Baptism

“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

One of the most important contributions of Vatican II was to reaffirm baptism as the primal sacrament, the sign of incorporation into the body of Christ, which is the source of Christian discipleship. Every other sacrament supports this essential identity. We are in union with Christ, and our human growth is informed and guided by a parallel unfolding of the Christ within us.

Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. John’s baptism was a sign of purification and renewal — turning away from sin to life in God. But it was also a public and political act, a re-enactment of the Exodus, reprising the birth of the nation and an affirmation of faith that God is the One Who Saves, calling Israel out of oppression into freedom. To be baptized was a badge of defiance and sedition against the occupying Romans and against King Herod. It was not for some spiritual message alone or even public criticism of Herod's adulterous marriage that John was arrested and beheaded. By being baptized by John, Jesus was identifying himself and his subsequent ministry as an act of resistance.

But something far more profound was revealed in Jesus’ baptism. In entering the waters of the Jordan, Jesus not only recapitulated Hebrew history, he fulfilled it. He becomes Israel, God’s beloved Son. He is the focus and meaning of the ancient stories of creation at the movement of the Spirit over the waters, the dove that renewed human hope after the flood, the sky opening as it did each time God spoke to the prophets. In an overflowing moment of contemplation, Jesus feels the Law and the Prophets converging on him and setting in motion the rest of the story. Like the moment in the synagogue at Nazareth, after completing his 40 days in the desert, Jesus understands that everything is about him, God’s word is coming true in his hearing and in the witness of John, the final gatekeeper between the old and new covenants.

Our baptism makes our part in this story and reveals that our relationship with Jesus is the meaning of our lives. Baptism is a total life story, from its first stirrings in our human development to full maturity in accepting the paschal mystery — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus — as the defining principle and path of our lives. It is a mystery more important than any other agenda, ambition or accomplishment, because it is a summons to be our true self.

John the Baptist's Joy

“My joy is complete” (John 3:30).

Fr. Jim Smith, pastor of St. Matthias Church in Columbus, Ohio, and a longtime contributor to Celebration, died Jan 5, 2013. He was 78. The many homilies he preached and published over the years showed a persistent pursuit of the mystery of God. He came at this mystery from every angle, with every kind of question about the human experience of encountering God in joy, suffering, life and death, and even in our wrestling with the deep conundrums of social and personal evil, natural catastrophe, the suffering and terrible injustices that befall the innocent. Jim approached God in prayer and study, in his daily Mass, in the night watches of his own suffering. They were like old friends who could talk about anything, share everything, push the hard questions to the limit, go as deeply into the silence as was humanly possible for Jim, who would then wait, pray, and finally submit to the mystery. On his deathbed, he reportedly expressed his eagerness to meet God face to face, to “see if I have gotten it right.”

Permeating all of his homilies was the centrality of love. God was not a problem to be solved, but had to be pursued the way a lover pursues the beloved, until you realize that you are in fact being pursued — as the beloved. And because love has no limits, to be in love with God meant being stripped of every defense, every pretense and delusion, including the carefully guarded notion that our human ego is somehow outside of and independent of God. Total surrender in love is the only way we know ourselves, who we are in God, in whose image we have been called into being, named and known completely.

John’s Gospel presents the nuptial covenant as the deepest sign of God’s desire for union with us. So Jesus’ public ministry begins at a wedding in Cana, where he reveals himself by changing water used for ceremonial washings into an extravagant gift of wine. Continuing this theme in today’s Gospel, a dispute has arisen over ceremonial washings, so the people ask John the Baptist about the meaning of his ministry at the river. He answers by introducing the image of a wedding, saying that he is not the bridegroom, only a friend of the bridegroom. He is secondary, a messenger only, and that when the real bridegroom comes, his role will be to step aside. “He must increase; I must decrease.” At the same time, John says that at the sound of the bridegroom’s voice, his own joy is complete.

Jim Smith was such a friend of the bridegroom. He heard and shared the voice of Jesus during his long ministry, and now his own encounter with God, face to face, has happened, and his joy is complete.

Leper

“He stretched out his hand and touched him” (Luke 5:14).

The flu season has hit with force, sickening thousands and claiming many lives across the country. Health experts focus on prevention — a flu shot, frequent hand washing and common-sense rules about avoiding contact. Modern medicine knows a lot about how contagious disease spreads and we are well to heed its warnings.

Yet we must also balance this against the experience that touch is essential to our physical and spiritual health. We cannot live or communicate deeply without touching one another. Anyone who has watched a mother and child knows that parenting is a tactile art. Exaggerated or uninformed fear of contagion shuts down good touch, and widespread fears can shape and divide whole societies into castes and racial and ethnic groups that are irrational and profoundly destructive.

Jesus heals a leper in today’s Gospel, and Luke indicates the challenge this represented by using the verb “to stretch” in describing the action. Jesus is constantly stretching out, reaching across barriers and taboos to restore outcasts to the community. He eats with sinners, moves freely among the morally and physically contaminated, touching and being touched. We follow him when we stretch our lives to welcome others, touch their troubles, enter and share their worlds. Ordinary prudence aside, not to stretch for fear of contamination is to shrivel and retreat from life. We are meant to be stretched to the limit to grow in love and to know just how infinite the heart of God really is.

