A couple of days ago, with some real reluctance, I started removing the Christmas decorations in my office and putting my Peruvian nativity scene in storage for another 11 months. Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I never like having to end it. But, as I was recently reminded, it is mid-January already! Granted, January is not a very exciting month. Coming right after the big holiday month of December, the comparison with Christmas makes January just seem so – ordinary. In fact, it virtually screams ordinariness!
If anything, the English-language version of the Church’s liturgical calendar curiously reinforces this - as the Christmas season concludes, and something oddly called “Ordinary Time” begins. Could anything have been more boringly named than “Ordinary Time,” this season that some have unflatteringly referred to as “the long green liturgical bore.”
Those of us who are above a certain age will, of course, remember when these green mid-winter Sundays were counted as “Sundays after Epiphany” – certainly a much more festive-sounding title, which also had the added advantage of more clearly connecting what we are doing here and now with Christ’s having revealed himself to the world. (Likewise, calling the green-colored Sundays of summer and fall “Sundays after Pentecost,” as we did for so many centuries, made the connection more obvious with the Church’s on-going mission in the present).
Traditionally, the idea of the Epiphany connected 3 important events – Christ’s manifestation to the non-Jewish world, symbolized by the 3 Wise Men; his manifestation as Son of God at his baptism by John; and the manifestation of his glory to his disciples at the wedding at Cana where he miraculously changed water into wine.
Of those three, it was Jesus’ baptism (commemorated officially last week), which marked his first public appearance as an adult, the beginning of his public life and ministry, the formal start of the work he came into the world to do. In linking Christmas with “Ordinary Time” in the Church’s calendar, the baptism of the Lord links his coming into the world then with our time today, with the ordinary lives we all live here and now in the present. Today’s Gospel [John 1:29-34] gives us a kind of extended meditation on what actually happened when Jesus was baptized – and what that actually has to do with us, who (as we just heard St. Paul say) have been called to be holy [1 Corinthians 1:2].
At his baptism, God the Father formally identified Jesus as his Son and symbolically anointed him for his mission – not with oil, as kings and queens and bishops and priests are anointed for their mission, but with the Holy Spirit himself. John testified that he did not know Jesus, until he saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.
Whatever John may have already known or not known about Jesus in human terms, it was only after Jesus’ baptism that John really got to know Jesus as who he really is – the Son of God, who existed before him. Jesus took the initiative to come to John – and not just to John, of course, but to all of us as well, to the whole world, in fact, whose sin, he the Lamb of God, has come to take away.
At our own baptism, we in turn identified ourselves with Jesus, so as to be united with him in a new relationship with God and with the world – as adopted children of God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Paulist founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker: “In proportion as the Holy Spirit takes possession and direction of our soul will our intelligence increase in light, our hearts in love, and our will in liberty” [Notes on the Holy Spirit, 1870s-18880s].
The same Holy Spirit, who identified Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world, that same Holy Spirit remained upon him eventually to be passed on by the Risen Lord to his disciples with the injunction to be agents of that very same forgiveness – something certainly as much needed in our contentious and troubled world today as it was in Jesus’ day. All who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ [1 Corinthians 1:2] share in that great experience of forgiveness, through which Jesus has come to us as he once came to John. Jesus is, in person, God himself coming to us so that we can come to know God and what God is enabling us to become, forgiven people who have thus been empowered to become people of forgiveness.
If Christmas was all about Jesus’ initial coming into the world, “Ordinary Time” – our time, our ordinary time day-by-day, here and now – is the time for us to continue to get to know him. Doing that is a life-long task – which fills the ordinariness of life with the most extraordinary possibilities.
Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 16, 2011, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN.