Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Baptism and a New Beginning

In her book, The Jesus Wisdom, Cythia Bourgeault writes:
Seeking leads to finding, yes, but the result of that finding is often to plunge you into confusion and disorientation as the new information rattles the cage of your old paradigm. Only gradually, as you can make room for what this gospel calls "wonder," does a new universe begin to knit itself together around you, and you come to rest on a new foundation.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas Season, is a feast that is actually part of the broader celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord. Although we in the West associate the great solemnity of the Epiphany with the three "kings" and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Early Church saw the Epiphany as including three great mysteries in the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the wedding at Cana (the occasion of Jesus' first miracle).

But of these mysteries, the Baptism of the Lord often leaves us at something of a loss, because it is a difficult event in the life of Jesus to grasp. On the one hand, we can appreciate the great revelation (the epiphany--manifestation) of Jesus as the Father's "Beloved Son." On the other, however, we can struggle to understand why Jesus would need to be baptized at all. He was, as we believe, the sinless one. So, why then did he feel it necessary to go down into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by his kinsman John?

To put it simply, the Baptism of Jesus is an outward expression of God's willingness to join us in the messiness of life. As Sister Melannie Svoboda, S.N.D., reminds us in her reflection for today's feast: 
[In today's Scriptures] God seems to be saying, "I like being with you." Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks of "my servant... my chosen one in whom I am pleased." That servant could refer to Israel itself or even Isaiah. But the Christian tradition has identified him with Jesus... God likes being with us too, with you and me--even if we sometimes do unlikeable things. Isn't that what we celebrate at Christmas? God became incarnate in the person of Jesus to be with us and show us how to live. (from Give Us This Day, January 2016) 
The Baptism of Jesus is a feast of revelation, yes, but it is also a feast of who we are... or rather, of what we are called to become: “The Father of immortality sent his immortal Son and Word into the world; he came to us to cleanse us with water and the Spirit. … He breathed on us the spirit of life and armed us with incorruptibility. Now if we become immortal, we shall also be divine; and if we become divine after rebirth in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, we shall also be coheirs with Christ after the resurrection of the dead” (Saint Hippolytus in Sermon on the Holy Theophany).

There is, however, another element of the Baptism of Jesus that is especially important as we leave behind the Christmas Season and move into the first span of Ordinary Time for this year: Jesus' baptism marks the beginning of his public life. Gone are the years of quiet labor and life in Nazareth. With the Father's blessing, Jesus sets out to begin his mission to be 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" (Isaiah 42: 7).

The days of Ordinary Time provide us with a breathing space after the festivities of Christmas to take a step back and reflect on who the Child of Bethlehem was--and is--and to move through the confusion and disorientation (described by Bourgeault) that we will undoubtedly experience as we continue to open our minds and hearts to the reality of the One who is Emmanuel--God -With-Us.   

This past January 6, the traditional date of Epiphany, I arrived in Wisconsin to begin formation with the Society of the Divine Savior (the Salvatorians); I will be formally accepted as a candidate this coming Friday, January 15. And so, these last days of the Christmas Season have also marked a new beginning in the form of an immersion into a life of service and community, much like that transition Jesus experienced following his baptism. .

Holy Apostles Formation House in Milwaukee,
the home of the formation community for the US Province of the Salvatorians

I remain grateful for the comments and prayers that so many have offered over the past weeks and months. My prayer is that these grace of Christmas Season will continue to be a blessing for you as we enter the verdancy of Ordinary Time and I continue to ask for your prayers as I transition back into religious life, coming to rest "on a new foundation," as a spiritual son of Father Francis Jordan.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord +
O God, whose Only Begotten Son
has appeared in our very flesh,
grant, we pray, that we may be inwardly transformed
through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

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