Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2002
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10_34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)
I have a question to pose for your reflection this morning.
But before we ask the question, in order to set the context I invite you to enter into an exercise of the imagination. I want you to imagine yourself as a member of the church in Ephesus or Corinth or one of those cities to which Paul wrote letters to be read in the assembly of the community.
It's around 50 A.D. However you found your way there, you've been attracted by the people in this Christian community. You have been drawn by their obvious seriousness about God and God's work in our world; you've seen their spirit of joy and hope, their compassion and care for each other. And you've been captured by their enthusiasm about this redeemer Jesus of Nazareth. So, you experienced the call of the Lord and received the Holy Spirit in baptism.
And now the community asks you to do something new. They want to have something written to tell the story of Jesus to potential newcomers. Remember, at this point the only things the church has on papyrus are the letters of Paul; there are not 'Gospels'. You've heard all the different stories and accounts orally, of course. You may have even heard from eye-witnesses to some of the events. But the era of eye-witnesses is coming to an end. So the church needs a new kind of document. Mark will use a brand new name for this form which never existed: a "Gospel."
And so here's the question: what do you include in your "Gospel", in order to convey who Jesus was and what he was all about, for potential converts? Think about it
Well, most will surely say you have to include his passion and dying, and the resurrection. After all, that is the core of this extraordinary message. And indeed all the Gospels tell those events in one form or another.
How about the narrative of the instituting of the Eucharist? That's surely central, you have to have that. Well, not exactly. By the time John write his Gospel people are familiar with that story so John doesn't include it. Instead he substitutes the story of Jesus washing to feet of his apostles. He is really including the Eucharist because he's taking us to the deeper meaning behind the ritual, but he doesn't tell the actual event.
How about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem? Surely with Christmas being so important you have to include that or you don't have a Gospel. Well, it turns out that only Luke and Matthew tell that aspect of the story. Mark, the earliest Evangelist, begins from the time Jesus as an adult begins his public ministry, and John ignores Jesus' childhood.
I'm sure each of us would include the parable or miracle that means most to our spiritual life, say, the story of the prodigal son or the good shepherd or the raising of Lazarus. It turns out that none of those are represented in all four Gospels.
Now I think I could make a lot of money if I were to bet that not too many Christians would think to include the story of Jesus' own baptism --- and yet that's clearly important enough to be recalled by all four Gospels. Apparently you can't really get across who Jesus was and what he was about without including his baptism. So it seems we better look more carefully at what was going on there.
Look at the scene. There is this itinerant preacher who's getting a lot of attention in the area. There were a lot of desert preachers going around in those days, actually. But John is drawing the crowd. Sort of like an up-and-coming TV evangelist in our day. I'm sure the crowds that went out to hear him came with the same mix of intentions, too. Some might have been quite serious about God; others just feeling some guilt they wanted to get rid of; some just plain curious; and others going out just to have something to break the monotony. There's not much to get excited about in that area.
It's a rough place, out in the open. Remember, this isn't Fountain Square or Rockefeller Plaza. The Jordan at that point is really just a muddy creek, maybe as wide as this small church. Jesus may have been a follower of John for some time but at any rate he's in the crowd.
John preaches, the people come forward to get in line to be baptized -- and Jesus gets in line.
He gets in line with sinners; he the Holy One! Think about who he is identifying with: liars, and thieves and cheats and adulterers and con artists. Maybe someone who has killed another.
Now for John this just doesn't compute. This doesn't fit, it won't do at all! It's wrong, it's all backwards. This is not the kind of Messiah John was expecting. Remember, her was supposed to be the voice crying in the wilderness, opening the way for the Lord. The image there was of a mighty procession of the people in pilgrimage, a lot of fanfare and center-stage stuff.
John tries to stop the whole show: I'm supposed to be baptized by you. And Jesus just gently, quietly says, no, this is the way, this is the Father's scenario. Remember what Isaiah had prophesied in today's reading. He won't be crying out in the streets, he won't be making a big show; he won't even step on a bruised reed.
His way is to identify himself totally with sinners. Paul says in another place "though he himself did not know sin, he made himself to be sin" for our sakes. What an unfathomable comment: he made himself to be sin.
He got in line.
And that is the point at which his Father declares his approval of Jesus' mission, that this is one in whom he is well pleased. This is what you have to understand about him if you want to understand this messiah.
Where do we get in line today, you and I?
When we form in the middle aisle and process toward the table of the Eucharist, a sinful people accepted by our God.
Let me suggest another imaginary scenario. Imagine that you live in one of the wealthier suburbs of northwest Washington, D.C. You go to Mass each Sunday and you notice a man who is always in line to go to Communion; in fact, you would see him there every day if you attended weekday Mass. A very pious fellow, with wife and kids. And you would be in line with a spy, Robert Hanssen, a man who has been betraying his country for over 30 years and causing the deaths of some of his fellow CIA officers. And someone invited by our God to the same table.
John Paul II has published a very interesting papal exhortation for the occasion of the day of prayer for peace in a couple of weeks, where he will assemble with the world's religious leaders at Assisi. In the first sections he repeats ideas he has voiced many times over the years: there can be no peace without justice. All our efforts at building a world of peace are doomed as long as we do not create a world of just relationships with one another and between nations. But in this letter he breaks new ground, making a connection he has never made before. If there can be no peace without justice, he goes on to say, there can be no justice without forgiveness.
Forgiveness means that we do not stand over the other, we stand on the same level and look an enemy in the eye, as an equal. It's related to another key idea of his: solidarity. Unless we stand in solidarity and acknowledge that we too are sinners equally in need of reconciliation, the rest is a sham.
It has been pointed by students of world religions that all the world's great religious leaders -- Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha -- all of them call us to love, all call us to peace. Jesus is the only one who exacts of us the challenge that we forgive our enemy -- while the person is an enemy, not after he/she has become our friend.
We have been taught to concentrate on the real presence of the Jesus we will meet at the end of this line in the middle aisle, whose body and blood, soul and divinity is offered to us. I suggest that we need to complete our spirituality by reflecting on the Jesus who is in line with us as we approach the altar: the Jesus who identifies with the wife-beater, the addict, the mother who deserts her child, the traitor -- and the terrorist. Jesus comes as the savior of all, of all the nations, not just 'the elect.'
We are challenged get in line with Jesus -- and his mystical body.
If we do, if we stand on the same level with the rest of the sinners in line with us and with the Jesus who identifies with us each and all, the Father who gives us Jesus at the altar will say "You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased."