The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
[Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mk 1:6b-11]
One day, several years ago, on retreat with a group of fellow seminarians, I remember the retreat master telling us to close our eyes and after a moment of silence saying to us: “Imagine yourself in your very favorite place; that garden or workshop, or place in nature you most love to be. Imagine you are there now, and that you are doing the very thing you most love to do; that activity you pursue just for the simple enjoyment of it. Look at yourself there, so peacefully occupied, worried about nothing, desiring nothing – completely happy to be in that moment; happy just to be yourself, content and secure in the knowledge that you are loved and loveable. Look at yourself, and let your heart rest in that image.”
We all sat there with our eyes closed. The room got very, very quiet. And then we heard the retreat master say softly but firmly: “Look at that image of yourself and know, that – is your celibate self.” That’s all he said. There wasn’t a sound. And then after a few minutes he broke the silence, and we had a brief discussion.
Somebody asked him: “What did you mean when you said that beautiful, contented and loveable self we were contemplating was our celibate self?” He explained: “I meant – that person you were looking at is a person only you and God can see. That person represents the ultimate, inexpressible, mysterious truth of who you are. But you are an endless mystery, and the truth is, you will never in this life fully communicate that mystery to any other human being – not to any family member; not to your very best friend; and even if you were to fall in love and marry, and raise children with a woman you loved and who loved you deeply; even in the most intimate sharing of yourself with that woman, you would remain, in the deepest mystery of your being – somehow alone. And her too. The ultimate truth and mystery of who you are is incommunicable. And so I call this self your celibate self“.
Later in seminary classes, we read John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and celibacy in which he says that married people are a sign for celibates: that every human being is created to be given to another, and celibates are a sign for married people: that the mystery that each of us are, is somehow ultimately incommunicable; known only by God.
In light of all this, I think we may assume that for Jesus, who was fully human, there came a certain day in his life when, like my classmates and I, he closed his eyes and contemplated for the very first time, the ultimate inexpressible truth and mystery of who he was. Some people think that day was the day of his Baptism.
But Jesus’ experience, it seems, was a little different than that of my classmates and I on retreat. We saw the truth about ourselves interiorly, a truth that couldn’t be fully communicated to anyone. But, according to Matthew, the truth about who Jesus was, was manifest in visible signs: the sky opened, the Holy Spirit appeared in bodily form as a dove, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” And so there is a question about what precisely happened at Jesus’ baptism. Did he alone discover the truth of who he was that day, or did all the people gathered on the banks of the Jordan also discover that day who Jesus was?
Actually, it seems unlikely that they did. The baptism occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and we know that throughout his ministry Jesus lamented the failure of his disciples to comprehend who he was. Years later, very near the end of his life, we hear Jesus saying to Phillip with what sounds like genuine sadness and amazement, “Phillip – you have been in my company so long; my intimate friend, and you don’t know me!” Then again, one might ask: if the truth of who Jesus was became known to everyone on the day of his baptism, then why did he die despised, naked, and alone?
Finally, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, during the entire course of his life, the truth of who Jesus really was remained incommunicable to everyone around him. And yet if this be so, it raises another question that is even harder to answer: If Jesus true self was never really communicated to anyone, then why are we celebrating him as our Lord and Savior this morning two thousand years later
in a church filled with worshipers?
The answer many theologians give to that question is that it was at the resurrection on Easter Sunday that Jesus’ followers realized who he was. And it was in light of their experience of the resurrection that the disciples looked back at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and understood for the first time who Jesus was; and then they proclaimed this revelation to others who believed, and they preached it to us, and we believed, and that’s why we are celebrating Jesus as our Lord and Savior, on this feast of His baptism.
And so, while it seems to be true that you and I are somehow ultimately incommunicable to each other, at least by our own efforts, the truth of who God is, is not incommunicable. Whatever God wills, He does, and somehow the deepest truth of who Jesus was did get communicated to us.
But think about that a moment. This same Jesus has given himself to us body, soul, and divinity in a eucharistic meal by which you and I are made his very body. And if Jesus did truly communicate himself to us, then Jesus is not alone, and if we are united with him as his very body, then we are not alone. It means that even though our deepest selves be incommunicable to anyone by our own efforts, the grace of God working in us through our communion with Christ, makes us known to one another. It means that when the risen and glorious Christ closes his eyes and contemplates the ultimate mystery and beauty of who He is – He sees us; all of us, together. And when each of us, oppressed by the weight of our mortal solitude close our eyes and contemplate the mystery of who Jesus is, we meet each other–for the first time. And seeing in Jesus face, the truth of who our neighbor is and meeting him in the depths of his mystery, we are no longer alone.
Brothers and sisters, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord the real cause of our celebration is the Lord’s manifestation; his communication of himself to the church, and we are overjoyed at the discovery that in the revelation of who Jesus was for us, we discover what we are in ourselves and for each other.
Finally, having grasped the truth about Jesus and our neighbor, we come to a new discovery of the truth about ourselves, a discovery which for many of us, is the most difficult of all and may be put off for a whole lifetime, until looking bleary eyed and gray haired into the mirror one morning, we finally understand, and with a force that really does seem like the sky opening, we at last hear and understand the voice from on high saying to us: “You – are my beloved child, With you I am well pleased.”