Formed by the Word

“This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Imagine that early in your adult life you find an envelope with your name on it lying on a table at home. Inside is a text that describes someone with your ideals. You try to live up to this description as best you can. A year later another envelope appears on the seat of your car. Again, the message is general but represents your deepest values, so you try to be that person. Over the years, a succession of messages arrives at varying intervals, but you realize that each text comes only when you have fulfilled the earlier one. It is like you are getting the script for your life, both specific to your situation but always open-ended, leaving you to figure out how to apply it.

The four Gospels provide our only window to the person of Jesus, but through the glass darkly of their complex theological interpretations, we find someone immersed in the Scriptures. His parables and sayings, regarded by scholars as original to Jesus, reveal a mind formed by the imagery and ideas of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophetic books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. They show us a spirituality shaped by the Psalms and other Wisdom writings. Jesus' life seems to unfold according the Scriptures as he steps into the role of Isaiah’s Servant. He knows the psalms by heart, their full range of praise, struggle, hope and anguish.

This is never more clear than in today’s reading from Luke 4, in which Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to deliver his inaugural vision by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Isa 61:1). After the reading, with all eyes and ears in the synagogue fixed on him, he then says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” From this time on, his life, ministry and death will be defined by the Word he has just submitted to with all his heart.

Are we not all formed by the Word of God? The question becomes -- what text are we living by, seeking to fulfill today? We are scripted for life, and God’s Spirit is eager to anoint us to know and fulfill who we really are.

Passage

"It is I, don't be afraid" (Mark 6:50).

A long sleepless struggle delivers us to that deep place where night is passing to dawn. Tangled bedclothes and a pillow stained with sweat show evidence of an anguished grappling with no way forward. All resources exhausted, we beg for relief, an answer, the insight and courage to take the next step. Acceptance or action, we cannot stay where we are. It has become a matter of life or death.

Once we understand that the Gospels are not so much narratives as manuals -- "how-to" instructions for discipleship, today's story of the disciples in the boat from Mark 6 takes on new power. We call these texts “passages” and indeed they are just that. To enter into them is to encounter a living Word who invites us into transformation. Yesterday's account of Jesus feeding the crowds in the wilderness, then, in today's reading, sending his disciples on ahead in the boat across the sea, were meant to introduce the newly baptized of Mark’s community to the paschal mystery, itself a reprise of the exodus story. Jesus, like Moses, provides manna in the wilderness. He is the bread God sends to satisfy us. This is the same God who saved Israel from bondage. The exodus from Egypt was their "Passover," the establishing event in their relationship with God. When their backs were to the sea and everything seemed against them, God was with them, opening up a way when all seemed hopeless.

The disciples are being taught by these repeated lake crossings, tossed by rough seas in the darkest hour, the wind against them, that Jesus (and for the early Christian community this was the risen Jesus) would always be with them. No phantom, this Jesus walks with them upon the water. The boat will survive the passage from death to new life -- the meaning of baptism -- and, even more dramatically, Christians will learn how to walk in continual passover through every storm, and they will even dance upon the waters of death when necessary. By his crossing, Jesus has overcome death. We now share that power, unafraid, reassured that Jesus is always with us.

The story is now our own and is the source of our daily discipleship. It will not make sense until we experience it, in both small passages from fear to courage, or in those moments that come in the middle of the night, our spirits exhausted with fear and doubt threatening our security, our very existence. "Courage, it is I, don't be afraid."

Abundance

“Give them some food yourselves” (Mark6:38).

Competition over resources is often based on the assumption of scarcity. Economics, the soul of Capitalism, says that supply and demand are key factors in how we determine price. If something is scarce, its value increases. The perception of scarcity promotes the fear that there isn’t enough for everyone, so I must fight for what I or my family needs or others will get it. Social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest — is a driving force in our politics, foreign policy and social relations. It justifies the conclusion that, as unfortunate as it is, there will always be the haves and the have-nots, because there just isn’t enough to go around.

Jesus challenges this logic and the fear it generates with the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. However we understand this story, the results were surely miraculous. Somehow, in a crowd of thousands of hungry people, enough food appeared to satisfy everyone. Jesus transformed a fearful, competitive, anxious mob into a joyful community celebrating abundance.

Imagine how different a single day might be if we assumed that we actually could provide abundantly for everyone who asked us for something — our time, our talents, our material resources. How would assuming abundance change a fearful or competitive situation into one of eager generosity? It comes down to this: Do we trust in Providence? Even more importantly, do we believe that God will enable us to be a provider when others come to us in need? Perhaps we will never know unless we try it.

Epiphany

“Your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1)

Satellite maps reveal the intense proliferation of light in those areas where energy and development are present. Major metropolitan areas around the globe and whole swaths of populated regions glow with artificial light, while undeveloped nations remain in the dark.

The notion that light represents progress and achievement is both true and false. Physical light enables us to see at night, but it does not always reflect meaningful activity. And pushing back the night sky can be ruinous for cultures where night means rest, family closeness around the hearth, storytelling and music, the source of shared life.

