A South African TV advertisement, some years ago, began with a quiet voice saying: ‘If you want to catch someone’s attention, whisper!’ Jesus’ baptism was a rather quiet affair – not something dramatic. According to Matthew, only Jesus saw the dove and heard the voice, and immediately was led into seclusion and isolation in the wilderness. The other readings also point to the power of quiet proclamation in word and action. Those of us who follow Jesus and seek to influence others in the area of justice and love might remember this where we proclaim the Good News by lives of gently lived justice as well as challenging words.
This quiet proclamation might appear to be ineffective, but it is probably the only thing that makes a significant difference. When others see justice lived in our lives, when we treat others with compassion and dignity, when our relationships, our sharing and our values reflect God’s reign of peace with justice, then our world is made a little more whole and transformed for the better. This makes sense when God’s coming among us in Jesus was an act of radical kinship intended to reconcile humanity and creation, and restore peace. We are reminded who we are created to be, how we are to be in the world as people who befriend strangers, live in solidarity with the poor and serve others.
We have seen in recent times how Christians have turned religion into loud public words - and often with invective and violence. Our radical kinship is forgotten. In all the noise about how people should live their lives when it comes to same-sex marriage and questions of threats to so-called religious freedom – there has been little action and certainly not much love and understanding.
Perhaps, one way to view Jesus’ baptism, is to remember that God seems to prefer quiet proclamation – not raised voices, huge public displays. We see this in Jesus coming among us in this messy world and we see this in his rejection of any signs of power and attention grabbing when tempted in the wilderness. Rather, a quiet affirmation here, a gentle act of justice there, a constantly lived love and grace that gently, but profoundly, touches and changes lives. Might God be calling our faith communities to a quiet proclamation wherever they are by seeking to live with love and justice, and raising our voice where possible for who are rendered voiceless and challenging whatever brings pain and destruction? What might it mean for us to take St. Francis’ words seriously – ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.’
Jesus’ public submission to John’s baptism and enter the dirty water affirms his intention to share our lives: the hopes, brokenness, hopelessness, failure and need. Some of the chains that people have endured has been to understand baptism as getting rid of ‘original sin’ rather than God reminding us who we are – sons and daughters of God and ‘beloved’. It was not sins but the pain of their lives; their burdens; their struggles against the evils that surrounded them – terrorism and fear of unpredictable violence as well as foreign occupation and crushing taxation. Jesus comes where we are gathered, like Isaiah’s ‘servant’ figure, with compassion, gentleness, forgiveness and humility. He does not break the ‘bruised reed’ or ‘put out the smouldering wick’ [people who are weak, fragile and vulnerable] until justice is done - where the oppressed and marginalised are lifted up. As God takes us by the hand, we too are called to be instruments of justice and peace. God’s Spirit enables the ‘servant’ (and us) to do what humanity regards impossible - ‘to bring justice’ by making available an equitable, trusting, life-giving social order. There is no talk of strength and power, shouting, acting high-handedly but coming with gentleness, compassion, convincing words and passionate presence. The world waits for people to reveal God’s compassionate heart towards those who are desperate, displaced, in miserable conditions. The way society is structured, if one does not shout but tenderly and compassionately nurtures the ‘bruised’ is left behind, it certainly subverts business as usual by espousing countercultural values. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of the disciple of Jesus. The way of contemporary culture is to establish authority by overcoming the other rather than entering into dialogue.
Jesus' baptism is our baptism. The words spoken over Jesus are spoken over us. What happens to Jesus includes us. God is well pleased with us. We are God’s daughters and sons. We are implicated, as Jesus began his radical ministry of compassion and message of peace for people who are marginalised and imprisoned in any way. This ministry was attacked and subverted by religious leaders of the time and they continue to be subverted and attacked by religious leaders and others when Pope Francis recalls us to the gospel of ‘mercy’ and the need to build a ‘culture of encounter’. The readings challenge any barriers we erect in our communities, where people are judged on external norms such as lifestyle, food, gender, economics, race, country of origin, sexual orientation. Any ill-treatment of another distorts the image of God. In recent weeks we have seen some ‘preposterous’ images for God’s reign: the blind seeing; lions lying with lambs; children putting their hands in the snake’s nest. In baptism, we experience the impossible becoming possible - strangers becoming brothers and sisters. We do not become sons and daughters of God – we are. This is what Jesus awakens in people. The church implicitly promises this at baptism but so often abandons people who do not fit in with its structures and doctrine. But we can make possible what seems impossible. Pope Francis seeks a church where our only concern is to communicate the Good News of Jesus to the world. “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while outside people are starving and Jesus tirelessly repeats to us, ‘Give them something to eat.’” Francis wants us ‘a Church with open doors,’ and breaks attitudes that have been entrenched for centuries. ‘Often we act as controllers of grace and not as facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is God’s house, where there is a place for everyone..’
We are called to live a life that challenges us and pushes us beyond our comfort zones and boundaries of fear so that we can step forward knowing that God has ‘called [each of us] for the victory of justice…as a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, and to [bring prisoners and those who live in darkness out]. (Is 42:6-7).
As we celebrate Jesus’ baptism that led to his ministry, we might reflect on our own baptism and our baptismal call to live in a way that promotes justice and keeps Jesus’ radical message smouldering in our hearts - and the hearts of those we encounter. Today’s feast takes us back to the question ‘and who is my neighbour?’, ‘where is your brother/sister?’ The respectable pass by on the other side. The fire Jesus ignites can put an intensity into our hearts strong enough to maintain life-long commitments in the struggle for non-violence over war; equity over poverty and hunger; shelter over homelessness; acceptance and tolerance over racism; and everything else that chills our hearts and makes our world cold; that presents evil as respectable.
We are not challenged to become God’s sons and daughters but to be what we are and bring the fire of God’s love and justice into our world.
Fr. Claude Mostowik msc