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Thursday, 9 January 2014

Baptism of the Lord Year A 2014

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 ended with and culminated in the voice of the heavenly Father Himself declaring:

            This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.

Notice that when John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to some of his disciples he did so by telling them of the mission Jesus would fulfil, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), just as the prophet Isaiah himself had done in our first reading, Here is My servant whom I uphold, My chosen one with whom I am well pleased … he shall bring forth justice to the nations.

At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, however, the Father Himself -- speaking directly from heaven -- does not reveal Jesus by any words indicating what He had been sent to do for us; far from that, indeed, infinitely more than that, He proclaims simply and solely, the Person of Jesus; and, in doing so, He reveals His own Self, with the words:  

            This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased.

With that proclamation the Father gives us a glimpse of the very essence of Divine Life and Beatitude in which the Father and Son are eternally One in the Holy Spirit of Love; and by manifesting His sheer delight in His Son made flesh, He thereby invites us to delight -- with Him -- in Jesus, ourselves; not simply, nor even primarily, because of what He does for us and on our behalf, but because of Who He is, the Holy One of God, both in Himself and with the Father.

There can, therefore, be no doubt about the focal point of our celebration today: we must look at, and seek to grow in appreciation of, Jesus, the Father's only  begotten and well-beloved Son, God’s chosen Servant in Whom His soul delights. 

Because it is well known that in the Church’s process of canonization it needs to be shown that candidates for such an honour had practiced Christian virtues to a heroic degree, it is easily assumed that holiness demands, first of all, the verifiable practice of public virtues.  This then leads certain devout, but nonetheless misguided, Catholics to think that holiness of life calls for the determining of a list of such virtues, which are then to be given special attention, one by one, and perfected by and in personal practice, until, hopefully, all are mastered … while always, of course, rejecting sin and avoiding occasions thereof.

Such thinking, however, is negative in its appreciation of Christian spirituality, in which -- as the word itself proclaims -- the Spirit should lead: it is also too redolent of pride in its reliance on human calculation (these virtues, in this order) and human endeavours (attentive practice gradually leading to perfection), and consequently, it projects a very barren approach to, and unattractive picture of, Christian holiness of life.

In truth, Christian holiness in all its fullness and purity cannot be characterized as anything other than a blazing fire of delight in God, above all and in all; as was shown most sublimely by our Blessed Lord Jesus Himself – in His Father’s house and about His Father’s business -- when lost to Mary and Joseph in the Temple at Jerusalem.  For Catholic  and Christian holiness of life, the practice of virtues flows freely and unconstrainedly from such a personally transforming and transcending Gift of divine love under the accompanying and ever-developing spirit of wisdom, self-discipline, and understanding.

First of all, therefore, we must want, seek, and pray to appreciate the Person of Jesus sent and given to us by the Father; and then, in Jesus and by the power of His Spirit, we should try to recognize, appreciate, and respond personally to, the Father, so that we begin to share in Jesus' own love for the Father.  Only in that way can our calling to become true disciples of Jesus be fulfilled, can we, in Him, become true children of the Father, by the Spirit.  

In our endeavour to appreciate something more of Jesus, therefore, let us turn our attention back to the prophet Isaiah who told us, in the first reading:

Here is My servant whom I uphold, My chosen one with I am pleased, upon Whom I have put My Spirit; He shall bring forth justice to the nations. 

And then let us recall what Peter told us in the second reading:

You know how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.

Both passages clearly relate to St. Matthew’s account in today’s Gospel reading of Jesus' experience on the occasion of His baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist:

After Jesus was baptized, He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for Him), and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon Him.
Now, John had not wanted to baptize Jesus, as you heard:

John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You are coming to me?” 

Jesus, however, insisted; He had come to do His Father's will -- all righteousness -- which meant that His life could not be lived in accordance with ordinary human standards, nor could it be subject to merely human judgements, however holy or authoritative those making such judgements might be:

Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  

Isaiah had foretold what mission the Father had in mind for Jesus:

            He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. 

