January 13, 2019

Homily notes for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord – January 13, 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Luke's version of the story of the baptism of Jesus presents two distinct scenes. First scene: the preaching of John, who expects the kingdom of God to come with violence, with the destruction of the evil people. John seems to attribute such violent activity to the One who is coming, to Jesus, as the ultimate agent of a violent God. Second scene: Jesus receiving the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove from God, evoking a quite different feeling. Jesus prays. It does not mean that he says words to God, but that he is focused and in deep contact with his own depths. Two scenes: one about a violent God in which the Holy Spirit is burning up everything; the other about the Holy Spirit gliding peacefully over the One who is the bearer of God's message, and now is filled with the Spirit.

I don't want to push too much this distinction, or contradiction, but it gives me pause. It seems to me that we, just as our forebears of the first century, are still dealing with these two opposite conception of God. I can't stop thinking that it is much easier to expouse the notion of a violent God when preaching, and it much likely to perceive God as an energy of deep peace when praying. That is, not when praying with words only, especially not when prayer is about telling God what to do, but when we pray like Jesus is shown to have prayed in the Gospels. In silence. Waiting. Remaining in touch with his own emotions, and thus attuned to the voice of God. Jesus does preach, throughout the Gospel, but not before this episode, and not without returning regularly to prayer as his source of strength (Luke 6:12 for example).

Prayer is not mere silence, but it comes from silence and returns to silence. It may erupt in words, in poetry, in singing. There is a need to express, sometimes even to cry out, that is natural to prayer. But in its essence, prayer is about being quiet, letting the mind quiet down, and letting God speak. This is the deep Christian tradition, it is called “contemplative prayer” (aka meditation). Letting God do the talk is extremely more interesting than talking to God. This is why I am introducing times of silence, why we teach contemplative prayer, etc... Meeting with Fr. Cyprian: focus of the contemplative experience. Prayer does transform our gaze on the world and on other people. It opens us up to hear the voice of God saying: “You are my beloved child”.

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43). These are the words that God speaks to each of us, not just to Jesus. It is one thing to believe it, or to try to believe it, it is another thing to hear it with the ears of one's soul. It is only in prayer and through prayer that the real meaning of these words might, at some point, break through our consciouness. Otherwise they are just words without a meaning. Christians can honestly believe “in” God without believing God for a moment. Without being able to look at ourselves as God does, with full compassion and seeing the beauty of our souls. When we do not see such beauty, we tend to obliterate the same beauty in others. People who pray, instead, are attuned to beauty, to all beauty, as well as to all suffering.

We might delude ourselves and think we are “important”. That's very different than perceiving our beauty and value as God does. That is a delusion, just as the feeling of being irrelevant, ugly, insignificant is a delusion. The opposite of the feeling of self-importance is not the the feeling of wretchedness, of being a failure, etc. In spiritual life, these two are one and the same thing, even if they look the opposite. The real opposite of these visions is God's vision. Our faith teaches us that God sees through our pretenses, whether we pretend to be important or we pretend to be miserable. God looks at all our fragility, all our desires and hopes, and God knows how fleeting we are. Yet God pronunces us beautiful and honorable. That is the truth. It is not a cover-up of who we really are. Because God speaks the truth. It is a hard truth. It is much easier to think that I am great because of my performance or that I am nobody because of my lack of performance. But God in prayer, when we listen, tells us that we are just human beings. We are creatures. We can be full of the Spirit and empowered to make a difference, if we place ourselves into a space of silence and we practice deep listening.

May we learn, day by day, that the point of being baptized, of being Christians, is not to be right, to belong to the right religion, but that of becoming day by day more human. Less pretentious, less self-accusatory, and more thankful. Amen.