, restrict it, build a wall around it. And with our answers we seek to control and determine and enforce a doctrine.
With these questions and answers we are moving farther and farther away from the beauty of being identified. Baptism is so simple: we call out in love to this one. This one is made in the image of God, a beloved. This child is loved by the one who is love. Whenever we worry about being right, we are ever less and less righteous.
It is not just us today. The struggle over baptism was from the beginning. John the Baptist struggled with this. He struggled with whether or not to baptize Jesus and he struggled with the life Jesus lived after baptism.
John was disappointed with Jesus. He lost faith that he was the one, that he was true to his identity. This is the greatest challenge of baptism. It is easy to see the one who comes out of the water as a beloved, to see the newborn baptized as beautiful. We love to see this, hear this, this beginning.
But then, people start living. We move away from the fount and lose sight of it. The child grows and the beauty of baptism is covered and marred and not as pure perhaps. The ones we pledged to love and call beloved prove disappointing.
I know that sounds harsh, but this is where life gets murky, muddy. For our own children, we may never reach such a point. But we do with others. We speak of bad people, we talk about scum and deplorables. What are such words, such declarations but a choice to no longer see people in the image of God? This is a choice to no longer see someone in the light of God’s love. Let’s be honest: we make this choice. We don’t want to; we regret it. But, we do it.
Living out the doctrine of baptism is not easy. To live as if all are children of God: this is very challenging. John the Baptist couldn’t do it. As John was about to die, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was indeed the Messiah. He could no longer see him as such. How Jesus lived didn’t match his image of what a Messiah was supposed to be.
Our eldest son was baptized but he was still quite a handful. He gave us a real run for our money. Having other children afterwards helped. We didn’t take his struggles as completely our failure as parents. One of the deep struggles he had as a child was to fall asleep. Just couldn’t do it. He fought it and fought it and fought it.
I will never forget one night when he was about four years old. He really needed to go to bed, but he just couldn’t do it. He wore footed pajamas with the plastic soles. Remember them? So when he got out of bed we could hear his feet “swish, swish” on the parquet floor. And with this sound “swish, swish” we would get up and put him back in bed. Again and again and again, hour after hour. And we chastised, and warned and scolded and punished and picked him up and put him back. At some point he finally passed out.
The next morning I was up studying, reading and drinking copious amounts of coffee. In the quiet of the morning I heard his feet hit the ground; I heard the “swish, swish”. I turned to my left and there he was standing in the doorway. He looked at me and said, “love you” and kept walking, “swish, swish.”
I wasn’t ready for love in that moment. I was still struggling with the night before. Coffee only has so much grace. The sound “swish, swish” was not music to my ears but a weariness. And then, it wasn’t. I was identified, seen not as the terrible parent he fought all night, not as the mean father who dragged him down the hall in protest again and again. I was beloved. “Love you.” With these words the weary sound became beauty. I will forever love that sound “swish, swish”.
There are times in life where we live beneath the eaves. If we are lucky it is for a season. If we are truly blessed it is for a generation. To live in perpetual baptism, to live ever being washed clean by love: what more could be gained in life? There are many places to find this pure rainwater falling from the roof. We can find it in friendship, in marriage, in parenting a child, in being a child. We can find it in the beauty of nature and the grandeur of thought and the purity of will. As we find it, as we are so washed, when hear the words, “love you”, then the image is restored, the imago dei, the image of God, our creator’s image in us, this is revealed, restored, made whole. We are identified.
This is not an easy path. Love should be easy, effortless, but it rarely is. If love is the greatest, we must never think of it as an easy task. To love people long after their baptism takes a heart willing to dig beneath the layers we heap upon ourselves, covering our identity.
It is not easy to see everyone as a child of God, a beloved of God’s creation. I don’t believe we can do this on our own. That is why we are in this together. One of our greatest doctrines about baptism teaches this. It is not I who baptize the child. You do. We do. We take a common vow. We are in this together. That is why our baptisms are never done privately. There is great wisdom in this. For we need to help each other unto love. Hence, we sing and pray and listen and confess and drink coffee together. We are helping each other unto love, the greatest way to live.
What if being a church here and now, gathering together in worship and fellowship, discernment and service, what if being a church is really just a moment beneath the eaves? What if you and I are simply children hoping to be blessed and to offer what we receive? That is what I heard that morning in the “swish, swish.” I knew I was loved and I could offer the same.
I heard a great blessing at a funeral the other day. The priest ended the service calling those in mourning to be quick to kindness for time is fleeting. He said, Life is short. And we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. Beneath the eaves here this morning I know time is fleeting and so I want to be swift to love, make haste to kindness, treat all as a beloved child of God. Amen.
- Isaiah 42:1 - 9
- Matthew 3:13 - 17