Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.

 

Radical Compassion

Ezekiel 2: 2-5; II Cor 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

If you didn’t know, the Dali Lama celebrated his 83rd birthday this past week.  83 and still going strong, traveling around the globe.  He may be one the of the last larger than life wisdom figures out there these days and still one of the great prophetic voices going.  One of his consistent themes is compassion.  He says “compassion is the radicalism of our time”.  One, it seems illogical to the mind to have compassion and radical in the same sentence, which is the point.  Two, the fact that we as a human race have to be reminded of being compassionate says a lot about us, that we could forget something so simple.

Now, when he speaks of compassion he isn’t speaking as we often associate it.  We have a tendency to make it into a pity party of sorts for people who have less than us, have it worse off than us, and really a sense of inferiority.  That’s obviously not his point.  He takes it from a more literal sense of being moved with passion to do something in the face of injustice, suffering, hurt and pain.  He recognizes that there is no wall that separates us from the other, especially when it comes to injustice and suffering.  It’s what makes his message so prophetic even to this day, a gentle message of compassion and love, radical for our time.

When we think of the prophetic voices, though, we often think of fire and brimstone, going out and beating the message over Israel, as we often hear in the first reading throughout the year.  It’s as if they have to be the loudest voice heard and yet often gets drowned out by all the noise.  It’s what the political and religious leaders often did.  Fire and brimstone was a way of controlling the masses and invoking fear into the people they want to control.  It’s not until Ezekiel, in this case, comes to a greater understanding of his own humanity through the Word that he begins to find that prophetic voice within and more often than not, the quietest of the voices speaking from the depths of his soul.  It’s why it is so easily drowned out by all the noise and the false prophets of their time and ours. 

It certainly doesn’t mean that somehow Israel changed all its ways and everything was great.  Israel rarely changes despite being freed from slavery.  They begin to feel entitled in that way and become hard of heart and a rebellious people as he tells us today.  Like us, change is slow and happens one by one more than an entire nation.  You’d think that Israel, of all, would know and understand the power of the Word.  Ezekiel tells us today that it the very act of consuming the Word and being consumed by it when he can begin to be transformed by it and all that separates fall apart.  It’s the religious and political leaders that want the division, not the God who sets them free.  Yet, the noise gets to them.  The fear gets to them.  They gradually begin to give in and become hard of heart, obstinate, and unable to hear the prophetic voice.  It gets drowned out.  It’s not just them that are called to be the prophetic voice.  It’s all of us.  Everyone of us that comes to this font is baptized priest, prophet, and king.  We only grow in that when we, like Ezekiel, consume and become consumed by the Word, moving us to this radical compassion towards a hurting humanity.

Paul runs into the same obstacle.  He’s struggling with Corinth today as he often does because they too are becoming consumed by false prophets.  His voice and message seems to be falling on deaf ears.  They become convinced that they don’t need that message and over time they begin to exclude, separate, become us versus them, leave people out of the celebration of their Eucharist, and all the rest.  Paul struggles greatly with them because he’s aware of all that they can be and yet they give in so easily to the noise of their time.  Paul, like all the prophets, aware of their own humanity and consumed by the Word, find the quiet in their lives in order to allow that prophetic voice to grow within them.  It never seems to overtake all the noise, but one by one people are moved to that compassion where walls no longer separate and we can see the other as ourselves, the other as Christ.

As we hear in the gospel today it was no different for the Word made Flesh.  Jesus struggles upon returning home today where they too had become hardened and jaded.  All they could see and hear are their own expectations of who he is, which of course is less than he really is.  They get caught up in the chatter and the noise of their own making and the word gets lost.  They consume the noise rather than the Word.  The crazy thing is that Jesus wasn’t even doing anything magical or even spectacular.  He, as we often hear, is moved to compassion for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the one who has been pushed aside and considered outside the community.  They quickly take offense.  It pushes up against the noise and all that they had come to believe through the fire and brimstone, the voices yelling at them in their own time.

The readings challenge us this week to quiet ourselves from all the noise.  We have the noise coming from the media, the politicians, twitter, and all the rest claiming to be the one.  Yet, over and over they prove to be the false prophets, using that message for their own gain.  When we learn to quiet ourselves and turn off the noise of our time, the voice of God begins to break through, as we consume the Word the Word consumes us.  As with the great prophets, and the Dali Lama, we’re moved with compassion, literally moved with passion to do something, to act, to do what is right in the face of injustice, suffering, and hurt.  Otherwise, we continue to buy into what is being sold, leading us further astray, more divided, and hard of heart.  We pray for that quiet in our own lives and the reawakening of the prophetic voice within us, moving us to radical compassion.

