Sunday, January 9, 2011

Being Beloved

Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, one of the greatest festivals in the Christian calendar. Of course the way we celebrate Epiphany nowadays, one could easily miss its importance. One would, however, probably come away with the impression that, if Epiphany is about anything, it is about – and only about - the Three Wise Men. Epiphany, however, which, by the way, is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas Day itself, has from the beginning been a multi-themed celebration. In the Eastern Churches, where the story of the magi is heard on Christmas Day, Epiphany’s focus is primarily on Jesus’ baptism by John. In the west, we do the magi on Epiphany and concentrate today on Christ’s baptism.

In today’s world, of course, Christmas has already long ago fizzled out (after having gone on almost non-stop since Halloween). So today’s celebration may seem simply like some vestigial post-Christmas afterthought. Actually, however, the intent is to highlight the baptism of Jesus as the event, which the whole Christmas season has been leading up to – a kind of glorious grand finale of the entire Advent-Christmas season.

Jesus’ baptism by John has fascinated followers of Jesus ever since New Testament times and right down to the present. In his 2007 book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI devoted an entire chapter to it. Described in 3 of the 4 gospels and alluded to in the 4th, its prominence in the New Testament tells us it was a well remembered event. As the Pope put it in his book: “We are not meant to regard Jesus’ activity as taking place in some sort of mythical ‘anytime,’ which can mean always or never. It is a … historical event having the full weight that real historical happenings have.”

John’s baptism, however, was a ritual of repentance, signifying one’s need for conversion. It was – to quote the Pope again – “the concrete enactment of a conversion that gives the whole of life a new direction forever.” And so, we are told, John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me” [Matthew 3:14]

Jesus did in fact come to John, blending into the mass of anonymous sinners that stand for all of us. By being baptized as one of them – one of us – Jesus showed the point of his being born in the first place, anticipating already at his baptism what his whole life and mission would be all about.

But then, after Jesus was baptized, something more happened. The story says that the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:16-17]

The entire Trinity manifested itself as Jesus began his public life being officially identified by the Father as his Son, anointed, as St. Peter put it in today’s 2nd reading, with the Holy Spirit and power [Acts 10:34:38]. Through the Sons’s gift to each of us of that same Holy Spirit, each of us has become identified with him, so as to share in an analogous way in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Thus, the baptism of Jesus anticipates the baptism that has elevated each of us to a new status as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, empowering us to continue Christ’s life and work in the world through his Church.

Of course, the theme of today’s celebration is not primarily our baptism but Jesus’ baptism – and even more so the revelation that followed after Jesus was baptized, a revelation (an “epiphany”) of his status as the eternal Son of God, through whom we get a glimpse of the hidden inner life of the Trinity, now suddenly being revealed in what God is doing for us, through his Son in his mission – which is now the Church’s mission and hence our mission - in our world.

That said, today does invite us to ponder our own baptism – how we already share in the life of the Trinity even now, in our participation in the apostolic and missionary activity of the Church. A key moment in the ritual of baptism is the profession of faith, made (for most of us) on our behalf by our parents and godparents when they brought us to the baptismal font in fulfillment of their parental obligation to have their children baptized within the first weeks after birth. What was professed at our baptism, we continue to profess in the Creed and then go on to celebrate continually in the sacraments of the Church, empowering us to live a new kind of life based on our relationship as sons and daughters of God, whom we address familiarly as “Our Father.”

That Creed that we profess is good news for us – and good news for the world. The Creed is not just an identity badge. Much less is it a weapon for hitting other people over the head with. It is, in summary, the good news which we are commissioned as Church both to proclaim and to share with the world – and to do so with real confidence in its liberating power, the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit, visibly present in Jesus, God’s beloved Son, through whom we too have become beloved as well.

Being beloved, of course, carries certain responsibilities. Today, the Church in the United States begins National Vocation Awareness Week, a week in which the Church highlights what we need to be doing all the time – praying for, promoting, and supporting the vocations of married and single people in all walks of secular life, the vocations of committed men and women who consecrate their lives as religious brothers and sisters, and, in a special way – if the Church in this country is going to be able to continue its mission and not shut down – the vocations of those who offer themselves to the Church and are in turn then called by the Church to serve as ordained priests and deacons.

Jesus’ baptism can itself be seen as a kind of vocation story – not in some psychological sense, as if Jesus were some young adult trying to discern who he is and what to do with his life. After all, the gospel is not a novel! But Jesus’ baptism can be seen as a kind of vocation story in which the events of his baptism and the epiphany that followed reveal to us the total trajectory of Christ’s life. Having let us in on that mystery, the story of Jesus’ baptism now challenges us to identify ourselves with him and acknowledge the intended trajectory of our own lives – and to respond accordingly.

Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 9, 2011.

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