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Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Baptism of the Lord (A)

(Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

Our readings today began with the Lord saying through the prophet Isaiah:
Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights;
and they ended, as you heard from the Gospel of St. Matthew, with the voice of the heavenly Father declaring:
            This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
There can, therefore, be no doubt about the focal point of our celebration today: we must look at, and learn to appreciate, Jesus, the Father's beloved and only-begotten Son, His chosen Servant in Whom His soul delights. 
Notice, first of all then, that the Father does not proclaim Jesus as did John the Baptist by declaring:
Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
At the Baptism in the Jordan, the Father does not say "this is your Saviour" nor any other such introductory words making reference to Jesus’ saving mission.  No, the Father’s proclamation relates Jesus to Himself, expressing His delight in His Son-made-flesh; and thereby the Father would seem to  invite us to learn, first of all, to delight in Jesus because of Who He is, not simply because of what He does for us:
            This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
The canonization of saints can be somewhat misleading: because it has to be shown that any candidate for canonization had practiced Christian virtues to a heroic degree, people can easily think that holiness demands, first of all, the practice of virtues.  That in turn leads some devout people and even spiritual teachers to consider the pursuit of the spiritual life to be a matter of drawing up a list of virtues, practicing the first until it is mastered, then going on to the next virtue, and so on; meanwhile, of course, always avoiding any trace of sin.  That can lead to a very strange image of and negative attitude to, Christian living: indeed, it can lead to a very unattractive and somewhat inhuman way of life.
In fact, however, Christian holiness can only be characterized -- fundamentally and essentially -- as loving God, whole-heartedly and supremely, at all times and under all circumstances; avoidance of evil and the practice of virtues following necessarily and even naturally from that all-absorbing love.
First of all, therefore, that such love may reign in our hearts and in our lives, we must learn to appreciate the Person of Jesus presented to us by the Father; and then -- in Jesus and by the power of the Spirit -- we must learn to listen and follow as Jesus, in His turn, reveals the Father to us in all His majesty, faithfulness and truth, beauty and goodness.  Thus we might begin to learn how to love the Father with Jesus' own love, being shared with us through the Spirit, for in that way we are called to become adopted -- but authentic, and true -- children of the Father, in Jesus, by the Spirit.
Let us, therefore, look anew at today's readings.
Isaiah told us, in the first reading, about the Servant:
Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations;
while Peter told us in the second reading:
You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power.
Both passages clearly relate to Jesus' experience in the Jordan at His baptism by John.  After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him.  In that way we know that Isaiah's prophecies about the Servant were, indeed, prophecies about Jesus. 
Now, John had not wanted to baptise Jesus, as you heard:
John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?"
Jesus, however, would have none of that: He had come to do His Father's will ("all righteousness") which meant that His life could not be lived in accordance with merely human standards nor be subject to merely human judgements, however holy those setting such standards or making such judgements:
Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." 
Isaiah had foretold the mission the Father had in store for Jesus:
            He will bring forth justice to the nations.
Few words, but words full of meaning, because "justice" means the truth about God and God's truth for us.
But Isaiah devoted more words to telling us how the Servant, Jesus, would go about His work; in other words, telling us something about what sort of Person the Servant would prove to be:
He will not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the street.
There would be no taking advantage of simple people by bombast, nor any haranguing of emotional crowds: He was to proclaim His message of justice, calmly, truthfully, and with full respect for His hearers.
Isaiah then went on to show us another aspect of God's Chosen Servant -- the Son, in Whom the Father delights -- when he said:
A bruised reed He will not break and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish.
And so, although anointed with the Spirit and with power, Jesus would be characterized by His gentleness to and, once again, His respect for, His people.   St. Peter confirmed this in our second reading:
Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
Nevertheless, since He had been given the mission to bring forth true justice on earth, He would inevitably meet with opposition in a sinful world, and this prospect led Isaiah to give another characteristic of the Chosen Servant and Beloved Son:
He will not be disheartened or crushed until He has established justice in the earth.
Neither breaking what is bruised nor extinguishing what glows but dimly , He Himself would be neither disheartened nor crushed by His experiences of life in a sinful world.  He would, indeed, experience similar trials to those we experience, but He would live through them as the Son beloved by His Father, as the Servant upheld by His Lord. In that way Jesus would be like us, one with us and able to understand us but, nevertheless, the One who would faithfully bring forth justice, the One Who would not falter in His mission:
            until He has established justice in the earth.
People of God, that means, Jesus will never give up in His endeavours to help us appreciate the Father's goodness and love, never give up in His endeavours to raise us up to become worthy children of such a Father.
Today, however, there are many who try to proclaim Jesus’ love by telling us how much He empathizes with us in our sufferings because He too has suffered, and how His whole purpose is to bring us comfort and joy, peace and love, now.  And they leave it at that, being unwilling or afraid to speak of any further suffering to be borne or efforts to be made by those who want to belong to God.
That is a travesty of the full truth: a comforting little half-truth, easy to speak but deadly in its effects, for it would leave us no longer looking up to, and striving for, heaven; but resting here on earth, satisfied with ourselves and our immediate prospects. 
The true Jesus, on the other hand, we are told:
Will not be disheartened or crushed until He has established justice in the earth;
that is, until He has established true justice in the hearts, minds, and lives of you and me, and of countless others like us throughout the whole world, who will listen to His Good News and learn to fight the good fight to leave behind the tinsel glitter of this world, the insidious delights of the flesh, the opinions and esteem of men, and our very own self-solicitude and pride, in order to follow His compelling love and win a new and better home in heaven.
People are not always willing to learn to lift their eyes to heaven, because the devil abuses their weakness and ignorance so that they know neither their own needs, nor the goodness of God to be found in His power presently at work in our lives and in His wondrously beautiful and fulfilling promises for our future.  But through Isaiah, God tells us clearly of the Lord:
I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind yes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.
Although we are indeed blind and prisoners, only the proud can resist God's gift of such a Saviour, Who intends indeed to free us from our sins and enlighten our ignorance by drawing us, as the prophet Hosea foretold:
            With cords of a man, with bands of love  (Hosea 11:4)
And this Jeremiah told us with even more striking words:
Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you. Again I will build you and you shall be rebuilt. (Jeremiah 31:3-4)
So, People of God, let us resolve this very day to allow God to rebuild our lives as He draws us with the cords of man and bands of love, and let us seek anew to appreciate and love more and more the Jesus recommended to us in our Gospel reading:
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
However, we should not be dismayed or disheartened when difficulties arise or trials overtake us.  The establishment of true justice in our darkened minds and unruly hearts, and in our lives formed by years of worldly conformity and self-indulgence, is both absolutely necessary and supremely sensitive, and can be as painful as it is demanding.  Nevertheless, the rewards are immeasurable greater than any such costs; for a room in our Father’s house, and a place at His eternal banquet, are already being prepared for us: a room where we will be at home, a place that will both befit us and give us honour among our fellow guests.
Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you. Again I will build you and you shall be rebuilt …..                                 
in Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, for the Father.