The Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2016 – Year C
Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7 / Ps 29 / Acts 10:34-38 / Lk 3:15-16, 21-22
by Rev. Richard Mooney, Guest Celebrant
In early December of 1952, I was baptized. It was something my parents did for me. I was about six weeks old. For a while, I thought it was something my parent had done to me. Later on I realized it was something my parents had done for me. And I think they did the best they could, especially while trying to raise six boys (I was the third of them). They had us all baptized as infants.
For the longest time, even though I was baptized into the Body of Christ, even though I was a member of the risen Jesus, Jesus remained kind of like the wallpaper of my life. And who pays much attention to the wallpaper? This included Catholic schools, the whole exercise, prayer in the home…Still, I guess I was just sort of dense. Very little of it got through, even throughout Catholic high school. But it was the middle 1960s. I was a sophomore in high school in 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was shot, and the Vietnam War was hot and heavy. It was an extremely distracting time. Nothing really quite got through.
It was only when I went to college that it changed. Many of you are familiar with this experience called the cursillo. “Cursillo” is basically Spanish for “a short course.” It was written as a retreat for men and women in the 1930s in Spain and then brought to the United States and translated into English. It’s still practiced in many places.
It was some time in the late 60s, early 70s, that somebody decided to rewrite it for college students. They stayed pretty close to the original model, which meant that there was a weekend for guys, followed by a weekend for girls. This turned into a complete disaster. But they rewrote it again, this time coed for college students, and in my senior year in college I did this cursillo-like weekend, which they called Encounter with Christ. That’s when the person of Jesus began to get real for me.
Since then, for me it’s been a process of letting Jesus, who He is, what He taught, how He taught it, what He did and how He did it, how He lived, how He died, what happened then, to let that become, as my father used to say, front and center in my life.
I tell you this, not because my story is any better than anybody else’s, but because it is a story that’s still ongoing, and I believe that Jesus Himself had to go through something like this. That Jesus Himself had to grapple with His own commitment to the God that was His parents’ gift to Him. And he had to do it with no more going for Him than you and I have going for us. That he had to puzzle it out. He had to give in to it and let it lead Him where it was going to lead Him, and I don’t think that was easy for Him any more than it’s easy for us. At the very end of His career, as the Romans are bearing down on Him, “Lord, let this cup pass from Me” do not sound like the words of a man who’s got it all figured out and who’s perfectly happy with how things are turning out. It was a struggle for Him just the way that it’s a struggle for us.
The story of my baptism has been, in part, a matter of an ongoing disentangling of who Jesus is from a lot of other good stuff. Disentangling what it means to be a follower of Jesus from what it means, for instance, to be a member of my family. The presumption is that there’s not a lot of daylight between what it means to be a member of your family and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It took me a while to recognize that this isn’t the case.
Another bit of disentangling I had to do was what it means to be a follower of Jesus and what it means to be an American. I was raised in an earlier world; my parents and grandparents had gone out of their way to make sure there that it didn’t look like there was very much daylight at all between what it meant to be a Catholic Christian and what it meant to be an American. Disentangling that has been part of it.
And this may come as a surprise, but part of disentangling has also been disentangling what it means to be a follower of Jesus from what it means to be a member of the Church. Because there sometimes is some daylight between the two. God knows, those bishops who kept moving around priest pedophiles rather than dealing with them directly, in order to protect the Church thought they were doing the right thing, but I don’t think it was coherent with what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, there were several of us one night, sitting around in somebody’s room, solving all the world’s problems, like you do, solving all the Church’s problems. I remember getting sucked into an argument about some aspect of Church life, and it was getting a little bit heated, and I was getting a bit heated. One of the guys who was there, who was lying on the floor, in the middle of this argument’s getting more and more energetic, says: “I’m not so much concerned about whether or not it’s a liberal thing or a conservative thing. I want to know: Is it a Jesus thing?”
And at that moment, I hated him. Really. Two men trying to become Catholic priests, getting involved in a hairy theological discussion. How dare he bring up Jesus? I’ve been working through that moment for the rest of my life. That’s not done yet. It won’t ever be done while I’m still breathing, but it’s the story of my baptism.
You have the story of your baptism: how it is that you became a member of the Body of Christ and how you have let that shape your life.
I’ve been listening to good stories of baptisms all week from the guys that I see in my prisons every week. Many of them came from Protestant backgrounds and were baptized Catholics later in life. I said, “What did that mean to you?” and they said “It was very exciting. I was so dedicated, I was so on fire.” I said, “Now don’t take this the wrong way: How long did that last?” “Three weeks.” But it was part of the story of their baptisms, because somewhere between there and where I met them, at Catholic Mass in prison, there’s a story.
And I encouraged them to do something I’m going to encourage you to do, those of you who like to write: Sit down and write the story of your baptism. You might be surprised at what comes out of the pen or off of your fingers onto the keyboard.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus is now stepping up and taking on His role, what God is calling Him to do. And I believe He had to struggle with that every day of His life, because I do.
Wherever you are now is a great place to be. It’s not a great place to stay. I encourage you, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, to get in touch with the story of your own baptism and see where that leads you.