The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings

Let’s reflect on two things today: the violence and the voice.

First, the violence.  Back on the first Sunday of Advent we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  That particular reading was focusing on how bad things had become.  People were cheating one another, especially the poor and the powerless.  Corruption was just kind of accepted as the way things were.  Worst of all, people had become rather callous or indifferent to it all; they were jaded and just accepted that bad was the new good.  I was thinking that the things Isaiah lamented could well be lamented in our own day.  The poor seem to get poorer, and more powerless, especially today as companies fail through the greed of a few, affecting the livelihood of thousands.  Corruption in our government has led to scandal in the highest office in our state.  And worst of all, we’re not surprised by any of it any more.

On that first day of Advent, Isaiah wrapped up his lament of all that nonsense with the frightening words: “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  It’s a pretty violent prayer that he’s praying.  Isaiah is acknowledging that very little is going to attract our attention any more, so the best God can do is to violently tear open the heavens, a kind of barrier between God and us, if you will, and come down.  Only by God’s walking among us and being one of us can things ever be made right.  We need that kind of violent act of God because nothing else has worked.  The flood didn’t work, the wandering in the desert didn’t work, the captivity in Babylon didn’t work.  Maybe those things worked for a while, but we fickle humans soon forgot the lessons we learned in those momentous events.  To get our attention and keep it, something truly earth-shattering, or rather heaven-shattering, had to happen.

Today we celebrate that that’s exactly what happened.  We gather here today on the last day of the Christmas season, during our continued celebration of Epiphany that began last Sunday.  Epiphany means “manifestation:” we celebrate that God appeared among us, was made manifest among us, became one of us.  Last week’s epiphany was the three magi coming to meet the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They worshipped the child who would be king, would be our priest, and would die for our sins.  Today’s epiphany finds Jesus to be an adult, approaching the rivers of the Jordan for baptism.  As he enters those waters of baptism, he isn’t really changed or made holier by those waters.  No, he makes the waters holy by entering them himself.  Through this act, all of the waters of baptism, including the ones that bathed you and me, have been made holy.  And most importantly, that violent act that redeemed us happened: coming up out of the waters, the heavens were torn open – those are the words Mark uses here – “torn open.”  The barrier between God and humanity is sundered now, God has entered human history once again and in a decisive and heaven-shattering event.

Second, the voice.  The voice in our Gospel story continues the epiphany, that voice comes from those heavens which have been torn open.  First, the Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, and then the voice roars out of those open heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  For that brief moment, we see the entire Holy Trinity together at one moment.  We have Jesus coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descending upon him, and the Father’s voice roaring out of the heavens.  The epiphany is complete: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are made manifest at the waters of the Jordan.  God has valued his creation of humanity so much that he appears among us in force, in the completeness of the Trinity, with all of the love that that Holy Trinity gives to us.

Significant here is what the voice says in that moment.  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  In saying that, the Father confirms the manifestation of his Son in  the world, gives him a Father’s blessing, and empowers his work of redemption.  The words are words of mission – being the Son means that he represents the Father in every act and word.  Now I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hear any voices at my baptism.  At least I don’t think so; I was a baby.

But probably even those who were baptized as adults don’t remember any kind of extra special voice.  But the thing about baptism, is that we’ve all heard that voice at numerous times since, haven’t we?  Whenever we were faced with choices: the easy way out or the way of integrity; the truth or a lie; an opportunity to help someone, or move on; an effort to correct a wrong or turn a blind eye – didn’t we hear an interior voice reminding us who we are by our baptism?  “You are my beloved child with you I am well pleased.”  Didn’t we pray for guidance to make the right choices and strength to follow through on our decisions?

At those decisive and testing moments did we turn to God for help?  Because the violence and the voice should be strong enough hints about God’s love for us to do that.  Or have we ignored the violence and the voice, turned instead toward more selfish motives, and become just as jaded as those Israelites who needed Isaiah to pray that God would rend the heavens and come down?

