Arriving at church a few Sundays ago was a family all bedecked in their very finest, carrying a tiny infant, engulfed in a long, white gown, a miniature version of the white robe given to newly baptized adults at the Easter vigil. The symbolism of the gown was perfect: The child who was “putting on Christ” was completely covered with the flowing fabric. It was even impossible to distinguish whether the child was a boy or a girl.
The famous verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians in today’s second reading were likely words taken from an early Christian baptismal formula. They make the extraordinary assertion that when we are clothed with Christ in baptism, the status markers that determine our place in society exist no longer. Within a religious movement that was born amid the Jewish people and that was attracting an increasing number of Gentiles, Paul asserts that baptism in Christ gives all equal status in the family of God—all are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, all are children of God and all are equal heirs. There is no privilege accorded to those who were the firstborn. Nor are there different levels of inheritance; all are one and equal in Christ.
A second determination of status is also eclipsed: the demarcations between free-born, freed and slave are dissolved in the waters of baptism. Finally, in a world in which males held all the power to make decisions and in which women were to be subordinate to men, baptism erased distinction in status based on gender. This is an extraordinary assertion of egalitarianism.
It is most likely, however, that Paul is referring to the equality of all Christians in terms of their salvation, not necessarily as something to be enacted in the social structures of his day. In others of his letters, he advises believers not to change status. He instructs the Corinthians, for example, that those who were uncircumcised should remain so and that slaves should stay slaves (1 Cor 7:17-24). One of the reasons for this advice was that Paul believed the parousia, the Second Coming, was imminent.
Two millennia later, with a heightened sense of global human rights and a vast tradition of social justice in the church, the question of incorporating this baptismal vision of equal status in social and ecclesial structures takes on a different urgency. Baptism does not wash away the differences, but it makes them irrelevant. All who are clothed with Christ belong equally and have equal status. Just as the white gown masked the tiny babe’s gender, so does baptism cover over any status markers in communities of equal disciples.
The ending of today’s Gospel moves in a similar direction, as Jesus asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. In one sense, baptism is the first step in a lifelong effort to let go any desire for privilege based on status. This “denial of self” is a daily search for the common good and requires relinquishment of self-aggrandizement on the part of those who have power, privilege or status. For those whose circumstances of birth or misfortune place them at the underside of society, the movement is one of empowerment instead of relinquishment, as with the anointed one, who saves life by losing his own.
No structures that thrive on inequality are brought down easily. Jesus knew this and tried to prepare his disciples for the conflagration that would cost him his life. The question still confronts us: Are we also willing to take up this same struggle each day, clothed in the power of the One who has gone before us through death to new life?