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Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Ominous Joy

    Today's Solemnity, the Baptism of the Lord, celebrates an occasion of luminous joy. Our sinless Lord, who had no need of baptism, nonetheless identified himself with all guilty sinners, i.e. you and me. By entering the waters of the Jordan, he forever made holy the waters of baptism, transforming what had previously been a symbolic gesture for penitents and proselytes into a regenerative Sacrament that cleanses us and infuses divine life in our souls.

    The heavenly declaration recorded in the gospels, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," is not only an expression of the infinite love of the Father for the Son, but a timeless affirmation of the filial love that echoes whenever anyone is baptized into Christ Jesus. If we only understood how deeply we are loved by the Father, we would never again grasp for the empty promises of the flesh, the world, and the devil. How great is our need to internalize the transforming truth of the Father's love, which is not rooted in anything we have done or could do.

   I came to better understand the Father's love at the birth of our first child, Chelsea. When she was born--at Clark Regional Medical Center in Winchester, KY--my wife Angie and I immediately began to weep, overwhelmed with a type of love I'd never experienced. Anyone else I loved in my life was something I grew into--with my wife, my parents, or even God--but here was a human being I'd never met, never held, and, frankly, wasn't that pretty to look at (anyone who has witnessed a birth firsthand will know I'm not being cruel). And yet, at that moment, had a gunman entered the room I would have gladly laid down my life for hers.

   As I reflected on this later, I understood that this is a microscopic taste of how God loves us. He doesn't love us because we're nice, or because we go to Mass--He loves us because we are His, and nothing we do can add or detract from that love. For a world of people struggling with a lingering  father wound, understanding this truth provides great hope for healing.

  It's also worth contemplating the shadow of foreboding that hung over Christ's baptism as well. Jesus' baptism in the Jordan signaled the end of his hidden life, as he would now be formally identified with John the Baptist, who'd been saying some very unpleasant things about King Herod and the temple leaders in Jerusalem. And with John's imprisonment and beheading following soon after Jesus' baptism, it helps us understand why Christ spent the next three years largely on the move. When the land already has a king, you don't endear yourself to those in power by proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is now present in yourself.

  Moreover, the lens of hindsight reveals that Jesus' baptism also foreshadowed his death, buried as he was in the waters of baptism, as well as his resurrection. The first teachers of the faith, the apostles, took note of this, as evidenced by St. Paul's affirmation that "all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death" (Romans 6:3)

   And while we also share in his resurrection, and the newness of life and freedom from sin that accompanies it, we mustn't forget that we have no Easter without Good Friday. It's not that Christ died so that we don't have to--a common refrain among some Christians--but rather that He invites us to die (and to rise) with Him.

   We should keep that in mind as the shadow of persecution begins to encroach more readily upon the Church. What did we expect, identifying ourselves with a person who was executed as a threat to the kingdoms of this world? As Jesus said, "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you."

   I was reminded of this recently when saying Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. We have the privilege of praying Morning Prayer at our diocesan offices in the Catholic Center every morning (I'm a little hit and miss with it, to be perfectly honest).
   Anyone who prays the Divine Office--these daily prayers from the Psalms and others canticles that clergy and religious are obliged to pray at various times throughout the day--will tell you that their feelings are not always in it. The routine can breed a certain lack of attentiveness to the words you're praying.

   Burt for me, every once in while a word of phrase will break through. Thursday, January 10, was one of those days, praying from the section designated between the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. While praying the intercessions, I found myself reciting these words, "With all the holy martyrs, we offer our bodies to you as consecrated victims."

   Whoa. Any romanticization of the Christian life was shattered with that ominous phrase. I'm offering my body as a consecrated victim? Is that what I signed up for? As a matter of fact, I did.

   It's the reason why the martyrdom of St. Stephen is remembered the day after the Feast of the Nativity, and the death of the Holy Innocents just a couple of days later. It prevents us from sentimentalizing these mysteries in the life of our Lord, and to remind us that to identify ourselves with the Savior means carrying His cross.

  The question is, are we ready for it?

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