Jesus’ baptism today is a decisive event.  It meant mission for him: God had the special act of human redemption to accomplish in the person of Jesus.  It meant authority for him: as God’s Son he had the authority of the Father to accomplish what desperately needed to be.  Our own baptisms mean mission and authority too.  We are given a mission of some kind – something specific God wants us to accomplish.  And we have the authority to do that mission by being called sons and daughters of God.  In our own baptism God says to us too: “You are my beloved Son – You are my beloved daughter, and with you I am well pleased.”  The rite of baptism says that explicitly.  After the act of baptism by water, the priest or deacon says, “They are now called children of God.”

And so, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this Epiphany day, this last day of the Christmas season, we celebrate vocation – the realization that every one of us has a mission as the result of our baptism.  We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

And so, to celebrate this week of Vocation Awareness, I invite you to do three things.  First, encourage people to embrace their God-given vocation.  Invite them to consider life as a priest or religious brother or sister.  Parents and grandparents are especially important in helping children know that a religious vocation is a viable option for them.  But everyone can encourage someone they know to embrace the vocation God has given them, whatever that vocation may be.  Second, I invite you to pray for vocations.  Pray for more men to accept the call to priesthood and men and women to accept the call to the religious life.  Pray for those preparing for their vocations: priests and religious in formation, and couples preparing for marriage.  Pray for the faithful living of all holy vocations in the world as a way to build up the kingdom of God.  And third, live your own vocation – whatever it may be – well.  When we do that, we’ll never have to worry about a priest or religious shortage, because if we all live our vocations faithfully and in holiness, then that witness will provide vocations of every kind to build up the Church.

It’s all about the violence, and the voice.  God cared enough for us to rip open those heavens and come down.  And he continues to speak to all of us through our baptisms: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well-pleased.”

Friday After Epiphany

Today’s readings

Today I used the readings from Epiphany because I was celebrating Mass with the school children.

You know, I think it’s very important that we pay real close attention to where the wise men went, and what got them there.  These astrologers weren’t people who knew about Jesus.  But, as they told King Herod, they saw Jesus’ star at its rising, so they must have heard about Jesus somehow.  I just think that it’s interesting that as soon as they saw the star, they came to look for him so they could worship him.

We know about Jesus, you and me, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for him.  We know that he’s always present to us when we open the Bible and read about him.  He’s present to us when we come to church and celebrate Mass together.  He’s present to us when we receive the sacraments.  He’s even present to us when we gather together in his name for any reason.

But sometimes, we can lose sight of him.  Sometimes we become selfish and so we shut others out, or bully them, or say mean things about them.  When we do that, we can’t see Jesus in them.  Sometimes we don’t make it to church to celebrate Mass on Sunday.  When we miss Mass, we don’t get to hear about Jesus in the Gospel or receive him in the Eucharist, or see him in the others who are gathered to pray.  Sometimes we go a long time without opening the Bible and reading it.  Then we don’t get to hear about how much God loves us.

When we lose sight of Jesus, it can seem like the world is a very dark place.  We soon discover that shutting people out only makes us lonelier.  We soon discover that spending too much time thinking about ourselves instead of attending Mass and helping others and loving as we should, well that only makes us more lonely too.  Sometimes when people get too wrapped up in themselves, they can become depressed and the world seems very, very dark.

And it’s then that we need a star, isn’t it?  Just like those wise men, those astrologers, looking up into the heavens, studying the stars and planets found a very special star, a star that told them something very important was happening, sometimes we need that kind of sign in our lives too.  And that’s when, maybe, someone comes along and says just the thing we need to hear.  Or maybe they are able to help us with a problem that’s been so frustrating for us.  Or maybe they invite us to come to Mass with them and sit with them.  When they do that, they give us some light, a kind of star, that guides us in the right way.

