Baptism of Jesus
When I was in Italy from 1982-1986 studying psychology, I spent two summers helping out in a parish in Palermo, Sicily after three of my MSC confreres there were killed in a car accident. One would often hear of murders even in our parishes of police and public officials by the Mafia. The Archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Pappalardo, was forced to travel in a police car because he was targeted for his fearless speaking out against the Mafia that kept people in its power by threats and murder. I was told on a number of occasions after speaking out that I was fortunate to be a foreigner.
Politicians and other leaders were silent because they were either corrupt or fearful. Giuseppe Puglisi, a local priest, denounced those who gave and accepted bribes. His work with youth emphasised taking responsibility for oneself and for others by refusing to collaborate with criminality. Father Puglisi was assassinated on 56th birthday in 1993 for challenging the Mafia that controlled the neighbourhood. The killer, when he was arrested, said that when Puglisi saw him come, he said quietly, ‘I was expecting you’. This is no doubt that such words were on the lips or minds of many church workers, human rights defenders, defenders of the Earth, and journalists in countries such as the Philippines and Latin America today.
Jesus too, was able to say ‘I was expecting you’ to those who opposed him and sought to kill him. Jesus’ ministry consisted of challenging the boundaries that separated people from God’s loving care and concern. These words form the essence of baptism which is often seen as an isolated individual event rather than an initiation into Jesus’ way of living and loving – which has consequences. Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed whilst celebrating the Eucharist for denouncing those who tortured, oppressed and killed his people. He knew that his strong words on behalf of the poor and persecuted would have a price when he prematurely forgave his killers - ‘I was expecting you’. Martin Luther King Jr., knew what would happen when he spoke out against both racial injustice and the Vietnam War. He had called on the poor to refuse to cooperate with the structures that kept them poor. People rarely kill others because they are good. They do it when the truth of their behaviour is uncovered and clashes with the values of the gospel and justice; when their profiting from evil is exposed. Jesus was not crucified because he was a nice guy but because he was set on dismantling the corrupt, hateful and oppressive system that underpinned political and religious institutions of the day.
We sometimes point out the incongruities between public expressions of faith by politicians whilst they promote cruel policies whether in the treatment of asylum seekers, or cuts in foreign aid, or close their minds to the wise science about climate change, or cuts in social services especially in this time of Covid-19, or make pacts with other countries that involve war. What does baptism mean when they claim to be practicing Catholics and Christians but are deaf and indifferent to the many other viruses by this pandemic that Pope Francis has said impact upon us and summed up in a ‘culture of indifference’ rather than a ‘culture of encounter.’ Blindfolds have been removed and we have a chance to see with new eyes. The Pope drawn attention to how the pandemic has made visible the throwaway culture. He has attacked the ‘savage capitalism’ that allows inequality to grow where profit flow to the richest and where the poor are abandoned. Jesus came to bring liberation for the down-trodden and justice for the poor and oppressed. The hope for a new world, a new creation, lay in the fact that so many people, unnamed, unknown, unrecognised have broken out of the confines of their lives to show and provide care for others at great personal risk.
Jesus did not call us to be Christians but disciples who practice what he taught – such difficult things such as love of enemies, countering violence with nonviolence, to recognise that God’s image is found in everyone, even our enemies. Pope Francis says that we need to go to the edges of existence if we are to see the world as it is. He says that we need to go to the margins to find a new future. When God became flesh, God chose to go to the margins where there was sin and misery, exclusion and suffering, illness and solitude. These were the places of possibility. For us, it involves concrete involvement with people who are kicked from all sides whether they are homeless, or refugees, or people out of prison, or suffer other forms of injustice.
The image of the ‘servant’ outlines our role as baptised persons. Pope Francis says that it means being awakened to something important in the heart and becoming ‘the antibodies to the virus of indifference.’ This way of living, begins with baptism. It involves a deep concern for people. The servant was to bring about a way of living different to the agendas of political, financial, and religious leaders. That agenda has nothing to do with God’s love and does not result in a renewal of relationships or a deeper respect for life. God’s agenda embodies compassion and goodness.
Mark shows us that new birth and life comes from the margins, not from the centre and so gives us a clue as to where we need to be as Jesus’ followers. Jesus appears in a remote and unremarkable place coming from an unremarkable village [Nazareth] in northern Palestine. God’s voice speaks to an obscure figure, from doubtful social origins, in a remote place. We see in Jesus one who crosses boundaries – not only geographically but people. One such crossing was submitting to baptism; being immersed in our human condition; and embodying the God who walks with and wants to be with people. This highlights what is central in his vision and work. This feast is not just about Jesus’ baptism but our baptism. We are called again and again to trust God’s voice within us that calls us ‘Beloved’. This voice enables us to stand strong. Baptism marked a new beginning for Jesus and opened to a new world for all people where, as St Paul writes, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, no black or white, no gay or straight but all are one in Christ Jesus.
Jesus’ involved a new approach; a new way of thinking; a radical new mission to bring about God’s Reign on earth. We are to participate in this and become agents of transformation in the world around us. Part of this transformation coming near to those who have in any way been cast aside and showing them how they can become agents of change in their lives and agents of a new future. These people on the edges become movers of social change. Jesus’ baptism took him on another trajectory where he blew away many of old assumptions about who God loves and does not love. For us it means not deeming some as worthy and others as unworthy. It means no longer scapegoating and hate-mongering. It means not being indifferent to crushing poverty and inequality; to overwhelming hunger’; to human trafficking; to children sold for sexual exploitation. The Spirit makes possible the fraternity and solidarity Pope Francis calls us to where there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ but only a ‘we’.
When he emerged from the waters of baptism Jesus was ready to begin his ministry. He was a public person. So too are we. Our baptism does not just make us a member of the church but people to take responsibility for the good of others. Together we are called to take responsibility for each other. We are called to a ‘leadership’, of being accountable and responsible. God’s servants hear the cries of the poor; they hear the cries of the stranger; they hear the cries of those in any way imprisoned; and they respond with kindness and tenderness, unlike those in power, to ‘the bruised reed’, the hurting one, the one who does not always keep up in family or society; to speak a word of hope to the hopeless by acting and struggling for justice and freedom. As baptised people we can do this because we know who we belong to <This is my beloved son/daughter> and then act and speak as the one within us prompts. If there is anything our world needs, it’s to know God’s solidarity with all people – especially the poorest and most vulnerable – and our solidarity and fraternity as well. We do not have to go far to find people who are suffering and need light in their lives. There are many and simple ways we can be a light to our world. The light of one individual may be small, but can grow when it spreads to others. Jesus’ light spread to the whole world. Let us be a light to the nations by the choices we make each day.