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Summary: If we are to minister to a world in need, we must give it what Jesus gave: goodness, beauty and truth

The Baptism of the Lord

January 10 2010

The first thing we should do today is correct a Hollywood-produced misconception about John’s baptism. Many of us grew up watching one or the other movie in which Jesus was baptized, or a large group of Protestant Christians were baptized in a river, and the preacher dunked the whole person under the water, face up. Let me borrow from Bishop Zurek and my own experience: if John had tried that in the Jordan River in the first century, one of two things would have happened, because the Jordan knows only two stages–flood and drought. During a drought, you could hardly find a spot in the river where you can get in up to your knees. During a flood, the person you would baptize would go right to heaven, because he would have drowned–along with the Baptizer. No, Jesus and the others were baptized pretty much the way we do at Easter, with water being poured over their heads.

The baptism of Jesus was His public introduction as a new kind of Messiah, the Son of God anointed by the Holy Spirit. He came to bring all humanity into righteousness, right worship, true peace and union with God and each other. He came as a new leader for an existing society–the people of Israel. Israel had been anointed as a people to be the light to the nations, drawing every human being to worship the true God. Israel was to be a society of justice, where nobody oppressed or cheated anyone else, and where everyone could come to the Temple and pray as God wanted.

Israel failed in that mission, but Jesus laid down His life so that a remnant of that people, and men and women out of all the nations, could form a new people of God, sprung from that Hebrew stock, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and do for every new generation what Jesus did for His. This new Israel, the Church, was to teach, and heal, and celebrate the sacrifice of the New Law–this Mass–and, yes, suffer and die for each other. Jesus was going to form a new nation. It had no national boundaries. It was impossible in human terms, but it was a divinely-created, divinely-inspired, and divinely-powered body. And with that power, it happened. At one time or another in the first 1500 years after Christ, every nation of Europe, including Russia, most of southwest Asia, , much of Africa, and most of America was Christian, and the Church was beginning to convert East Asia, as well. The world was on the verge of a single ethnicity–not Jew or Greek, not rich or poor, not Irish or African or Polish or Chinese. Our ethnicity was Catholic.

The Protestant Revolution, of course, changed all that. A handful of clerics, led by Luther and Calvin, conspired with political demagogues to rip whole sections of Europe from union with the Church. Their hostility towards “papists” was so strong that when the adherents of Islam invaded Europe and threatened to exterminate Christianity there, Protestant kings stood aloof and left the Catholics to defend them.

Today we are literally a remnant in the world–still one billion strong, but pressed on all sides, mostly by secularism, which is a godless religion that relentlessly seeks to marginalize all religious practice and belief, and, I believe, ultimately to make faith irrelevant to the daily world. With what do we respond? We are baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire no less than Peter and James and John. What do we have to offer a world that puts everything, even human life, on the auction block, subordinates every higher good to pleasure and power?

The answer, not surprisingly, is what Jesus Christ came to bring the world: goodness, beauty and truth. This is what the world needs; this is what the Church has to offer. We must bring to the world’s attention the goodness, beauty and truth that is our heritage, and our destiny.

The goodness is, of course, our moral lives. The Church has taken a hit in the past ten years on morality. Less than 5% of the clergy and religious have been found to be abusive, but that’s 5% too much. What we need to show the world is our holiness, our devotion to prayer, to caring for the poor, to standing up for life from conception to natural death. It’s not enough to avoid evil: we must actively pursue good, and be seen pursuing it.

The beauty is in our traditional Liturgy. Our Pope has given us an example and is giving us some excellent documents to guide our path in restoring beauty to our worship. Moreover, for a change, our U.S. bishops are actually telling us to pay attention to the documents of Vatican II and restore the architectural, artistic and musical beauty that we have pretty well turned our backs on for the past half century. I look forward to the day when our parish can fully implement the document Sing to the Lord, and we can sing like Catholics in all our Masses. When a visitor comes into one of our Masses, one who is seeking goodness, beauty and truth, he should be awestruck by the beauty of our worship, and want it for himself.

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