Reforming or Conforming? A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

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By Matthew Janeczko, OFM Cap.

It’s easy to get convinced that the most important question – the most important criteria in the world – is “what do people think of me?”  We spend so much time, effort, and worry about this question: what will my friends think of me? Or my family?  This is a game we likely all needed to play this past Christmas and New Year’s: everyone, you know, looks around at the table and checks for new clothes, new shoes, a bit more gray, we all want to know how everyone else is doing and we want to make sure that everyone knows that we’re doing just fine.

At the same time, it’s also easy to run our reactions to this question in the absolute opposite direction: I don’t care what anyone things.  I’m my own man; I’m my own woman.  No one can judge me: I’ll just be myself.

I don’t know about you, but very often I think we move between these two extremes throughout our lives: desperate to be different some days, while being very, very worried about what other people think in others.  And it’s never just a total, blanket answer either: we may not care what people think of our dress, but we do get bothered when others count our money.  Or, we don’t care about the state of our car, but when someone dares to criticize our kids or spouse: we go off the deep end.  And that’s life, isn’t it?  Or, we realize that, as an old priest once said to me: “Congratulations, you’re human.”

Yet today’s readings call us into something more than this, because they point out the fact that God judges us very different than most: not based on what we are, but who we are.  In the first reading, we get a checklist of sorts, God describing what a follower looks like:

I formed you, and set you

as a covenant of the people,

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.

God formed us and made us to be a light for the nations: nations of all types and all sizes.  Nations that are as small as the man seeking change outside the Dunkin Donuts or as large as those around the world who even until now stand up and say, “Yes, I’m a Christian,” even if it may cost them their lives.

But, of course, this is all easier said than done: for one thing, while in our heads we may know the expectations of God, we may realize how God has worked in our lives so that we find ourselves in ways where we can set others free, but it’s not as easy to start believing it in our hearts.   And, at the same time, there are so many other “pulls” on us, so many things that vie for our attention, which, if we ignore, begin to “judge” us.

That is why, I think, today’s Gospel is so important.  The account of Jesus’ baptism by John reveals a bit of awkward dialogue: Jesus, the long-awaited one, comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.  John, recognizing Jesus, attempts to get out of what he considers to be an embarrassing situation.  He knows Jesus’ identify as Messiah and wants no part of baptizing him.  Jesus, however, insists.   John consents after a bit of back and forth and baptizes Jesus.  The result is nothing other than extraordinary, for we hear:

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.

God names Jesus’ identity plainly: he is the beloved son, with whom God is well pleased.  Jesus is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit rests, the Spirit that will dwell within Him throughout his life, allowing him to be the greatest light to the nations, a light that not even the Cross can put out – a light to great that it burns through even death and culminates in resurrection.

There’s a connection here in all of this: Jesus identity is not rooted – is not based or dependent upon – what John the Baptist thinks of him.  During his life, it won’t be rooted on what the crowds think: they will love Jesus at times and at others hate him.  No, Jesus’ identity is rooted completely and precisely in his relationship to God.  And this relationship is made known to all those around in his baptism.

The same can – and should – be said of us!  Because we have been baptized, because we have been called beloved sons and daughters, our identity as Christians begins with what God has been up to in our lives.  It is God who called us into a covenant, it is God who sent His only Son to us to live, teach, die and be raised, it is God who has sent the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ among us to continue to shepherd as we live out our days as the light to the nations.

This identity, as the Beloved of Christ, prompts what I think we could call a new year’s resolution.  And since we’ve probably all given up on our former new year’s resolutions already, I’d like us to try this one on for size: let us not be con-formed to the judgments of others or ourselves, but rather “re-formed” into the Beloved that God wishes us to be.  Reform this day, this week, this year: don’t conform.  That’s a resolution worth keeping.

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Baptism, Ministry, and Ludicrous Trust

A friend had just returned from a talk given by a priest—what the precise theme was I do not remember:  I was a teenager at the time.  However, I do recall the excitement with which my friend recounted the priest’s explanation of Holy Water, and the reason why Catholics bless themselves before and after Mass.  “It wards demons and evil spirits!  It keeps them from distracting us during Mass and tempting us in life.”  Perhaps I was already a bit of skeptic in my adolescence, but though I commented not, I had a sneaking suspicion that her priest’s explanation was rather shallow.  Blessing ourselves with Holy Water has to serve a greater purpose than creating a Christian Force Field.