The Call Home

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that his purpose for the book is that he needed to find his soul. As a political pundit, he believed he had gone so far from who he really is that the writing of the book was going to become the roadmap back to his truest identity. He began to realize that he was living a lie and contributing to the larger problems in politics, some of the time didn’t even believe what he was saying but just saying it because it was his job. He believes, and is often evident in our country, that there is no longer a moral code by which we live, that politics has taken the place and we see where that gets us. It’s divisive and a shallow identity, leading us down the same path that Brooks found in his own life, a loss of identity, a loss of soul.

This feast we celebrate today, the Baptism of the Lord, reveals through Jesus our own truest identity. If we can just believe with our heads and our hearts who we really are, beloved sons and daughters, not only of ourselves, but of everyone, the world can be a much different place. Yet, as much as we are baptized into it as Christians, somehow we forget. We begin to think and believe that we are something other than beloved. We begin to think we’re the color of our skin, our sexuality, the amount of money we have or don’t have, our ideology and politics, and we begin to live our lives that way. It’s a search for identity that takes place in this city and I believe it’s the struggle going on in this country. As time passes, like people Israel, we find ourselves so far away from our center that we have forgotten who we really are and we must go and search.

The struggle for identity is the lifelong struggle and part of salvation history. Israel, whom Isaiah writes of in today’s first reading, struggled themselves as a people. It’s easy, even in our time, to begin to think we are something else. How easy it is to think I’m something else. How could Israel not when their experience has been exodus and exile, their experience is war and violence. When that becomes our reality, we begin to think it’s who we are. We wander. We stray. We find ourselves on the periphery and the fringe, exiled from our truest self. But make note, as we hear in this reading and we heard during Advent, the voice continues to cry out. Even in the midst of the dryness, the desert, the voice continues to call us back to our home, back to the place of humility, this crib that we have come to throughout this season. The voice that cries out in the desert is the voice that proclaims the identity of Jesus, the beloved in which I am well pleased.

It was an identity struggle in today’s gospel today as well. In all the early communities, there was much debate as to who John the Baptist was. Now Luke resolves it by writing him out of the scene all together. Before we hear of Jesus’ baptism John is already taken into custody by Herod, and instead, Jesus is lumped in with the other people who have been baptized. It’s not that Jesus was somehow better than others, but rather, at the deepest core of all of us we remain the same, our truest identity in Christ, beloved sons and daughters. What the magi sought for last week and is revealed in Bethlehem is revealed to the people, to the nations, as the Christ. It’s who we really are as people, and if we believe it with our hearts, our lives our changed, the world is changed.

As we come to the end of this Christmas season, our search for the new born King will continue in ways we may never know. We’ll find ourselves like many of the characters we have met, wandering around the periphery wondering who we really are, realizing we have lost our way, trying to follow the voice of one crying out from the desert of our lives. Christmas doesn’t end here, but continues daily in our faith journey as we continue to seek out our truest identity, to give up living the lie and that which no longer works, to seek the voice that calls from the place of humility, this crib, which reminds us of who we really are, sons and daughters of God. When we believe it with all our being, life is changed forever, just as it did for the world on that first Christmas. We are the sons and daughters of God, beloved and with whom is well pleased.

Passing Through

Isaiah 55: 1-11; Mark 1: 7-11

Life seems to become much more manageable when you can finally accept the fact that we are simply passing through this life. We come from God and are called to return to God along the way. We are all visitors, guests, immigrants to this land making the journey home, to God. As is this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I couldn’t help but to think of my time in the Holy Land back in October because the Jordan River was one of our destinations. We visited the spot where it’s believed that Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan. The fascinating thing about getting there, though, is the drive to the Jordan. We had to pass through this long road that seemed endless at times. The further we got along on the road, you began to see large fences on the sides with signs warning you to stay off the land because of land mines. As we passed through, I couldn’t help but to be enthralled by it all that in making our way to the Jordan, to be baptized for some, we would first have to pass through old war zones, battlefields from fought wars on both sides in Israel and Jordan.

The trouble for us humans, is, that the passing through, like going through a battlefield, is often the most painful and most challenging. When we finally get there all is but forgotten or viewed through a different lens, but passing through the battlefield of life can be challenging at times to say the least. Now it may not be the battlefield of Paris or Ferguson. It may not be the battlefield of Iraq or New York, but a battle nonetheless, and one that comes at great cost, the battle that often ensues within for the life of our heart and soul. It is a battle for the right of our soul and the soul being reclaimed in its true identity, its identity in Christ.

