Sunday, January 9, 2022

Heaven Has Opened


Traditionally, churches have been built facing east, and the standard location for the baptismal font has been the northwest corner. For various reasons, this church was built facing a different direction; but internally the traditional alignment was followed for the font (designed by the great American artist  John LaFarge in 1891). So the baptismal font was originally located in what is actually the southeast corner (but which would be the northwest corner if the church faced east). In the 1980s, the font was moved, but the original site can still be immediately identified by Alvin Alfred Lee’s copy of Bellini’s painting The Baptism of Christ, portraying Jesus’ Baptism by John, the theme of today’s feast.

At Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, God the Father officially identified Jesus as his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Analogously, at our baptism, through the gift of the same Holy Spirit, we in turn identify ourselves with the Son, and so share in our own way in his relationship with his Father. So Jesus’ baptism anticipates the baptism that has elevated us to a new status in relation to the Father and so empowered us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world though his Church.

That said, the focus of today’s celebration is primarily on Jesus’ baptism, not ours - and actually mainly about what followed after Jesus had been baptized and was praying, when heaven was opened for a revelation of his status as the eternal Son of God. While God the Father’s words themselves seem to have been addressed directly to Jesus alone, the event itself has been recounted for our benefit. In this revelation, in this “epiphany,” we get a glimpse of the hitherto hidden, inner life of God, now suddenly revealed in what God is doing, for us, through Jesus’ mission as messiah.

Something really new and wonderful is happening here. Heaven has opened. The barrier between heaven and earth, between God and us, has been breached, and the (until now) invisible God has not only spoken, but has become visible for us as his Son, who has revealed God to us in a way we would never otherwise have known - in what Saint Paul, writing to Titus, called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. We are invited to accept God’s kindness and generous love ourselves, as his own people, prepared to be transformed, as Saint Paul put it - eager to do what is good.

It is no accident that we heard the very same words of Saint Paul on Christmas itself. Although the cycle of Christmas-related festivals doesn’t completely conclude until we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, today celebrates the fulfillment of the Christmas season. Measured by the secular time by which we rule our lives, today may seem like some sort of post-holiday afterthought. Actually, however, the identification of Jesus as the Son of God and the revelation of the kindness and generous love of God our savior in Jesus’ public mission are what the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.

Those wiser than I about such things say that Isaiah’s words, typically translated as speak tenderly to Jerusalem, may more literally mean “to speak to the heart” – as in, “to convince.” The human heart was understood by Isaiah’s contemporaries as the organ of thought and reasoning, God is here being spoken of as trying to convince Israel of the reality of his concern.

It wasn’t just ancient Israel that had a hard time and so needed convincing, of course.  Even the most cursory look at the state of the world – one year after the insurrection and entering the third year of this covid pandemic -belies any credible “happy days are here again” fantasies. If something new and wonderful really is happening here, it is going to take some convincing. It requires nothing less than the kindness and generous love of God our savior appearing personally in God’s Son.

In my opinion, the biggest stumbling block to faith is not so much science or evolution or any of those sorts of things (important though those issues may genuinely be), but rather the all-too vivid contrast between what we actually experience and what we profess to believe - between the seemingly endless cycle of human suffering so many actually experience and this seemingly contrary-to-fact belief in a future full of hope, and, more personally perhaps, between my ordinary somewhat self-absorbed life and being part of a people eager to do what is good, the belief that something new and wonderful really can happen and is happening, that the kindness and generous love of God our savior really have appeared. The fact is that we would never have had any reason to believe in such a thing, to hope for such a thing, even to suspect such a thing, if God himself had not told us, if God’s Son had not actually shown us - by becoming one of us. And that is what the Christmas season celebrates so seriously. We would never have experienced this, had it not been for the mission which the Son of God began on our behalf at his baptism, the same mission he challenges us to continue in our world today through his holy Church.

Homily for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, January 9, 2022. (The scripture references are to the proper readings for this feast in Year "C" - Isaiah 40:1-5. 9-11; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22.)

Photo: Baptism of Christ (c. 1500-1502), a painting by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) in the Chiesa di Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy.

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