Reflection for Sunday – January 9, 2022
Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-4. 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
Preacher: Sonja Livingston
This past summer our parish welcomed a new pastor. The first Sunday I heard Father Daniel celebrate Mass included a baptism. As much as I enjoy the sight of babies and christening gowns, when I saw the family gathered at the back of the church, I looked at the time and wondered how long I’d be delayed in meeting a friend after Mass.
As soon as the service began, I forgot about time. I listened, gratefully, as Father Daniel explained each component of the sacrament—including scarier-sounding words like exorcism and Satan. I’d witnessed dozens of baptisms, but it was the first time I’d been walked through the rich layers of the ceremony. I leaned in as he described the rite of Ephphetha, modeled on the healing of a man whose hearing and speech were impaired. “Be opened,” Jesus said, touching the man’s ears and mouth. Father Daniel did the same with the infant and invited those in the pews to be present to the words, to hear them extended to us, and to behave as if our own ears and mouths had been opened and blessed. Instead of simply clapping for the infant and family after the baptismal candle was lit, I looked around and sensed the energy in the church and clapped for all of us, a congregation filled with new light.
“One mightier than I is coming,” John proclaims in today’s Gospel reading. “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
We can imagine John’s surprise when the one whose praises he’s been singing—the true Christ—shows up to be baptized. Certainly Jesus doesn’t require baptism, yet there he is, letting John run water over his head. It’s interesting to note that while Jesus may not have needed baptism, his baptism is no small thing. Heaven opens. The Holy Spirit descends. The voice of God decrees: You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. With this, Jesus is ready to begin his public life, to face both the miracles and suffering awaiting him. The birth of baby Jesus we celebrate on Christmas is Christ’s necessary incarnational beginning, but his baptism is another. With it, his ministry truly begins.
The Baptism of the Lord comes at the start of a new year when our collective desire for transformation is at an all-time high. It’s easy to become cynical about New Year’s resolutions because of how superficial they can be or how quickly they’re abandoned.
Still, we seem to long for a clean slate, don’t we? Most of us welcome the opportunity to do better and to begin again. It’s possible and even likely that I will fail in my resolution to pray every day, to be patient in traffic and less grumpy before morning coffee—but it’s also possible I will succeed. It’s possible you will too.
We do not change and renew the world by staying the same as we were yesterday. Change requires opening ourselves, which exposes us to hurt, failure and shame. Yet openness is exactly what’s needed if we are to truly love. Human tenderness requires vulnerability, which is never pain-free. Sorrow is the flipside of joy and the price we pay for fully living. “The high cost of loving,” my husband’s grandmother used to say.
As Christians, we’re called to bear the high cost of loving with grace, humility and faith. We must do our best to stay open to God and to each other, especially in the face of division, hardship and strife. The poet Mary Oliver ends one of her saddest poems with these words: I tell you this to break your heart—by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.
Today’s readings submerge us into transformative waters. We’re illuminated by the Holy Spirit, uplifted by the Father and provided the astoundingly perfect example of Jesus stepping into the waters of the Jordan. The readings also call to mind last summer’s baptism and Father Daniel’s “opening” the baby’s mouth and ears, as we, with all our human foibles and limitations, are blessed and set again upon our sacred path—which is always and ever a path of learning to delight in others as the Lord delights in us.
Today we are opened. Today we are anointed. Today we are candles relit.
What and where and how we will shine our beautiful light?