And when we get that kind of light in our lives, we have to share it too.  Because that light comes from God himself, we’ll never run out of it by sharing it.  So sometimes it will be our turn to be the star for someone.  It will be our turn to say just the right thing, or help with a problem, or invite someone to Mass, or whatever they really need.  When we all start sharing the light of the star with others, our world doesn’t have to be dark any more.  It can be a very beautifully bright place, and it can help everyone to see the best in the world, the best in each other, and the best in themselves.

At the end of the story, the wise men get a message in a dream, and they decide to take a different way back home to their own country.  When we have seen the light of Jesus, we too can be changed.  And when we’re changed, we might find ourselves taking a different way in life.  All we have to do is the same thing the wise men did: follow the star.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

The feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the fact that Christian life looks like something.  Because Jesus has appeared on the earth and taken our own human form, because he has walked among us and lived our life and died our death, we know what the Christian Way looks like.  We know that the Christian life consists of embracing our humanity, with all its weaknesses and imperfections.  We know that it consists of living our own lives well, mindful of the needs of others, forgiving as we have been forgiving, and spreading the light of the Gospel wherever it is that God puts us.  The Galileans in the synagogue in today’s Gospel were amazed at Jesus’ speaking words of grace.  We too are called to do this so that all will speak highly of us and recognize in us the presence of Christ.

Because Christ is still manifest among us.  Every encounter with someone else is an opportunity for Epiphany.  It is an opportunity for us to look for the presence of Christ in that other person, and for them to see Christ at work in us.  How we do that depends on the situation, certainly, but it must always be our top priority if we are eager to be called Christians.  John’s words in the first reading are clear, and are words of indictment on those times we forget to be the Epiphany to others: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Christ is made manifest in all of us and among all of us.  In the ordinariness of our lives, we can find Christ’s grace abundantly blessing us, or we can reject it.  If we make it our priority to be Christ’s presence in the world in every encounter with a brother or sister, we may find that we are blessed with epiphany upon epiphany, constantly growing in God’s grace.  This is all part of our faith, of course, and it is this faith, as John tells us, that conquers the world.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Today’s readings

I’m going to make things pretty simple today.  If someone asks you what my homily was about, you’ll be able to sum it up in just four words: “Walk toward the light.”

And that’s good advice, I think, for us who walk around in what can be a very dark world.  Today’s first reading speaks of that darkness: “See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples…” We’re not talking about some kind of simple darkness that is cured by simply turning on a lamp.  This darkness is pervasive, not just physical darkness, but a darkness that has psychological effects, and even affects communities and nations.  When Isaiah speaks of the thick clouds covering the peoples, that’s what he means: “peoples” means nations.

And we don’t need to look too much farther than the newspaper or evening news to see that darkness.  The year ahead of us might seem rather foreboding.  I took my mother shopping in the pre-Christmas days, and as I drove through the shopping areas, I wondered what they’d look like in a year.  The economic downturn is a very dark place for so many people right now.  The wars raging in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, all over the world really, those are dark places for combatants and non-combatants alike.  And let’s not even begin to speak about the scandal in the governor’s office and politics in general.  There’s plenty of darkness to go around, and it doesn’t seem like there’s enough light in all the universe to make it better, to illuminate that darkness, to help us to break free of it all.

There may be darkness in our own lives too.  Maybe we have patterns of sin of which we cannot seem to break free, maybe there are family difficulties that cloud our day-to-day living, maybe there are old hurts among family or friends that prevent us from moving forward in grace.  Even our own personal and spiritual lives can be such dark places at times.

Today’s Liturgy acknowledges all the darkness and invites us: “Walk toward the light.”

Because the light that we have to scatter all that darkness comes from God himself.  Isaiah says again: “but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory.”  A darkness as pervasive as the one that covers all peoples takes a very bright light to scatter it.  Does this mean that all that darkness will go away immediately?  Of course not.  But it does mean that God has provided a way, lit up a path, for people of faith to take baby steps if necessary to walk toward that light.  We see that light in the Church, through the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in our celebration of the Eucharist, in our interaction with each other as people of faith.  Those thick clouds may make it pretty hard to see at times, but ultimately they are no match for the bright light of the glory of the Lord.