We Catholics are by no means the only religious adherents who bless themselves with water prior to the worship of God; in fact, in Islam and strands of Judaism and Hinduism their ritual blessings carry considerably more import than our sprinklings or signings.  Unlike these traditions, however, our oft neglected blessings with Holy Water are not prerequisites for worship:  they are reminders of our once-for-all invitation to worship God through Baptism.

Given the preeminence of Infant Baptism in the Catholic Church, I do not think the psychology of this moment can be understated (especially in youth ministry).  When we enter our churches, we are given the chance to claim for ourselves what was claimed for us in our childhood.  Not knowing whether we would grow up to be saints or jerks, our families and our Church welcomed us regardless, declaring publicly that we would be persons of faith, hope, and love.

Thus, as we dip our hands into the Holy Water font upon entering a church or chapel, we do not simply prepare ourselves for Mass, but affirm the ludicrous amount of trust placed in us years before through Baptism.   As we bless ourselves upon departure, we further accept the mission to place similarly ludicrous amounts of trust in others:  a mission which calls us to serve them and invite them to lives of love, prayer, and worship.

Catholic ministry, unsurprisingly, is guided by this same baptismal principle of trusting invitation.  We cannot come to a vocation as clergy, educator, or formator out of a sense of right or destiny.  We are servants not saviors; we are first called upon by God and by the People of God to help others foster lives of prayer and service.  Thus, while we often think of a vocation to ministry as something that is ours, we must remember that it originates in the call of another.  The first act of ministry is not our own: it proceeds from the trust of others.

As our life of faith—especially our Eucharistic practice—calls us further into contemplation of the gift and duties of our Baptism, our life of ministry demands a constant awareness of and reflection upon the trust placed in us.  If we fail to do this, we are liable to do great harm not only to these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also to ourselves.  However, if this trust is at the forefront of our prayer we will be ever reminded that our ministry is a gift, and because it is God’s gift, the source of our greatest joy and fulfillment.

The Grand Spectacle of Baptism: Flannery O’Connor’s “Strange Vision”

By Claire Bordelon
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The Baptismal scene is understandingly appealing to the authorial mind. Rich in spectacle, symbolism, and, of course, ripe for all manner of literary lampoons, these scenes are a mainstay in many corners of the literary canon. But why is this the case?  Why does Baptism’s presence seem to linger in the corners of so many texts? Is it perhaps the drama of the scene? There’s something in that. An audience often demands spectacle, and the act of submersion and renewal appeal to that type of sensibility. But what does the spectacle signify? What parts of the internal drama are manifested in the physical act of baptism?

A good literary case to consider here is Flannery O’Connor, an author well-recognized both critically and popularly, and whose personal writings offer direct insight into her story-making formula and purpose. In her recently-published prayer journal, O’Connor speaks candidly about her goal as an authoress:

Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false and low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion, although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. I don’t know if it is consistent. Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right – or any wrong.

O’Connor’s aversion to “false and low interpretation” lends itself to the often hard edge of her storytelling. She approaches the theme of Baptism in several of her short stories, and it consumes nearly all of her novel The Violent Bear it Away. However, several moments in her story “The River” (1955) make it an especially appropriate case for this discussion. In “The River,” five-year-old Harry Ashfield is left by his neglectful parents in the care of Mrs. Connin, who brings him to the riverside healing service of the Reverend Bevel Summers. Several telling catastrophes occur before they arrive at the service, but in one quieter moment of the story, Harry asks about “the man in the sheet in the picture over [Mrs. Connin’s] bed.” When Mrs. Connin explains that the man in the picture is Jesus, Harry reflects: “If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damn” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime.”

Mrs. Connin and Harry go to the healing service at the river, and Harry is taken from Mrs. Connin by the preacher to be baptized. Looking at the preacher, whose “bony face was rigid and [whose] narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky, [Harry] had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke. Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.” After Harry is baptized, the preacher tells him that he now “counts.”

Perhaps the most O’Connor-esque (that is, both spectacular and disturbing) moment in the text comes when Harry returns home the next day. When he notices that his shoes are still wet, Harry begins to think about the river and suddenly “he knew what he wanted to do.” Harry returns to the river where, determined to baptize himself and “to keep on going…until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river,” he jumps into the river and drowns.

The difficulty that critics (and readers) have had with the ending of the story is further complicated by a comment made by O’Connor herself. She noted that Harry “comes to a good end. He’s saved from those nutty parents, a fate worse than death. He’s been baptized and so he goes to his Maker; this is a good end.”

