Every so often throughout the liturgical year as we listen to the scriptures, we will find times when the call of God for us to follow Jesus is made much more explicit and clear than perhaps it has at other times. Today is one of those days when we are being challenged very directly by God through Jesus to become his disciples, to follow him.
The Peace Pulpit
As we reflect on these readings from God's word today, it will be very helpful for us, I think, if we do it with the context of the Sacrament of Baptism, which we are celebrating for this baby, Kaelynn Christine, because the readings guide us as to what it means for her to be baptized, and also what our baptism means for each one of us, and that that, of course, is something very important for us to reflect upon regularly: What does it means to be a baptized follower of Jesus, one of his disciples?
I’m sure we are all aware that today when we celebrate this Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, we are bringing to a completion the Advent and Christmas season. Over the past couple of months, we remembered the Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation and then the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and then Jesus being brought to the temple for circumcision and the giving of his name. Then also, the time he was presented in the temple where he was purified. Then also, the time when Jesus was lost and then found in the temple by Mary and Joseph.
In order to really hear the message that is proclaimed to us in the Gospel today, it's very important that we situate this incident within the context of what was happening in the Jewish Christian community for whom Matthew wrote the Gospel. We may not be so aware, but we need to remind ourselves that the Gospels, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were not written down immediately after Jesus left. The gospels developed out of oral traditions that were passed on for a number of years before anything was written down.
In a few moments when we begin our Eucharistic prayer, I will proclaim the words:
"Yes, God, you are holy. You are kind to us and to all. For this, we thank you. We thank you, above all, for your son Jesus. You sent him into this world because people had turned away from you and no longer loved one another. Jesus opened our eyes and our hearts to understand that we are brothers and sisters, and that you are the one God of us all. And Jesus brought us the good news of life to be lived with you forever in heaven, and he showed us the way to that life, the way of love."
I do find these lessons very powerful in getting us to understand who Jesus really is and what he expects of us. When you look at the gospel lesson, it is suggested - by some at least - that John the Baptist really didn't have any doubts about Jesus; he knew who Jesus was, what he was doing and why, and so he just sent his disciples [to Jesus] for their benefit, because they were reluctant to leave him and follow Jesus. He wanted them to go and be really convinced.
It is certainly not difficult to understand the point of today's Gospel reading. It's a passage that calls us to begin to change our lives, to begin to undergo radical conversion, so it's a very appropriate passage for us to reflect upon as we celebrate today, the sacrament of reconciliation, where we try to look deeply into our hearts to discover the ways in which we fail to live up to God's call to be disciples of Jesus and to repent of our failures and seek God's forgiveness.
As we are all aware, Advent is the season of hope as we prepare to celebrate once more the coming of Jesus at the time of his birth. When something has already happened historically, it's hard to look forward to it again. However, as we know, Jesus came into our human history 2,000 years ago to bring about a transformation of our world, to bring about the reign of God as he announced at the beginning of his public life, "The reign of God is at hand."
As I mentioned in introducing the second reading, the first followers of Jesus struggled with how to understand Jesus. Of course they had come to know him as someone who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth; they knew his brothers, sisters, cousins and family. They saw him in every way that we see one another as human beings.
Recently I have had the experience of writing to various bishops in the United States to alert them to the fact that I was coming to do a public speech of one kind or another in their diocese. As I have received answers from those bishops, sometimes it was a very welcoming answer, and sometimes the bishop would say, "No, it's better if you do not come into my diocese because you can be controversial. You cause too much controversy."