Isaiah goes on to point out that all that light isn’t intended just for us.  When we have approached the light, we need to share that light with others.  “Nations shall walk by your light,” Isaiah says, “and kings by your shining radiance.”  Having received the light of the glory of the Lord, we are meant to spread it over our corner of the world.  We are meant to radiate that light as a beacon in a dark place, so that all peoples – all those peoples that were covered by those thick clouds of darkness – can see their way to the Lord too.  We spread that light by changing our lives.  We spread it by being people of integrity.  We spread the light by paying it forward, by giving of ourselves, by having concern for those in our lives and those the Lord puts in our lives.  We spread the light by reaching out to those in need.

And what is wonderful is that spreading the light never leaves us in the darkness.  There is always more light to shine on us.  Listen to Isaiah again:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.

The glory of the Lord is never diminished by shining on others.  In fact, when we share that light with others, we only receive more, so that our hearts are throbbing and overflowing, beholding all the riches that we could ever hope to find.  We may find a talent we never knew we had, one that can reach others for Christ.  We may find a new energy that comes to a spiritual life that was previously rather listless.  We may find new challenges, new opportunities, and always new grace.  The riches and wealth of our God is never exhausted.

All we have to do is walk toward the light.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.”  Today, and in the next couple of weeks, we will see Christ’s lordship manifested in a few different ways.  Each of these epiphanies will call us to a deeper appreciation of who Christ is in our lives and a deeper reflection on our own discipleship.

The light that we walk toward today is very-likely life-changing.  The Magi came to seek the light in today’s Gospel reading.  All we get from Matthew is a description of the encounter.  But we have no idea what the encounter did in the lives of those wise astrologers.  We don’t know how it changed them, what it cost them, where it ultimately led them.  We see that the light was not intended just for the Jews, but also for all of the nations, pagans and religious people alike.  All could come to the light, all could be affected by the light, all could experience the true light of the world.

And in just the same way, we have no idea how walking toward the light will affect us.  We don’t know how it will change us, what it will cost us, where it ultimately will lead us.  All we know is that, coming to the light, we will be changed, with the promise of grace upon grace.  Just as the Magi were led to return by another way, we too might find ourselves taking another way in our lives.  Epiphany is not the end of the story; it is just the beginning for us. What difference will what is manifested to us today make in our lives?  Will we accept the one who not only lies in a manger as a newborn, but will also be rejected?  Throughout this liturgical year we will hear Jesus’ preaching, observe his works, follow him to his death and then experience his resurrection.  We will be exposed to the light many times and in many wonderful ways.  It will be a year of many epiphanies for us.

May this coming year find us walking toward the light countless times and in countless ways, and open to the many riches of grace that the Lord has in store for us.

The Epiphany of the Lord

Today's readings

We gather together today to celebrate the twelfth day of Christmas.  Today is the traditional day for the celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord, a time when we can see who Christ really is, when our eyes are enlightened, and our hearts are opened.  Because there is a gift to be had here today; more precisely, I think there are three gifts to be had here today.  The magi famously offered their three gifts: gold, frankincense anhttps://i2.wp.com/img.villagephotos.com/p/2004-2/653261/3Kings.jpg?w=660d myrrh.  I don’t think we can expect to receive those gifts today, although we’ll use a bit of frankincense later in this celebration.  But the Scriptures today speak of three gifts that come with this Christ Child … the one who continues to lay sleeping in the manger on this holy day.

The first fist gift he brings us is justice.  Justice is what people long for in every age.  When everyone has what belongs to them, when no one is poor or needy, when the marginalized are brought into the community, when the wrongly imprisoned are free, when everything is right and we are all in right relationship with one another and with God, that is justice.  People have striven for justice in every age and place.  While we are all called upon to do what we can to make justice happen in our world, we know that we do not ultimately have the power to bring the real justice that this world longs for all by ourselves.  That can only be done by God, and in God’s time.  Our psalmist today says, “Justice shall flower in his days…” The gift the Christ Child brings is the possibility of that great day of justice.  We know that because Christ has died and risen, we can count on the salvation that will be ours on that day when everything is made right.