Few words, indeed, but full of meaning, because the prophet’s ‘justice’ means God's truth and love, God’s own righteousness, ruling in us and bringing our lives to fulfilment.
Moreover, the prophet foretold how the Servant would go about His work, and so, indirectly, gave us some idea about what sort of person the Servant would prove to be:

He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. 

He will not, Isaiah says, abuse simple people by bombast, nor take advantage of them by any haranguing of emotional crowds; He will proclaim His message of justice and truth calmly, proscribing the violence of excitement, and showing full respect for His hearers.
Isaiah went on to show us another engaging aspect of God's Chosen Servant, when he added:

A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.

And so, though anointed with the Spirit and with power, Jesus would -- the prophet said -- be characterized by His gentleness, His personal respect for, and appreciation of, others.  This Peter confirmed in our second reading, saying:

He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.

Nevertheless, since Jesus 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 bring to our attention to yet another characteristic of the Chosen Servant and Beloved Son:

He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth.

And so, though -- in His gentleness and personal respect -- neither breaking what was bruised nor extinguishing what might still dimly glow, the Servant’s anointing with the Spirit and with power will not allow Him to become disheartened or be crushed by His painful experiences of life in a sinful world: He will be strong when facing trials similar to those we still encounter in our daily lives, and remain steadfast when encountering others far greater and more testing than any we will ever know, for He will live through them as the Servant obedient and faithful to His Lord at all times, as the Son in all things loving and witnessing to His Father.  Thus, Jesus would be like us -- one with us and able to understand us -- and yet, for all that, He would be most wonderfully and sublimely Unique: the only true One faithfully bringing forth justice and fulfilling all righteousness,  the supremely strong One, neither faltering nor failing in His mission:

            Till He has established justice in the earth.

And that, People of God, also means that Jesus will never give up seeking to help each one of us to recognise the Father's goodness and appreciate His love, nor in any way ever moderate His endeavours to gradually raise us up, by His Spirit, to become more and more worthy children of such a Father.

Today, however, there are many who try to proclaim the love of Jesus us by telling us how much He empathizes with us in our sufferings because He too has suffered; how His whole longing and aim is to bring us comfort and release, 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.   And that is a travesty of the full truth; one which, though easy to proclaim, can be deadly in its effects; for it is a half-truth that would leave us no longer looking up to heaven but resting here on earth.  

The true Jesus, the Scriptures tell us:

Will not fail nor be discouraged till He has established justice in the earth;

that is, true justice in the hearts and minds, the lives and loves, of you and me, and all others like us throughout the whole world who will listen to His Good News and learn to fight the good fight here on earth while seeking for and aspiring to a new, eternal, home being prepared for us in heaven.

People of God, we are not always ready, perhaps not always willing, to lift our eyes to heaven, because the devil both abuses our weakness and disguises our ignorance so that we do not truly know our own needs, nor do we dare to recognise our own failings.  But Isaiah tells us clearly in the name of the Lord:

I formed You (My Servant) and set You as a covenant of the people, as 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. 

And so, since we all are – at times -- blind and prisoners to a greater or lesser degree, let us take care lest through pride we reject, or in fear turn away from, God's gift of such a Saviour sent to free us from the bonds of our perhaps well-loved sins and open our eyes to what we might indolently prefer to ignore. Therefore, People of God, putting our deepest trust in those words of the prophet Jeremiah (31:3-4):

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with loving-kindness I have drawn you, again I will build you and you shall be rebuilt,

let us resolve this very day to allow, indeed to beseech, God to rebuild our lives as He sees best, by conforming us in the Spirit to Jesus, in and from Whom alone we can learn to appreciate and love, ever more and more, the Father Who has revealed both Himself and His beloved Son to us in our Gospel reading today:

After Jesus was baptized, He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for Him), and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon Him.  And a voice came from the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased."