Sunday, January 11, 2009

Of Beloved Sons & Baptism

Today the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus.  Its whole theology is at the root of the Christian sacrament of baptism, and that means more than just a "christening", more than having a child "done" liturgically, more than admission to a Holy Club.  I see it as the unique "ordination", if you will, of every baptized person, the initiation into one's unique mission and ministry in human and spiritual life.  Regardless of the age at which one is baptized, there are profound implications for the rest of one's life, even if individually we forget to or don't acknowledge them.

Dealing as my family and I have been with my son's serious illness these past few weeks, I find the passage in Mark's Gospel today most poignant: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."   Coincidentally, Andrew celebrated the 34th anniversary of his own baptism last Tuesday, January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.  He was baptized at St. Barnabas Catholic Church, Alameda, CA, by my seminary classmate, Fr. Jim Franck.

We’ve just recently celebrated the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. There’s always the danger of focussing entirely on Jesus, the baby. Our remembrance of His birth should lead us to the further consideration of the life and death of the person whom the baby grew to be. We too often get emotionally caught up in the music, the art, the joy of the wonderful Christ Child and his mother. What should be the beginning of a journey becomes all that there is. If our joy centers only on a remembrance, then we miss Christmas’ challenge and call.

What Mark records in today’s Gospel account is the first event in Jesus’ life about which he tells us. Some folks find this story of Jesus’ baptism troubling. If the only purpose of John’s baptism was a cleansing from sin, the story would seem to clash with the belief that Jesus was without sin. If you look at Matthew’s interpretation of the event, even John the Baptizer is troubled by Jesus’ request for baptism. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says, “and do you come to me?” Jesus reassures John, saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteouness.” Both Mark and Matthew subtly allude to a passage in the 42nd chapter of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him...” Jesus would have been quite familiar with that passage. He accepts his calling to be God’s servant, to do justice and to set things right, something that can be accomplished only by his accepting and affirming his relationship with people who are aware that they need to be made right with God.

By being conceived and born of a human mother, Jesus became our brother. In his baptism he now affirms that he’s truly one with us as we are, not just as we should be. There’s a lyric in the familiar Christmas carol, “O come, all ye faithful”, which says “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.” The more amazing truth is that Jesus abhors not the water of baptism and all that it implies of our need to be cleansed and healed and made right with God. A Jesus who would have entered the human experience only when it was good and right couldn’t have touched us as we really are. A Jesus who enters our lives without changing them is only “slumming”. What we need and what God has given us in God’s Beloved, is One who constantly enters our lives at their worst, and yet renews and restores them.

In Jesus, God is revealed as one who is determined to get involved in the messy human enterprise. It leads Jesus at once into temptation, into a ministry of teaching, with some people rejecting his message, and into a ministry of healing, even of people not always so appreciative of his effort. Eventually it led Jesus to imprisonment and the Cross. Jesus responds to the call of the God whom Isaiah knew. Like the prophet himself, Jesus knows that God involves Godself with real human beings, and he himself can respond in no other way.

What about us?? Think for a moment about what happens when a child is adopted into a family. If the child is asked: “When were you adopted?” he/she can give a specific day and year. But that isn’t really when adoption happens. Adoption happens when the child takes his or her place in the day-to-day relating among people in a family: at the point when the child says “I choose these particular people, in this particular context, regardless of their shortcomings and failings, to be my family: my father, mother, brothers and sisters.” Becoming part of a family in more than just name is a long, slow, creative process.

Baptism is much like adoption. It happens at a specific time and place on a specific day. (Mine was on March 14, 1937, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Dayton, OH.) But somehow, baptism doesn’t, from our viewpoint, “take” until the person baptized deliberately accepts the risk to live it. In Jesus, God calls each of us as God’s son or daughter. Can we deliberately risk responding to that call? And to what, exactly, does God call us?

In particular, I believe that God calls you and me to be with others. By virtue of being adopted as God’s children, we’re thereby made brothers and sisters of one another. Sometimes that’s a source of immense joy. But if you’ve lived in a family with your siblings, you probably know that it isn’t all sharing a plate of fresh cookies on the back porch in the sunshine! A little boy prayed fervently in Sunday school: “Dear God, please bless everybody except Tommy.” The teacher assured the boy that God understood that his little brother was often difficult to live with, but that God loved Tommy very much. “Then he’s a mighty funny kind of God,” said the little boy.

Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptizer, and Jesus all found that the God who calls us, calls us into relationships involving risk and cost, sometimes with people we’d perhaps never choose as our friends, much less as our sisters and brothers! But, then, God is a funny kind of God: funny enough to love and call all of us.

The struggle you and I experience in living out baptism isn’t so much choosing between good and evil as choosing between patterns which lead to greater love, acceptance, unity, goodness, and freedom; and patterns which don’t. Stealing, for example, is evil. Hardening one’s heart against the poor is evil; murder is evil; letting people starve to death, wherever they are in the world, is evil. But so is denying anyone the chance to continue to grow; or playing to the worst in others. Any of us can honestly say that we’ve never killed anyone. On a scale of virtue, that would be worth a 10. But what about the times we’ve “sunk the knife” into someone with a cutting remark or a glare? What of the times we lock people into our own expectations; or the times we write people off simply on the basis of some insigificant or selfish standard of ours? “Dear God, please bless everyone except this person or that person.” Each of us has a “Tommy”.

In calling us into relationship with his Father, Jesus calls us both to be made right ourselves and to become part of God’s desire to call all people, all of life, into right relationship. If we pretend we’re already in such a good and right relationship with God, so that we don’t need healing, we’re in actuality refusing God’s love. People who thought of themselves as holy enough refused John’s offer of baptism -- but not Jesus. Keeping our relationship with God a private matter, just between God and me alone, isn’t an option. God can’t and won’t be so confined. If you invite Jesus to dinner, you need to be prepared for him to show up with his other friends. And you never know whom he’ll bring: perhaps someone you’ve never gotten to know, perhaps someone “interesting” or sophisticated, “our kind”. But then again, he may just bring Tommy.

In baptism you and I are given to one another, called to live in relationship, because that’s the way Jesus chooses to extend his love and grace in the world. We’re each of us God’s “Beloved”, called to be a “light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind”, to release those bound up in darkness and hopelessness. May God, as with Jesus, be “well pleased” with you and me -- and yes, even with Tommy! 

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