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.