Years ago a mentor advised me to be careful about what I say “because it could come back to bite you.” He cited a story about an army general who prattled on and on at a ceremony. A young second lieutenant muttered to the woman alongside him, “What an insufferable windbag that guy is.” The woman replied, “Lieutenant, do you know who I am?” “No, ma’am.” “I am the wife of that general you called an insufferable windbag.” The lieutenant said: “Ma'am, do you know who I am?” “No,” said the general’s wife. “Thank God,” said the lieutenant, and he quickly disappeared into the crowd. The point is: Be careful about what you say.
Do you notice anything different in the church? The Christmas crèche and lights and poinsettias are gone. In the liturgical calendar we are now in “ordinary time” and the Word of God invites us to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, our master.
In Isaiah, Paul and John today, we hear various titles ascribed to Jesus. He is the “lamb” who saves us through his death and resurrection, the “son” who is one with the God of Israel. He is the “Christ,” St. Paul says, the long-expected messiah who inaugurates the kingdom of God. He is the sovereign “Lord” to whom we profess our ultimate allegiance. He is the “servant,” Isaiah says, the “light” who illumines the answers to the fundamental questions of life.
Yes, the Word of God ascribes a number of titles to Jesus. The one that stands out for me is John's: “Behold, the lamb of God.” When John saw Jesus on the banks of the Jordan river, Jesus changed John’s life forever. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, was about to open up to us new dimensions of life beyond death.
Can you think of an experience that changed your life, an experience that made you see things differently? Let me tell you about an experience of Helen Keller, a 20th century educator, journalist and humanitarian and inspiration to many.
Helen Keller overcame physical obstacles that most of us can’t imagine; although blind, she was a visionary. Although deaf, she listened with her heart. She noted that no pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new haven to the human spirit.
Despite her handicaps, Helen possessed a positive “can-do” attitude that helped her discover a world full of possibilities. In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, she wrote about the day the outside world broke into the closed world of this six-year old child, born healthy but striken with a virus that left her deaf and blind at 19 months. The catalyst was water, an essential element of life, which relates to what John in today's Gospel was doing: baptizing. Helen described the experience that changed her life:
“My teacher, Anne Sullivan, placed my hand under the spout. And as the cool stream of water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.
“And then suddenly…somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand...I left the well-house eager to learn….” Yes, everything had a name.
Now, think of our own rebirth in the waters of baptism. We not only experienced water, but through that water we became disciples of Jesus. That experience changed our lives. In “the wonderful, cool something,” the life of God became ours. Helen Keller’s experience of water was the beginning of a new journey for her, and so too our baptism is the beginning of our own journey to the eternal dwelling place of God, with Jesus as our mentor and teacher and companion.
The author of Isaiah takes us back in our imaginations to the sixth century before Jesus, to the Jews exiled in Babylonia. This passage is a poem, a song, about the vocation of a “servant of God” who will bring hope to a people who have lost hope. This “servant” renews God’s covenant with the Jews and, through them, pour out God’s life upon all peoples. He will be a “light” to all.
The Christian community sees in this “servant” Jesus, whose vocation or calling was to be our way, our truth, our life and our light in our journey toward our heavenly dwelling place.
In the Gospel, John points out Jesus as the Lamb of God, an allusion to the Lamb in the Passover meal and the sacrificial lamb in temple worship. John also saw Jesus coming up out of the Jordan waters and the Spirit of God confirming Jesus as “Son of God.”
Now what was John's vocation or calling? Simply, to point to Jesus as the messiah. And as we reflect upon John’s vocation, we might ask ourselves whether we, by virtue of who we are and what we do, point to Jesus.
And what John is doing in the Jordan? He was baptizing, inviting people to repent, to orient their lives to God and the things of God. And isn’t this what baptism does?
To begin with, baptism is a gift from God and a rite of initiation into a world-wide community of disciples.
Why be baptized? We first have to understand who we are in relationship to God. At birth, we lack God’s life within us. That really is what original sin means, a lack of something – a lack of a relationship with God. The Book of Genesis captures this lack very simply yet graphically: man and woman fell out of their relationship or friendship with God. How? We really don't know.
But then God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. God through the bloody death and glorious resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit re-established that relationship with God. Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth, a seaport city in Greece, explains that God through Jesus by the power of the Spirit has made us God’s adopted sons and daughters. Yes, God became one of us so that we might become like God.
That’s a incredible gift. That's why Paul urges us to live a holy life worthy of our status. Wouldn't we like God to say about us: “This is my beloved son/my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”
Through baptism, we enter into a relationship with God through a community of fellow disciples.
In early Christianity, candidates were often immersed in water. Water symbolizes life and death. A hurricane can demonstrate how life-threatening water can be; and water on a 100-degree-plus day can easily show how life-giving it can be.
The early Christian candidate stepped down into the water and then came up, symbolizing a dying to a self-centered life and a rising to a God-centered or other-centered life with God. By the eleventh century, a millennium after John the Baptist, pouring water on the head became the common baptismal practice.
But now back to the one question we might ask ourselves: Do we point to Jesus through who we are and what we do? And if don't, when will we?