Tag Archives: Baptism

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.

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EPIPHANY 2017

A female parishioner of mine told me shortly after one long-ago New Year’s Day that she was giving up everything! She smiled, I laughed, curious to know what “everything” meant. She said that what she was giving up was New Year’s resolutions themselves – except for one.

And then she explained: “The one resolution I’m making is to try harder than I have tried in my whole life to keep aware of the presence of God wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. I think that will cover everything else.”

I read these words somewhere: “In a sense, each one of us had a star stop and come to rest over the place where we were baptized, for in that instant we became Christ for others…Let us pray that the presence of Christ will be manifested through us to a world longing for peace and justice.”

The clever, intriguing story that carries the Spirit’s message for us today, the commemoration of the Epiphany of Jesus, has an interesting twist that is really the essence of the message. Not only were the fabled wise men non-Jews; they were also pagans who were practicing a forbidden craft: consulting the stars in expectation of superhuman information and wisdom, a popular form of superstition even today. They claimed that it was through that very practice, condemned by the Jews, that they had found their way to the Jewish Messiah!

St. Matthew, in his Gospel, from which we heard the Good News today, is in a way scolding his fellow Jews, challenging them with the obvious fact that God had allowed Jesus to be recognized and presented to the world, not only through faithful Jews, but also by persons such as these pagan sojourners who embraced the truth when they saw it, no matter what had led them to it.

That is what we are baptized into. The sacrament does not initiate us into a narrow, exclusive community of religious members who think and worship in the same way. It doesn’t set boundaries that we the faithful are commanded to observe. On the contrary, it sends us out toward and beyond the horizon to tell the world, in everything we say and do, that God is pure, unconditional love and that we humans will be happy here on earth only to the extent that we live and act in love – and all that that includes and implies. Our baptism does not caution us to seek out and to associate with only those who share our faith and our understanding of God, but with all persons of whatever — and of no — religion who are of good will and who live in love. The reason for that is that the Spirit of God is in them, too, and speaks to us through them as well.

As I think back over my life and recall some of the outstanding persons whose charity to others, whose generosity and kindness, whose simple, childlike trust stood in stark contrast to the cleverness of the supposedly educated and sophisticated, it is so clear to me that in them, too (maybe in them especially), without their ever intending or knowing it, I saw God.

That woman was right: there is no New Year’s resolution that outranks the determination to remain aware of that divine presence in every situation.

BAPTISM OF JESUS 2016

Having enjoyed it so much the first time around, I’m currently reading again a great book by a priest whose theology and life views I’ve admired for decades.  (His name is Daniel Maguire.) Actually it’s light, though very substantial, reading, filled with humor that has me laughing on every other page!  I wrote to thank him for what he’s written.  He resigned from the active ministry of his priesthood many years ago, married, raised a family and continued for a long time to teach at a Catholic university.

Early in the book, he dedicates four pages to 19 major events in his personal and professional life, many of them disappointments and tragedies of one sort or another, including the death of their 10-year-old son. He introduced the list as surprises of life that awaited him; he ends it by saying, “I never saw all that coming.  How I dealt with it, sometimes well, sometimes anything but, is a story full of life with all its spices…and not just a few lessons.  I share it in these pages.”

Did the real Jesus (not the Jesus manufactured by piety and religious imagination over the centuries), did that real Jesus have any idea that his life of loving service would end in rejection and violent death?  I think not.

During those 3 years of his work among the people, when they came flocking to him from all over, listening to every word he spoke, singing his praises, wanting to crown him king, he could never have imagined that he would soon be crucified as though he were a criminal.  It was only when he was very near his death that he saw clearly the handwriting on the wall.

The greatness of Jesus is found in both periods of his life: in the first, when he gave himself totally to God in unselfish service to the people; and in the last, when he did not run away from the terrible ordeal that awaited him.

I think that is what we are honoring today as we remember his Baptism at the age of about 30: that he was committing himself to something largely hidden from his view, trusting that the God he called Father would, in the end, make all things right and happy and beautiful and would provide for him along the way, especially at the most difficult times.

Jesus was saying a firm Yes to both “better” and “worse” and was certain he’d complete the journey successfully because its ultimate outcome lay in the wisdom and love and power of God.

Persons who have experienced deaths of many kinds – the death of someone very close to them, the death of their marriages, the death of physical and mental powers, the death of their fondest hopes and dreams — still have lives to live, commitments to keep, love to share, and faith to practice.  In all of that they are bound to be led beyond anticipated limits, just as Jesus was.

For all of us Christians, the focus of existence here on earth is Baptism, in which the direction and the ultimate meaning of our lives are established, as they were for Jesus.

I wish you happiness and peace and hope on the next lap of your journey!

HOMILY FOR SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT, 2014

At more weddings than I can recall, I’ve included in the homily a story I heard by chance on the radio many years ago and which I have ever since considered important and worth remembering and sharing with others.  It was an interview of the actor, Robert Mitchum, who began in his characteristically candid way by telling about his undisciplined life as a young man.  He said he bounced from one menial job to another — everything from stevedoring to dishwashing and dozens of others in between.  He was arrested more than once during those crazy years, jailed, and even did time on a chain gang in Georgia for a drug conviction.

Somehow coming to his senses, he made his way to Hollywood, applied himself as never before, and launched his uniquely successful and stable acting career in the movies.

