Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

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

One day, a very long time ago; it may have been a Spring day, a nine year old boy was walking along a street in Florence, Italy and he saw a girl, a very pretty girl, about nine years old, walking toward him wearing a crimson colored dress, and looking at that little girl very intently for just a moment, he saw something that changed his life. Reflecting many years later on the moment he first caught sight of that girl, Dante, one of the greatest poets who ever lived, wrote that at the moment he first saw Beatrice, . . . the vital spirit; the spirit that dwells in the most secret chamber of my heart began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were affected; and trembling, that vital spirit spoke to me and said: ‘Here is a god stronger than I, who will come to rule over me.’

The human heart—your heart, and my heart, was made for love. It is God who created your heart, and so, as Augustine said, your heart will always be restless until it comes to rest and complete fulfillment in the love of God its Creator. What Dante discovered, that day on a street in Florence what most of us have discovered at least once in our lives, is that, at a particular fateful moment, there can appear before us an individual a beautiful woman; a beautiful man whose beauty and comeliness has such a singular effect that the “vital spirit” within us, our very soul, begins to tremble with awareness that we are in the presence of a power greater than ourselves. When Dante writes “Here is a god stronger than I“, “god” is spelled with a small “g“. Beatrice is not God. The love awakened in Dante by the beauty of Beatrice—is not God. The “power” that makes him tremble at this moment is the power of the transcendent, eternal and invisible God. But this invisible God is a revealing God—and always has been. For as far back as we can remember, all through the Old and New Testament, God has been showing himself to Israel over and over again: in a flaming bush, in a pillar of fire; in a hundred different visible signs and miracles—this invisible God wants to be seen by us. It is this revealing God who shows himself to Dante—and in a manner uniquely suited to Dante’s personality and temperament. Dante was a person highly susceptible to the charms of women, and so God shows him a singularly beautiful young woman in whom is revealed something of God’s own eternal beauty and splendor, and with such effect that it seems to Dante, God has suddenly drawn frightfully close and become frightfully real.

Most of us here can remember falling in love for the first time; and we remember that at that moment a vital spirit in us trembled because we realized that, in the beloved beautiful one appearing to us, we had encountered a power greater than ourselves; something that made us feel small and overwhelmed and full of awe; infinitely grateful; infinitely alive. I think this experience of falling in love for the first time is one of the greatest gifts God can give us, and if our life experience as adults doesn’t manage to make us cynical, dismissive, or fearful toward this first experience of love, it can be for us a guide through life, a kind of compass as it was for Dante, a gateway opening to us the riches of all the mysteries of life and of the Christian faith. I would go so far as to say that your first great experience of love was for you a kind of “baptism“; a true baptism in which you actually died to yourself in the presence of a greater power, and dying, rose again; a baptism that effectively initiated you into the whole sublime mystery of God enfleshed—Jesus Christ.

We are told in today’s gospel: “The theme of John’s preaching was: ‘One more powerful than I is to come after me . . .’ “. We often interpret these words to mean John is saying: “I am not the Messiah”. John is refusing that high office with it’s unique exercise of power and authority, which belongs to Jesus alone. But, I wonder, might we interpret John’s acknowledgement of “one more powerful than I“, as pointing to an experience something like what Dante experienced the first time he saw his beloved Beatrice. Might we think of Jesus as the great love of John’s life; that person whose beauty and comeliness; dignity and goodness, so manifestly embodied and made visible the beauty, truth and power of Almighty God that, as soon as he caught sight of Jesus, the vital spirit in John, trembled with awareness that he was in the presence of a power vastly greater than himself. What if each of us here were to think of our own baptism as a trembling of the vital spirit inside us in the presence of Jesus?

We are celebrating today, that third epiphany or manifestation after Jesus birth and visitation by the three Magi—his baptism by John in the Jordan. But if baptism is the radical transformation of a human person by the infusion of God’s grace, then, it seems, we are likewise celebrating John’s baptism and, through him, our own baptism into the mystery of Jesus’ paschal mystery.

By way of remembering and celebrating the mystery of your own baptism into Jesus Christ, I would suggest you try to recall the image of that person with whom you first fell in love. He or she may have been a romantic interest, or maybe not. Maybe it was someone who you called “your hero“, “your idol“, “a phenomenon“. Try to recall that very special person you met once in whom the possibility of the beauty of God becoming flesh suddenly became startlingly and frightfully real; whose unique beauty was such, it was almost a source of pain for you. See if you can recall an encounter with such a person and give thanks to God and celebrate that moment with the words of John in today’s gospel so like the words of Dante in the presence of Beatrice: “Here is one who is greater than I who will come to rule over me“, and be glad. Be grateful and full of wonder that God gave you a heart like this; a heart that is able to recognize and to exult in the truth that your destiny in this world is to love.