The second gift Jesus brings is peace.  Peace, too, can be an elusive thing for us, and peace, too, has been sought after for ages upon ages.  We often think of peace as the absence of conflict.  And that alone is daunting.  We have conflict in many places today.  We think of Iraq, Afghanistan, and many places in the middle east, to say nothing of Africa, Korea, and many other places.  I’m not even sure, honestly, how to count the number of wars being fought today.  And this says nothing about the lack of peace that is violence in our communities, discord in our families, and unrest in our hearts.  If we are to define peace as just the absence of conflict, it is clear that even that is beyond us. 

But that’s not how God defines peace.  Peace is more than a feeling, it is a way of living, or more exactly, a way of being.  It stems from the right relationship that is justice.  In fact, we are told that if we are to desire peace, we must work for justice because peace can’t happen in an unjust world.  If the mere absence of conflict is a peace that we can’t seem to achieve, how much less will we ever be able to come to a peace that is a completeness of right relationships with God and every other person?  And yet, this child in the manger is the one who has come to bring “peace till the moon be no more.”

The third gift Jesus brings is light: the revelation of the mystery.  And that’s what we celebrate today.  “Epiphany” means “manifestation,” it means coming to know what’s right in front of us.  Coming to see the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures, in the Church, in the Sacraments, and in every person and place.  It is a celebration of light, light that is the glory of God, appearing and overcoming the darkness of a world that does not know God.  Jesus came to a world that was darkened by the absence of justice and peace, into a world which in some ways didn’t want to be brightened by his life.  So basically, he was coming into a world not much different than the one we experience today.  Our time’s need for justice and peace is obvious, and the world’s refusal to come to the light is well-known.  But we have the light.  Jesus came to bring us that light.  Maybe it’s not the light of the star on that night, but it’s the light of Scripture, of his presence in the Eucharist, and his activity in the Church and in our hearts. 

We who have received the wonderful gifts of his justice and peace and light, are called to bring those gifts to the world, because the gifts we receive are never just for us.  St. Paul tells the Ephesians – and us – today that we are called to be stewards of these gifts, given to us in grace. And so, just like the magi, we are the ones who need to bring our gifts and open our coffers.

Epiphany is the feast of those called by God's grace to leave behind the familiar and accustomed and to go searching for Christ in, what seems to be, the most unlikely places.  Where will we find him and what gifts shall we bring when we discover Christ in our world?  In place of frankincense, we could advocate for poor families, especially for single parents and the newborn.  There are 25 million poor children in our otherwise-wealthy country, and untold numbers throughout the world. In place of gold, we could contribute to help those at shelters for homeless families, or international programs for children and the aged. In place of myrrh, we could visit the sick and dying.

The gospel story tells of a light in the sky that guides the foreigners to Christ.  We don't have the star; but grace is continually given to help us find Christ. God's grace does what the star did for the Magi, it guides us to the out-of-the way places where Christ can be found.  The Magi came bearing the types of gifts one would bring to royalty in a palace.  But today Christ isn't found in a palace; he isn't rich, he is poor.  The Epiphany reminds us that each day Christ manifests himself to us in the world's lesser places and in surprising people.  Those are the places to go looking and bearing gifts—starting with the most important gift, ourselves.

We will come forward in a few moments to pay homage to our king, just as did those Magi so long ago.  When we offer our gifts on this holy day, perhaps we can also offer the gift of ourselves, this gift that we ourselves have received from God himself.  As we begin this year, perhaps we can resolve to make our giving an act of gratitude for all that we have received.  Nourished by our Savior today, we can go forth in peace to bring gifts of justice, peace, and light to all the world.