Baptism of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22]

A student of anthropologist Margaret Mead once asked her “What was the earliest sign of civilization in any given culture?” He thought it would be a tool or a weapon, or perhaps a piece of pottery. Instead, she answered that it was a healed femur (the leg bone between the hip and the knee). It showed that someone took care of an injured person. The earliest sign of civilization was evidence of mercy.

One of the earliest signs of the divinity of Jesus Christ was His baptism. The Holy Spirit descended on the Son and the Father spoke His approval. The road to eternal life that had been closed to humanity with Original Sin was opened by this baptism passed on to us for our healing. The baptism of Christ was a sign of mercy.

Mercy is the compassionate care for others whereby one takes on the burden of another as one's own. It is an active quality of the virtue of charity, motivated by love.

It is both affective and effective. Affective mercy is an emotion: the empathy we feel for the plight of another. We feel empathy for those who suffer because we too are subject to such miseries. St. Thomas Aquinas notes: “Those who reckon themselves happy and so powerful that no ill may befall them are not so compassionate.”

Emotions move us so mercy is also effective. We do what we can to relieve or console the other. To this end the Holy Father calls us this year to practice corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Such mercy is God's justice.

Mercy is the form God's love takes when it flows from the Trinity to creatures. God the Father loved us when He created us; the Son loved us when He redeemed us, and the Spirit loves us when He sanctifies us. The Holy Father is calling us to a deeper appreciation of this Divine Mercy shown to us.

St. Bernard emphasizes mercy in Cistercian spirituality when he describes the Steps of Truth and Humility. He writes that one cannot truly be merciful unless she is humble i.e., knows the truth about herself in the light of what matters most. Thus the first step of truth is knowing one's own misery.

St. Thomas lists three levels of misery. The first two come from sickness and from accidental injury. The third, he says, is the worst. Suffering that strikes a person when she consistently pursues the good, yet she meets only overpowering evil. St. Thomas here has in mind those sufferings and misfortunes that strike those who in no way deserve them, the undeserved miseries of the innocent and the virtuous. This could even happen to monks and nuns!

Here, though, our calling to follow Christ confronts us with an important distinction. A more secular philosopher, Aristotle, says no mercy or pity is due to those who bring their misery on themselves through their immoral or stupid acts. Thomas Aquinas and Jesus think otherwise.

For Aquinas undeserved suffering applies not to the character of the sufferer, but to the potential for corrupting of the person's act of willing. That corruption is more likely to happen and endure if one is cut off from the people of God and thereby turned over to evil spirits. It has been noted that a predator always cuts off its prey from the herd before attacking it.

Unlike creaturely love, God does not love (that is, will good to another) because of the good found in the beloved. Rather, God loves and wills good to the creature so as to make the creature good. This, too, is His justice guided by mercy.

Similarly, the merciful person seeks through fraternal correction to enhance the good of the suffering sinner not because of the sinners manifest virtue, but so that the sinner might become virtuous and so regain the happiness lost by sin.

This helps us heed St. Benedict's teaching that we are to “support with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior.” We are to imagine or recall our own vulnerability to weakness and we are to do this with the genuine affection of friendship. This is St. Bernard's second step of truth.

Following the baptism Jesus, and we go forward. The first two readings tell us we have a mission we are baptized to fulfill. It is well summed up by the prophet Micah. The response of the godly heart is outward (to do justice), inward (to love mercy), and upward (to walk humbly).

Baptism of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mk 1:6b-11 ]

There are two significant events in today's gospel. The first one is that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.” He left home. That is a big event in a person's life, to leave home. This “leaving home” is not just a change of location. It is a response to an inner call, an urge, a sense of mission. We imagine what it was like for Jesus. We can recall when we left home to get married, or to enter the monastery. This was different from leaving to go to college or get a job. This decision was grounded on who we understood self to be. Jesus' decision was grounded on who He understood Himself to be. To leave home is to journey in fidelity to who we are. We each know what that is like. Today is a good day to reflect on that experience as it connects us to Jesus.

When we leave home in response to our call, we are very aware that we have found something more important than self. We have found something to live “for the sake of.”

To renounce a life of self-satisfaction for one of self-donation is going to be neither easy nor cheap. Something has to happen to make a dream, an urge into a commitment. “No matter what happens,” we say, “this is what my life is about.” That something will involve vows. That something is Baptism, the second significant event in this gospel.

Baptism is a purification, a cleansing of anything that stands in the way of a wholehearted response to this call that caused one to leave home. When Jesus arrived at the Jordan this call was confirmed: “You are my Beloved.”

In Mark's gospel, being addressed as “beloved” is cause for alarm. Mark uses the word “beloved” three times. The first time is at the baptism and it is followed by the Spirit that descended upon Him, driving Him into the desert for temptation. The second time Jesus uses it to describe a king who sends his beloved son to the wicked tenants who kill him. And the third time is at the transfiguration, which is followed by Jesus' passion and death. So the beloved gets temptations, suffering and death. It makes you want to say, “Couldn't we just be friends?”!

One's real baptism, one's real leaving home always takes the form of temptation, suffering, and dying to self. It is the baptism of life experience. It is in the baptism of life experience that Jesus began to take His life very seriously and personally. And so it is with each of us.

It is for the sake of love that a beloved experiences temptation and suffering. As the First Letter of John has told us today and over this past week, love is not a feeling; it is a relationship. Temptations and suffering endured prove to oneself that love is true, that the relationship matters. It proves it in the heart. It is with the heart that we know and appreciate the value of things. The value comes from being God's will for us. To know value, the heart must be impressionable, like clay. The hard-hearted cannot know and appreciate value.

It is the heart that feels and responds to the urge to dedicate one's life. “Dedicate” means we endure certain experiences for the sake of. The baptism is effected by that “sake.” It is “for the sake of” that Jesus and we take our lives seriously and personally.

So love is a relationship. We are beloved for the sake of showing that love to others. And love of neighbor is the great challenge of our daily lives. Guigo the Carthusian has given us a simple rule for living out that challenge. He wrote: “You may love others for what they are or may become when you love them. Or you may love others for what you are or may become when you love them.”