Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of the Lord

The frenzied extravaganza that is our contemporary American secular Christmas (which generally begins right around Halloween) has long since fizzled out, discarded like so much torn gift wrap, abandoned along with the dried-out Christmas trees that litter so many cities' sidewalks. And, now that we have all by now gotten used to writing 2015 instead of 2014, even the new year seems a bit old by now. So today’s final Christmas feast of the Baptism of the Lord may seem more like some sort of quaint, vestigial, post-Christmas afterthought.  Actually, however, today’s celebration of the second of the three "epiphanies" or "theophanies" of Christ - the first being his revelation to the pagan world as represented by the magi and the third his revelation of his glory to his disciples at the wedding feast at Cana - is intended to highlight, through the baptism of the adult Jesus – his formal identification by his Father as the eternally divine Son of God and the inauguration of his public ministry as Messiah. It is, in effect, the event, which the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.

Since we are on a Paullist retreat, I suggest we begin by transporting ourselves (in spirit at least) to our Paulist Mother Church in New York and there walk to the traditional site of the baptismal font. Longstanding tradition located the baptismal font of a church at its liturgical north-west corner, which (since Saint Paul's was built facing west) is actually geographically the church's southeast corner. That's where the confessionals are now, but where the baptismal font was originally located until it was displaced from there in 1993, which one can immediately infer from Alvin Alfred Lee’s copy of Giovanni Bellini’s turn-of-the-16th-century painting, The Baptism of Christ. Like the Gospel description which we have just heard, that impressive painting portrays the participation of the entire Trinity in Jesus’ baptism – the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, identifying him as God’s anointed one (which is what the word “messiah” means, what the word “Christ” means), and the Father from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  Echoing Isaiah’s prophecy, the Son himself is his Father’s Word, whose mission as messiah is to do his Father’s will, achieving the end for which he has been sent. 

The painting’s location at the traditional site of the baptismal font suggests a certain link, a certain correspondence, between Jesus’ baptism and our own, when we, identifying ourselves with Christ, were likewise graced with the Holy Spirit and identified by the Father as adopted sons and daughters   “The whole human nature,” said St. Cyril of Alexandria, “is found in Christ,” in whom the Holy Spirit likewise is given to us." That same Holy Spirit, present and active at our baptism as well as at Christ’s, continues his active presence among us, uniting us with Christ in the sacramental community of the Church, as our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, so pointedly emphasized.

Liturgically, today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord marks the Church’s transition from the festive Christmas season to what we (somewhat unimaginatively) call Ordinary Time, sort of replicating in the yearly cycle our weekly transition from Sunday to Monday. In a sense, Ordinary Time represents the day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year regular routine of life. How fitting then your transition today from this special retreat time we have had together back to the ordinary academic routine of the second semester of school that starts tomorrow, on Monday morning. Ordinary Time is, however and in spite of its unimaginative name, also the time of the Church, about which ultimately nothing is ordinary, for it is the day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year life of the Body of Christ, the Church, the mission of which,as we have been emphasizing this weekend, is to refashion and reform the world’s otherwise regular routine.

In such a world, we will inevitably find ourselves preoccupied with worries and anxieties about an apparently problematic and uncertain future that will continue to present a multitude of challenges to each of us individually as we continue to discern our vocation and strive to live it out - and to us collectively as  a community as we continue to respond to new and complicated challenges, such as those discussed, for example, at our community "town hall" this past Thursday, as well as the larger challenges of American society in transition from its more evidently religious past to its less certain (but certainly unpredictable) future.  In such a world, we cannot settle for apparent abstractions, but are being challenged must make a real difference - to become that "oil on troubled water" that Hecker so confidently hoped the Church would be.

Such is the challenge of Ordinary Time, this time of the Church – to remake ourselves and our world in what would otherwise really be only more of the same, ordinary time, and so achieve the end for which God’s Word has been sent into the world - and thus fulfill the purpose of Christmas.

Homily for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Paulist Formation Community Retreat, Priest Field Pastoral Center, Kearneysville, WV, January 10, 2013.

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