People Israel knew it all too often in their own journey. They didn’t always understand their place and God’s and how they too were passing through this world. They took hold of the land and possessed it, attaching themselves and often finding themselves on the outside looking in through exile, exodus, even having to pass through the Red Sea. This first reading we hear this weekend from Isaiah we will again hear on Holy Saturday when we celebrate the Easter Sacraments. They are once again in that place of being outside and looking towards the promised land, longing and waiting. There is a thirst and hunger, as Isaiah says, leading them to the water to quench thirst and hunger, a loss of their identity in relation to God leaves them elsewhere longing to be home again with God, but first again this passing through, painful, as we know, in giving birth.

Just when you think you’re there and you are about to have your thirst quenched and hunger fed, we come to the bank of the Jordan River. There is that final push. Think about how upset people Israel was with Moses when he led them to the Sea, questioning and doubting where it is that they had been led, and yet, another invitation to trust that the great passage through the waters would lead to the land that was promised, a life that was and is promised. Just as we find ourselves passing beyond the battlefield of life and the one that lies within us, there’s that one more passage into the Jordan.

They say it’s like it was at the time of Jesus as we hear in today’s gospel. It’s milky white and quite murky. It’s not like the Caribbean or some other Sea where you want to just jump in. There’s hesitation because we don’t know what’s beneath. We don’t know where we’re stepping. Will I sink? Is it deep? Will I get swept away, although unlikely? All these things hold us back at the bank of the Jordan. From the very beginning of Jesus’ journey in Mark’s Gospel, we find ourselves with hesitation to where he leads because it will require trust and faith of us to take that step off the banks of the Jordan and into the unknown, even though we know it’s where we are being led and need to go. It is an immersion into the depths of our being that we must be willing to take, the Jordan of our being that identifies us in Christ.

At that very moment, the empty crib and the fullness of the crib become one in the waters of the Jordan. At that very moment, life and death become intertwined. At that very moment, the heavens and earth unite. At that very moment, our true identity is revealed in Christ. You see, when we pass through the waters of Baptism, it’s not just about membership. It’s not just about being a part of this group or another. It is a revealing of our own identity and participation in the great mystery of our faith, an outward sign, as we define a sacrament, of an inward reality, our true identity in Christ. This is not just something receive in the waters of Baptism. It’s who we truly are and the mystery we are invited into each and every day of our lives as we seek to be plunged into the depths and to be raised to new life.

As we close out this Christmas Season and prepare for these weeks of Ordinary Time, we must ask and be honest with ourselves as to where we are on our own journey of faith, as individuals and as community. Do we find ourselves still in the battles of life, fighting for the right to our soul? Do we find ourselves lost in the weariness of it all, longing and hoping as people Israel? Do we find ourselves at the banks of the Jordan River, at peace with many of our battles, passing through the many land mines, waiting with great faith and yet fear to step into the waters to be swept away and taken to new depths? Wherever we are, it’s ok because this season is our constant assurance of God’s forever faithfulness and presence among us, leading us into the depths of baptisms to reveal our true identity as sons and daughters of God, ever seeking the great Mystery of our lives as we pass through, seeking to once again experience the fullness of our destiny.

Fearful yet Overjoyed

Image

Matthew 28: 1-10

“Fearful yet overjoyed.” It seems like a rather odd combination, but that’s how Matthew describes the woman as they run away quickly from the tomb. Yet, if you examine the Gospel accounts of the resurrection it’s as if those two are intertwined as much as life and death are intertwined. Four times fear is mentioned in some way in this passage and the message remains the same as it is at Christmas…fear not! God is once again making things happen! The power of fear is real. Take note what it does to the two guards at the tomb. It pretty much paralyzes them at first as they become like dead men, numb from the experience. They too though will take off shortly after and head back to the chief priests to share the “good news” as they saw it and they will continue to act not out of faith, but out of fear and death. They will then plot against the disciples and the message the women are to deliver and try to convince that the body had been stolen. Now they didn’t have 24 hour social media or any means like that so obviously it wasn’t quite so easy to “sell” their message, but it will often force the early community at times to go into hiding for fear of their lives, fear of Paul as we will hear in this season who made it is primary duty early on to stop the movement and end the lives of those who followed the way. The power of fear is real; the power of death is real, but God gets the last word!