When the interviewer asked him if he was married, I expected – as I think most other listeners must have — to hear him answer that he had been married a half dozen times and was currently divorced from his last wife.  But he didn’t say that at all; instead, he said, with what sounded to me like humble, quiet pride, that he had loved and been married to one woman, his wife, for over thirty years.

The interviewer, expressing what had to be the astonishment of the audience, then asked, “Well, given the wild, nomadic early life you’ve just described, how in the world did you ever manage to keep a loving and faithful marriage together for so many years?”

There was a pause, which suggested to me that he was smugly taking a drag on his ever-present cigarette, after which he replied in his trademark tone and cadence, “I don’t know.  Maybe it was just mutual forbearance.”  The interviewer said, “Doesn’t sound very romantic.”

And then came the memorable punch line: “No, you’re wrong.  It’s been very romantic.  What I mean is that neither of us ever stopped believing that the other would be a better person tomorrow.”

It must be 40+ years since I heard that and began to appreciate it.   Actually, in an “unchurchy” way, it’s a powerful statement of what this season of Advent is and what the essence of our Christian life is: waiting for, and working toward, the ever-fuller coming of Christ in ourselves and in others.  

I’ve been at the festive gatherings of three branches of my own family over the past few weeks.  In the midst of the eating and drinking and conversing and laughing, it was obvious that the goodness and love of Jesus were very much there because we were present to each other and were putting aside whatever word or happening may have separated us in the past and were expecting instead to find the good, decent, loving person in each of us.  Which, if you trace it to its ultimate meaning and origin, is to say that we were eagerly open to the Christ in each of us.  That’s not pious exaggeration; it comes from Jesus himself, who said that to know him one had only to know any of his followers.

Let’s say again that our Christian tradition holds that there are three comings of Christ celebrated in the season of Advent: 1) his birthday: Christmas, we call it; 2) in some way, his coming at the end of time, when creation is complete and human society has finally become God’s kingdom on earth, to use a time-honored old term; and 3) his taking form in each individual person in this earthly life we presently share.

At the Baptism of the newly committed Christian, we used to say, and still may, I suppose, “May you grow to full maturity in Christ.”  That is our one and common vocation: to take on the mind, the heart, the spirit, the values of Jesus.  Our lives will have been successful, not by virtue of the dollars we’ve acquired or the fame we’ve achieved, but by the extent to which this likening to Jesus has been accomplished.

I wish you a good journey to the stable.

HOMILY FOR 29TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2014

Just a note why there is no Twenty-Eighth Sunday homily: I was in Italy enjoying a holiday with my brother and his daughters, discovering our heritage and visiting our forebears’ homes.

On the occasion of a baby’s baptism I give to the parents and godparents, among other information that I hope will be of help to them, an explanation of the tracing of the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead.  I tell them that this can be interpreted as a kind of branding, something akin to what is done to cattle, for example, to mark them as belonging to their rightful owner and protecting them from theft.  Although the sign of the cross is, of course, invisible after its tracing, it anticipates the visible sign that comes from the believer who receives it — the attitudes and the behavior of a person who obviously lives in union with Jesus and the one he called Father.

In the Gospel passage we just heard, Jesus was drawn into one of the many skirmishes his enemies would orchestrate to ensnare him, this one having to do with the payment of tax to the Roman emperor.  That particular issue was a nasty one among the Jews of Jesus’ time because having to pay a tax to the very power that was oppressing them was simply unacceptable and absolutely hateful.  Yet, there were among them some pragmatists who reasoned that it was better to swallow their pride and comply peacefully in the hope of acquiring some fringe benefits that otherwise would go exclusively to the rich and powerful citizens of Rome.  On the other hand, there were other Jews, the far greater number, who actively opposed the payment of taxes on philosophical and theological grounds.

So, against that background, the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus, this itinerant preacher who was causing such a stir among the people.  The question they put to him was fully loaded: “Is it right to pay the tax to Caesar or not?”  If he said yes, he could easily be accused of sympathizing with Rome; if he said no, he’d be inciting rebellion against Rome.  In either way, they would have succeeded in discrediting and ultimately destroying him and his mission among the people.  In their minds, he had no way out.

Jesus acknowledges the clever ruse and calls its architects hypocrites.  He requests from them a coin of the empire and then asks, “Whose face and whose name are on this piece of money?”  They tell him the obvious, after which he responds brilliantly, immortally, “Then give it back to the one for whom and by whom it is marked – and give to God what belongs to God!”

Don’t miss the meaning of all this.  When Jesus talks about “giving to God what is God’s,” he’s not referring to tithing or charitable donations or even obedience or worship or prayer.  He means that they must give to God their entire selves because that and nothing less than that is what is marked, branded, as belonging to God – the human being who has come from God and is made in the image and likeness of God!

What is “giving ourselves to God?”  For most of us it is not entering a convent or priesthood or a monastery.  No.  It is rather the most basic task of every human being, and that is to come to an awareness of the Spirit of God in us and to live our lives always paying attention to that Divine Presence and asking to be directed by it.  God is love, and love – including the love that is God — can never be forced on anyone.

Our covenant with Caesar, in whatever forms that may take, can be in strong competition with our relationship to the one whose image we bear.  We have to turn away regularly from the blaring noise in which we live and in silence listen to God’s voice coming from within us.  That conversation will be more real and more productive than any other we shall ever have.