How challenging to accept these words! A good end? Surely not.  But let us consider the spectacle of Harry’s fate alongside comments made this week by Pope Francis. At his General Audience on January 8th, Pope Francis said that Baptism “gives us new birth in Christ, makes us sharers in the mystery of his death and resurrection, grants the forgiveness of sin and brings us new freedom as God’s children and members of his church…Our baptism has changed us, given us a new and glorious hope.”

What greater marvel than this? It is no wonder that writers are often drawn to the mystery of new life (however strangely they interpret it – I’m thinking especially of Kate Chopin here). The great drama of baptism occurs not in outward spectacle, but in the very depths of our hearts. It makes us sharers in the Body of Christ, in communion with the Holy Spirit. When Harry realizes the gravity of his baptismal experience, “his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for” and later, immersed in the river “all his fury and fear left him.” Baptism offers Harry ultimate salvation from his suffering, knowledge and experience of the very real change brought about by his (and our) baptism. His death, then, is death in Christ, and we have the hope of the same. Let us be thankful for the grand spectacle of baptism that poets place on the page but that occurs most authentically, beautifully, and poetically within our hearts.

I end with Flannery’s own words about poetic vision from Mystery and Manners which will perhaps offer some insight into her own “strange visions”:

Faith is a “walking in darkness” and not a theological solution to a mystery. The poet is traditionally a blind man, but the Christian poet, and storyteller as well, is like the blind man whom Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions.

Here’s the full text of “The River,” and a link to Pope Francis’ comments about Baptism.

What’s a Blog: Thoughts on the Baptism of the Lord

By Brian Niemiec

I’ve never written a blog post before.  I don’t really know where to start.  Br. Matt said that I should write about Baptism, since, well, we are celebrating the Baptism of our Lord today.  And so I’ve been thinking about what I want to say, and I can’t think of anything. I mean, it’s the Lord’s Baptism. Enough said.

I’m reading this book, Forming Intentional Disciples, by Sherry Weddell.  It’s pretty good, even though I’m only fifty pages into it. She told this one story to highlight that many Catholics, even those of us involved as ministers in the church, do not have a relationship with God.  Sure, they go to mass, say their prayers, and believe the teachings and creedal formulas of the Church, but they don’t really talk to God.

I find that extraordinary. Not because my relationship with God is great.  Trust me, Jesus and I have plenty of rough patches.  I am currently in the “we had real quality time during Advent and Christmas, but now Jesus and I need some time apart” dry spell.  I figure that rough patches are part of any relationship, and you have to push through them. Plus, I know if I don’t, the Holy Spirit will give me a swift kick in the &#@.

But having a relationship with God is what Jesus is all about.  Even at the Baptism, Jesus and the Father are so close that the Father makes a cameo: “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” Now I’m still waiting for God and me to get on that level, but I’m sure we’ll get there someday.

It’s funny how this Gospel passage – which is used as one of the transitions into Jesus’ active adult ministry – focuses so much on relationship.  If I was Jesus, I would want my baptism to have a bit more flare: river water into wine, bread from heaven for everyone, or maybe even a healing or two… but I suppose that comes later.

First came the relationship, revealed at Baptism, and it’s the same for us.  Before we receive the Eucharist, learn the Creed by heart, and go out and serve the poor, we have to learn how to talk and listen to God.  Sacraments, tradition, prayer, and of course the many ministers, ordained and lay, that walk with us on our journey with Christ are all there to assist in the most fundamental aspect of what it means to be a Catholic. Jesus gave us the Church to help us build our relationship with God, and allow that relationship to change how we live our lives.

I’m still not sure how blogs are supposed to go, so you probably won’t hear that much from me in the months ahead.  But, who knows, when Jesus and I get back from our mid-winter solitude, I may have some more things to say.

Celebrating Mateo’s Feast Day

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Baby Mateo

Today is not only the feast of the Baptism of our Lord; it’s also a feast of sorts for a newborn baby here in Denver, the first child of my close friends. Born less than 4 weeks ago on the Feast of Our Lady of the Advent (another beautiful, appropriate, and significant feast day for this little one), Baby Mateo is becoming a Christian today.

It goes without saying that this is a significant day for Mateo, the day he is united fully to Christ and His Church. But for our parish here in Denver, it’s also cause for celebration. Our tiny church only seats about 150 people and, because it doesn’t have a school, there are few young families in the parish. As you might imagine, that translates to very few infant baptisms.