The message to the woman is to act on faith. They are to run and tell the “brothers” that Jesus and been raised and to announce to them to return to Galilee. They must go back to where it all began and begin to look at all they had experienced and heard with Jesus, but now through the lens of the paschal mystery. No it won’t come easily to them and it will take much time before they can move beyond the fear they have experienced and the pain they too have endured through their abandonment of Jesus in his time of greatest need. But regardless, they must go back and view life through this lens.

For us, we return to the font and in a few minutes renew our baptismal promises where it all began for us on this faith journey. As infants baptized we don’t really know what it truly means then, but we too enter into this paschal mystery. Sometimes even in our lives we have to go back to those early days to seek healing and to look at experiences through another lens. So often it is our past that holds us back from living life to its fullest. We hold onto hurts, see ourselves only through the cross, and have difficulty seeing hope. Death holds us back just as much as it did the guards at the tomb, almost as if we become frozen in time at those moments of hurts and everything is viewed through that one lens, separating life and death. Be not afraid to go back and seek out what was lost and so it may be brought back to life. Now, through the waters of baptism, we look through a new lens, where life and death are intertwined. We go back and look through the lens of the great mystery of faith, true faith, where God does more more great act of love by turning death into life, not just in the end of our lives, but God wants us to live today! Go back to “Galilee” and there you will see Jesus, there you will see the Christ, there you will see life through the lens of mystery, there where God’s love will heal and bring to life all that seemed dead! Happy Easter!

In The Beginning

Image

Isaiah 42: 1-7; Matthew 3: 13-17

If you began faith formation in CCD, like myself, you probably spent at least some of the time using the Baltimore Catechism.  My guess is many of you can probably still remember some of the questions and the answers that followed…Who is God?  Why did God create me?  There was also, “What is a sacrament?”  A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.  I remember during Confirmation back then the bishop would come and quiz you before receiving the sacrament and undoubtably, that would be one of the questions, followed by the next one in naming the seven sacraments.  An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.  It has been revised in the new catechism but this is the one drilled into my head after those years, and the thing was, it didn’t even matter if you knew what any of that meant.  My guess is none of us really did; all that matter was that you could repeat it to the bishop.

An outward sign that points to an inward reality, our true identity.  It’s really what culminates this Christmas season as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of him living out that identity in the ministry we will witness to in the weeks ahead.  But what is true for Christ is true for us; that outward sign points to the inward reality of who we really are as well, sons and daughters of God.  This was the ongoing controversy in the first century, though, as to the true identity of Jesus and what did he know and this whole sense of the early communities feeling ashamed that Jesus would come to John to be baptized.  That’s a struggle that has gone on long after, trying to make sense and wrap minds around the fact that God became flesh.  It was hard and at times is still hard to understand just how and why God would do that.  Many have tried to explain this reality away!  But after the past few weeks of looking at the what and how and where and everything else in those months surrounding Jesus’ birth, today, makes a choice to be baptized by John, and out of this action, the identity of Jesus and us is revealed.  That’s why it’s so important for us to celebrate this baptism today and many Sunday’s during the year because it becomes a constant reminder of who we are.  Baptism isn’t something that we do; it is rather something or someone that we are.  Can we accept that about ourselves or is it just as difficult as it was in the beginning of Jesus’ public life?

Using these images that have surrounded this season…we could spend our lives trying to build a stable and worship the stable and never really seek out the life within the stable; keeps us at a safe distance.  Or we could spend our lives in fear and insecure as Herod did in last weeks gospel.  That Herod within us can’t handle the power and greatness of the Christ and so does what he needs to do to squash the child, leaving us empty and constantly searching.  But there is also today’s feast.  Isaiah tells us today that this God doesn’t come shouting and screaming, but is rather gentle and humble, not overbearing but rather seeks forgiveness and unending mercy, reminding us always of who we really are, the sons and daughters of God.  How easy it is to quiet that voice, ignore it, listen rather to the loud, booming voices outside ourselves and within telling us that we cannot be sons and daughters of God, reminding us of our unworthiness, telling us that we are sin rather than grace.  Yet, that gentle voice tries to raise up and remind us of our true identity, a truly good reason to gather here each week, that we are sons and daughters of God.

An outward sign pointing to the inward reality of who we really are.  It’s the grace of not only this sacrament of baptism but this Eucharist as well, pointing us to who we really are.  Over these weeks of Ordinary Time, and maybe over the course of our entire lives, we will spend time not only trying to accept it and believe that about ourselves, but ultimately, as Jesus will teach over these weeks, to live it.  We pray today that we may accept that gift of ourselves, our true identity, revealed today in the Christ’s baptism, for it is true of us as well…to trust and believe and then live out of that identity, in full, in our daily lives.