CALLED, GRASPED, FORMED, AND SET!

Catholic Homily/Reflection
Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord - Year A
January 13, 2008

The solemnity of today smacks of growth and development – a gradual process of enlightenment, of understanding, of individuals slowly realizing or seeing things in their totality, for their bigger and deeper meaning. We speak here of people seeing more than just the “light of a star,” more than just romantic images of a child born in circumstances of great expectation and waiting. We speak of a deeper epiphany, a greater understanding of God’s process of revealing Himself to the world.

Indeed, the Baptism of the Lord counts as a big part of the bigger mystery of the Epiphany, a feast we celebrated last Sunday.

But lest we get too lost too soon on deep theological insights, let us start with simple things first, as can be gleaned from the text of today’s scriptural readings. We start with Isaiah, who speaks prophetically of what is known as the “suffering servant” of Yahweh. He gives a preview of what is to come hundreds of years hence, and speaks in God’s name of the one who “shall bring forth justice to the nations,” a feat he will do, not with brute power and strength, but with gentleness and kindness: “a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.”

Isaiah revealed in prophecy, in the broad strokes of his prophetic imagination, what transpired factually later in history – an event that later, Paul and the evangelists would record for posterity.

Cornelius, the stalwart of Roman officialdom’s detached and cold professionalism and stand-offish disdain, became partner in ministry to a very Jewish Peter who was getting quite a few realizations himself. Peter, who was as much a Jew as he was a disciple of the Lord, was experiencing a conversion of sorts: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Peter did the unthinkable and the undoable … he went inside the house of a pagan, ordinarily a hated gentile. And in case you missed it, Cornelius was not alone. He had a full retinue of all sorts of possibly at least initially unsympathetic people in his household.

It was before such a crowd that Peter delivered his piece – one that “proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is lord of all.” Peter, an avid Jew, was warming up gradually to a people, who, themselves, were warming up to the idea of Christ as the “light of all nations.”

John the Baptist had some warming up to do himself. He initially would not hear of him baptizing the Lord: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” John was prevailed upon by Jesus, who insisted for “it [was] fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There is something in the need for people to gradually warm up and be gradually led to deeper realities that speak to us about our lives, and about our faith. There is something about our need to be gradually formed, molded, and set that opens us up to the delight of experiencing the Lord’s epiphanies in the midst of the ordinariness of everyday life. There is something about the initial discipline of sitting through the first lengthy chapters of a novel or a book that gives way to the fullness of enjoyment that only comes after a difficult plateau of seeming pointlessness and dreariness. There is something about going through the “pain” that can only lead to “gain” that enlightens us about warming up to our faith, and our attachment to a personal God who seems at times to be unforgivably silent – and even absent - from our lives just when we need Him most! There is definitely something about Isaiah’s patient prophesying, Peter’s gradually changing perceptions about gentiles, Cornelius’ growing trust in the power of the Risen Lord, and John’s gradual sense of self-surrender to the one who has come to bring justice to the nations, that can speak to us modern men and women who cannot wait, a people who cannot afford to waste time gracefully getting formed, trained, and set for a mission much bigger than anyone of us, much greater than all of us put together.

But the waiting, the surrendering, the molding, the forming, along with the calling and the setting, eventually paid off for John, his disciples, and all those who were willing to give the preacher from notorious Galilee a chance. Their investment of time paid off today. They got more than they ever dreamed of. They saw an epiphany, and got front seats to a big event – a revelatory experience from the Trinitarian God. “Behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The world that we live in, a world of fast food, instant noodles, instant messaging, and instant digital connectivity, is a world that wants instant answers to nagging questions. Technology and information systems appear to be everyman’s handy toolbox when life and what it offers go awry. Information, and the one who holds the right information, has the power and edge over others who have no access to such. Religious fanatics, in the aftermath of the tsunami that swept a deadly path through eleven countries in Asia three years ago, are having a heyday giving what appears to be clear and definitive answers to a basically natural calamity, showing connections where there are none, and bloating out of proportion the so-called “third secret’ of Fatima, thus giving an oversimplified answer to the big mystery of a God who seems powerless before the onslaught of mother nature’s wrath.

Alas, today’s feast tells us that the answer to our questions, the answer to God’s mysterious ways is not information. We have a glut of such information, many of which, like the chain letters from the internet that purportedly enlighten people on the third secret of Fatima, endlessly sowing fear in the hearts of many who are weak in faith (both in faith context and faith content), who are thus largely ignorant of the Lord’s teachings, only end up misleading rather than educating people to the truth. Today’s feast teaches us that it is not so much information, as FORMATION, that we people need.

That formation is what Isaiah got in the school of life and the faith that he nurtured as he gave way to expressions of his hopeful imagination as a prophet for the Lord. That was the formation that Cornelius, in his daily dealings with that band of followers of the Galilean, whom they murdered as a criminal, underwent. That was the same formation that Peter, seeing the openness of the very pagans who had caused untold suffering to his master and Lord, went through as he reflected on God’s selfless and universal love for all peoples, whether Jew or Greek, or pagan or gentile.

This is the same formation that the thousands of saints and mystics, confessors and martyrs of the faith, underwent as they got training in the school of hard knocks, and who, in their growing faith, began seeing daily epiphanies of a God, who loved them and cared for them in ways that did not fit their earthly and worldly expectations. This is the very same formation that enable millions of suffering souls all over the planet to see blessings where others only see blight, grace where others only see darkness, life where others only see death and destruction.

It takes formation to see what others do not normally see, for as Antoine de Saint Exupery notes wisely, ‘what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It takes formation to be able “to read God in daily life,” to find God in all things pleasant or unpleasant, and to see “ His blood upon the rose, and in the skies the glory of His eyes.”

Isaiah today tells us what this formation is all about. It is all about allowing God to be God, leaving Him room to do with us what He wills, to form us into a people ever at the ready to be extensions of His presence in a world that needs more and more of God’s wondrous, caring, benevolent, and constant love. Mattie Stepanek, of whom I spoke last Sunday, is one such Divine handiwork, one of God’s many simple answers to profound questions that bedevil the men and women of today. So is Blessed Mother Teresa. So are the thousands of saints who “looked out the window, and saw … not mud, but the stars up above!” In their “heartsongs,” they led people to the light of his mysterious, hidden presence.

The Trinitarian God reveals Himself even in our times, even in what is perceived as His hiddenness. He whispers to us in our joy, and shouts at us in our pain, as one author puts it. In His way of communicating Himself to us, He gives us, not so much information, as formation. Like Isaiah, we can only see clearly, if we allow ourselves to be “called for the victory of justice,” “grasped by the hand,” “formed” and “set” as “a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”

Comments

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