The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Homily: Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Ps 29; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17

Mary Queen of Scots, as she waited those long years in prison before being executed by her cousin, Elizabeth, had the following words embroidered on her cloth estate: “In my end is my beginning” -- words that, for Mary, symbolized the eternity of life that awaited her after death.

But they are fitting words, too, for many of this life’s transitions, for those times when something significant has ended only to be followed by something even greater.

“In my end is my beginning.”

In that sense they are fitting words for today’s very special feast: the Baptism of the Lord; for on this day we celebrate a day of major transition in the life of Jesus. With His Baptism by John, Jesus leaves behind that part of his life about which we know so very little. His Baptism brings those early years to an emphatic end. But His Baptism is also a beginning, the beginning of His public ministry, a ministry of teaching, preaching and healing that culminates in God’s great redemptive act. Yes, Jesus begins to walk the road that ultimately leads to His passion, death and resurrection.

“In my end is my beginning.”

It wasn’t John who decided to Baptize Jesus. It was Jesus’s decision. Just as the Son of God humbled Himself to become one of us, He willingly lowered Himself to be baptized at John’s hands, a Baptism in which we all share. It’s this humility Isaiah describes in today’s 1st reading, words uttered centuries in advance:
"He does not cry out; he does not shout; he does not make his voice heard in the street; he does not break the bruised reed; and he does not quench the smoldering wick." [Is 42:2-3]
Yes, Jesus, the perfect servant, teaches us something significant on this feast of His Baptism. For in that servitude Jesus shows us how to live the Christian life. In that servitude Jesus places Himself in the presence of the Father and the Spirit. In that servitude Jesus is loved by the Father who tells the world that this is His Son, the perfect servant, in whom He is well pleased. And in that servitude Jesus is loved by the Spirit whose presence manifests the perfect love of the Trinity to a sinful world awaiting redemption.

Yes, Jesus, the Son, was loved. Before the first leper was ever healed or a single parable was told, He was loved. Before any sinner was embraced; before the crowds began to gather; before palm branches were cut; He was accepted. Before Jesus began His mission; before He called even one disciple, God tore open the heavens, sent down the Holy Spirit, and cried, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” [Mt 3:17] What an ending! And what a beginning!

“In my end is my beginning.”

God’s love was present at the beginning of the journey, long before the ending was revealed. God’s approval came from the start -- before Jesus calmed the storm or set one captive free.  Jesus was beloved, even before the water became wine and before that wine, before that precious blood, was offered up for us. God’s love surrounded Jesus, not because Jesus did something, or said something, or proved something, but because He was something. He was the beloved Son of the Father.

For most of us, this kind of love is hard to understand and even harder to accept. The kind of love poured out for Jesus at his baptism…Is it really meant for us? Somehow, in our sinfulness, we’ve come to believe that God’s love must be earned, and that God’s blessings, like bonuses, are carefully calculated and rationed, the way we would do it. We see God as a sort of heavenly CPA, keeping track of our debits and credits, instead of the loving Father He has revealed Himself to be. Like Isaiah’s bruised reeds, we only feel loveable after we’ve walked on some water or fed a lot of hungry people. Smoldering wicks, we only feel accepted after we attract a crowd or successfully complete a journey. The kind of love poured out for Jesus — if it comes to us at all — should come as a benediction, not a beginning.

When Jesus plunged into the waters of the Jordan, he had nothing to repent. There were no sins to wash away, no emptiness to be filled, no brokenness to be made whole. But he came to the water, anyway. When Jesus plunged into the waters of the Jordan, he was not thirsting in the desert or yearning to be healed. But he came to the water, anyway.

Jesus waded into the river to join prostitutes and thieves, to join gossips and liars and haters. He joined rough soldiers and dishonest shopkeepers. He joined tax collectors and tax cheats. You see, brothers and sisters, Jesus doesn’t go into the waters of Baptism alone. He joins us in the water; he joins you and me to show us that God’s love is our birthright. God’s blessing is our gift, right from the start.

He comes into the water to tell us there’s no village too remote, no river too foul, no place of temptation so terrible that God is not already there, waiting to take us by the hand, to lead us to salvation. Recall the revealing words of Isaiah:
“I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” [Is 42:6-7]
Paul recognized this when he asked the Romans:
“…are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” [Rom 6:3-4]
Yes, brothers and sisters, in our end is our beginning. We are truly brothers and sisters, because through our Baptism we are the Father’s children, brothers and sisters of His Son, Jesus Christ. This Jesus plunges into the water to open our eyes: to show us that heaven has been torn apart for us. Jesus wades into the Jordan to open our hearts: to show us that the love we are given must bear fruit.

And the love we are given also sends us out: out into the desert, out into the crowds, back into the river with prostitutes and gossips and petty thieves…into the river with family and neighbors and friends…into the river with the homeless, the hungry, the hopeless.

Do you recall those words at the end of the Latin Mass? "Ite missa est." It’s often translated as, “Go the Mass is ended.” But literally, it means: “Go! It has been sent.” What has been sent? Well, theologically, the Mass, the sacrifice, has been sent to the Father. But something else has been sent: nothing less than the Church…and that’s you and me. We are sent out — not to earn God’s love and approval, or even to bring Christ to the world – but to proclaim that Christ is already with us. We are sent out to proclaim, along with John:
“Rise up! Shake the water from your eyes! God is with us, not because we did something, or said something, or proved something, but because we are something!”
Yes, brothers and sisters, through His Baptism in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus shows us that God’s love is eternally present for us. The beginning of our journey came about through an act of creative love.

And the end of our journey? Well, thanks to that same love, our end is just the beginning.

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