When Mateo’s parents called to schedule this happy day, an overjoyed priest requested that the ceremony occur mid-Mass, as opposed to the option of taking place as a standalone ceremony. I hadn’t given that distinction much thought in the past, but I have since — and as a friend and a parishioner, I’m grateful for their choice. Celebrating this Sacrament during Mass and with anyone who happens to attend this particular Mass is even more beautiful when you consider that Mateo’s mom attended daily Mass nearly every day of her pregnancy; this community has been watching Baby Mateo grow and been praying for him for months.

Last week in Rome, Pope Francis spoke about the significance of the day we are baptized, and called on each of us to learn the date of our own baptisms and celebrate them as feast days:

“Today, at home, go look, ask about the date of your Baptism and that way you can bear in mind that most beautiful day of Baptism. To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing it is losing awareness of what the Lord has done in us, the memory of the gift we have received. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past – and not by our own will but by that of our parents – and, thus, has no impact on the present. Indeed, we must reawaken the memory of our Baptism. We are called to live our Baptism every day, as the current reality of our lives. … As I know my birthday, I should know my Baptism day, because it is a feast day.”

Something tells me Mateo won’t have a hard time remembering his feast day because of the significant day his parents chose to welcome him into the Church. I pray that we who witness this happy day will carry the authentic joy of this Sacrament into the dailyness of our lives, and that, as Pope Francis instructs, we may find the memory of our own baptisms reawakened within us.

“We, by Baptism, are immersed in that inexhaustible source of life which is the death of Jesus, the greatest act of love in all of history; and thanks to this love we can live a new life, no longer at the mercy of evil, of sin and of death, but in communion with God and with our brothers and sisters.” — Pope Francis

The Cleanest Ledger

Throughout the country, students and teachers are wrapping up old semesters and beginning new ones, and it has become something of a cliché in teaching circles to remind students that everybody has a perfect score at the start of the new semester. As a high school teacher, I live in a world that is dominated by the constant ebb and flow of quizzes, tests, homework assignments and essay prompts.

It’s remarkable to look at my grade book at the start of a new semester and see empty pages next to a full list of student names. I’ve spent the better part of the last six months filling in those pages: reminding my students that they can improve their reading quiz scores if they actually do the reading, and that, yes, those missing assignments do have an affect your grade.

For their efforts, students are rewarded with a single letter that is supposed to encapsulate everything that they have achieved and learned (or not) within the walls of my classroom. It’s an unfortunate reality that, for many of my students, that letter plays a far too significant role in determining their own personal identity and self-worth. And yet, here we stand: it’s the beginning of a new semester, and I don’t have a single grade in my ledger. There’s something incredibly liberating about it, and I’d imagine that many of my students feel the same way. Together, we step into a new semester full of opportunity and fraught with challenges. In so doing, we are unencumbered by our own shortcomings and failures in the past. The slate is, quite literally, wiped clean.

It seems appropriate to reflect on the nature of our Christian baptism during the month of January, and not just for the obvious reason that January 12th is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Like my students at the start of a new semester, we are invited to set aside our past and embrace the new life offered to us through the grace of Christ in our baptism. It reminds us that the opportunity to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14) is not a once-in-a-lifetime chance at graced beginnings, but an unceasing invitation to conversion. Armed with this knowledge, our baptism offers us an ongoing opportunity to hit reset and let go of the past. When measured against the infinite grace and mercy of God, our failures have the power to determine our identity only when we allow them to do so.

You might not be a student anymore, but January is traditionally a time of fresh beginnings. As you’re making those resolutions to lose weight, or save a bit of extra cash, perhaps another promise emerges as a possibility: to bring this spirit of forgiveness and new beginnings into our everyday lives.

Welcome to Catholic How

Greetings and welcome to our little corner of the internet.  Made up of a group of Catholic young adults, we here at CatholicHow seek to think out loud about the many pastoral issues faced by Catholics of all shapes and sizes in our contemporary culture.

A long time ago (before I was a friar, in fact), I was a youth minister.  The first thing told me by the Director of Youth Minister of the Archdiocese in an introductory meeting was that the Catechism was a large book, and I ought not have any problems if I found things between its two covers to do.   I’ve never forgotten that piece of advice.  And that’s what we’ll try to do here: think Catholic-ly about Catholic issues.  While I don’t foresee our readers agreeing with everything we publish here, I hope you find our material engaging and thought-provoking.  But even more importantly, I hope that CatholicHow helps everyone involved – writers and readings alike – pray more honestly, love more deeply and believe more fully.

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