The biblical notion that God is light and that God’s messenger comes into a darkened world as light is as old as human evolution, begun around the first campfires that provided security and warm food. Epiphany celebrates God’s appearance in the world as a light in the darkness, first recorded by prophets like Isaiah, later by the Gospel writers as fulfilled in Jesus. The story of the magi captures the truth that the promised messiah came not just to the Chosen People but for the entire world. Outsiders were alerted that something stupendous has happened and that a star would guide them to the place where they would see how God was pushing back the universal shadow of sin and death that had swallowed up human hope. The magi arrive to find a poor couple and their baby. Only wisdom could penetrate this paradox, but they had eyes to see that this child was the light of the world.

Their faith stupefies ordinary logic. How can something so small and powerless accomplish our salvation? Herod, blind and utterly arrogant to the implications of the star, seeks to murder the child. History shows that power often responds in the same way and, in fact, daily destroys thousands of poor couples and their children with economic and political systems designed to serve privilege and wealth for the few at the expense of the many. What an astonishing truth we have yet to understand and welcome — that God is coming to save us through the poor and the vulnerable. Jesus came as one of them and took his place among them, preaching a Gospel of life, liberation and freedom for them. They — the crucified people of history, living in darkness around the world -- are the light of the world. To see them, know them, welcome them and love them is our own salvation.

Mother Seton

“Come and See” (John 1:39).

The long journey Elizabeth Ann Bayley made from daughter of a wealthy Episcopalian couple to wife, mother, widow, Catholic convert and then “Mother Seton,” founder of the first Catholic school in New York and proto-founder of some six communities of religious women in the United States, defies her brief 46 years (1774-1821). She was born before the American Revolution, was a contemporary of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and, like them, set in motion trajectories of influence that helped define both the nation and the church. How can we account for this astonishing vision and energy?

Today’s Gospel (John 1:35-42) gives us a glimpse into the heart of every Christian vocation. The two disciples of John the Baptist responded to his designation of Jesus as the one they were to follow. They asked Jesus where he was staying. His response defined the rest of their lives: “Come and see.” They came, they saw, and they remained with him. From that time on, their lives were formed and nourished in his company until the day he said farewell with the words, “Remain in my love” (cf. John 15-17). After his death and resurrection, the Spirit of Jesus continued to be their intimate companion and the guiding source of their mission to build up the church.

Mother Seton accomplished her mission because her heart was focused entirely on her relationship with Jesus. This source and center enabled her influence to grow long after her death. Her vocation as an educator revealed this same pattern. To give a child a deep formation from the start is to point them to a life of expanding human potential and, even more, a destiny with God, the source of Life itself.

Peace

“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove…” (John 1:32).

The story is told of a man who went hunting in a wooded area. As the sun rose behind the trees, the man was touched by the beauty of the fresh morning and stopped to pray. He sat on a fallen log and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he was surrounded by small woodland creatures that had come out of hiding and approached him.

John saw Jesus coming toward him and he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” The figure God was sending to change the world was not conceived in terms of power but as the gentlest and most innocent creature of all. God’s justice and grace would be brought not by the sword but by a man of such profound peace that he would first fall victim to the violent forces of evil. Only then would love triumph over death and the paschal pattern of self-sacrifice be revealed as the ultimate power that can change the world from the inside out.

Jesus came up out of the water after John’s baptism, and God’s favor descended on him in the form of a dove. A dove does not descend on a man of violence or anger. If we want peace, we must become peaceful in the depths of our being. It is here, in the heart, that the kingdom of God begins.

Who Are You?

“I am not” (John 1:21).

John the Baptist tells us who he is by first saying who he is not. He is not the Christ, not Elijah, not the Prophet. Who is he? He is a voice – “a voice crying in the wilderness” (Isa 40). He is the mouthpiece of the Word that is calling forth newness from the void. Something totally new is being created from an old, tired, wounded world, and it will appear like a bloom in the desert.

A new year invites us to start again, resolving to do something new. The process begins with self-knowledge. If you do not know who you are, there will be no self to be true to, no inner reality to express in word and action. A good way to begin to know who you are is to know who you are not. You are not someone else. You are not an extension of your parents or friends or someone the culture assigns you to be. You are not your brother or sister, your favorite teacher, movie star or some fantasy avatar you create on Facebook to attract more friends, more likes, more approval. You are a unique self, gifted and limited, blessed and handicapped in precise ways, one of a kind, never was, never will be, just you, who you are. Strip away everything false, fantasized, hyped, hopped up and hoped for but not real, and what is left will be you, your real self and your very best friend.

It follows that your contribution is also unique. If you do not figure out who you are and what you are meant to do in the time granted you, it will not be done and will be missing from the graced, intended complete reality being created by everyone with their unique contributions. There will be something missing from everyone’s eternity if you are not there. The one work of life is to become yourself, then share yourself as completely as you can with others. Together we are everything God saw from the beginning, whole complete and as beautiful as it can be for all eternity. This may be a big resolution for the new year, but now is the perfect time to begin by doing your part -- to simply be yourself.

Pages