Sunday, January 09, 2011


Feast of The Baptism of the Lord
On Your Mark...
Picture: cc rachel sian

On your mark...

Sisters and brothers, I think most of us are familiar with these words. On your mark. At this command, athletes take up their positions behind the starting line before a race. For the spectator, of course, the words are important only as a signal to pay attention, because something exciting is about to begin. But, for the athlete, these words mean much more.

On your mark...

More than just the beginning of a race, these words also mark the end of a long and arduous period of preparation. For even if it may look easy, this command is not given to just anyone on the track, but only to athletes. And, in order to be worthy of taking one’s place on the track as a true athlete, one has to be willing to spend much time and energy, to spill plenty of sweat and, yes, perhaps even some blood. There’s much more to taking one’s mark at the start of a race than simply taking a stroll from the dressing room onto the running track. Just to receive the call to stand behind the starting line as a true athlete is in itself already something of an achievement.

On your mark...

From the athlete’s point of view, this command is as much an end, as it is a new beginning. The same can be said about the feast we are celebrating today. In the church’s calendar, the Baptism of the Lord marks both the end of the Christmas Season and the beginning of Ordinary Time. In the life of Jesus too, his baptism can also be seen as marking both a beginning and an end. Like an athlete being called to take his mark at the start of a race, at his baptism, Jesus gets himself into position to begin his public ministry. Here, in the Jordan river, the Spirit descends upon him to strengthen him. The Father’s voice rings out to affirm him. This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And Jesus is now ready to start running the race. He is ready to lead people back to God.

But, like the athlete’s command, the baptism of the Lord is not just a beginning. It is also something of an end. For Jesus does not come to the Jordan as the baby that we have been feasting our eyes upon in these days of Christmas. Jesus comes to John as a fully developed human adult. And not just any human adult, but one who is the most human of all. For this is the mystery that we have been celebrating at Christmas: that, in Jesus, One who is fully divine has also become fully human. Here, at his baptism, we see the end-result of Jesus’ growth from human infancy into human adulthood.

But, as with all spectators, we may think that nothing very special is happening here. What’s so great about becoming a truly human adult? Don’t we all grow into adults? Aren’t we all human too? But that’s precisely the question we need to ask ourselves today, isn’t it? When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we often assume that we ourselves are already fully human. We assume that to be a human person involves nothing more than being born to human parents. But is that true? Is it really that simple? Our readings today suggest otherwise. In particular, they point out to us three characteristics of Jesus that are quite unlike what our world considers to be truly human.

For modern people like us, one key characteristic of being a human person is freedom. And not just any kind of freedom, but the freedom to be one’s own boss, to be the master of one’s own destiny. When someone tells us to do something – whether it is our friends, or relatives, or our government – we want to have the freedom to say no, I don’t want to. Of course, that is important. But the freedom that we find in our readings is of a different sort. Here is my servant whom I uphold... In these word from the first reading, what we find is not the freedom to be one’s own boss, but the freedom to be an obedient – even a suffering – servant of God. This is the freedom that led Jesus to ask John for baptism, even though Jesus was without sin. Jesus’ baptism was not a confession of sin but a free and obedient submission to the Father’s plan. It is fitting, Jesus tells John, for us to fulfill all righteousness. Here we see the freedom that marks Jesus as a truly human adult. This is the freedom that he spent years learning from his parents, Mary and Joseph. It is the freedom to say yes to the will of God.

Also, for us, to be human is not just to be free to be one’s own boss, it is also to be able to put that freedom into practice. For us, to be human is to use our hands to work for our own happiness. Whether it is on the world stage, or in the workplace, or simply in our own backyards, for us, to be human means to build our own kingdom on this earth. But in Christ we see something different. Since the freedom of Christ has to do with obedience to God, the most important human ability is not to build things with one’s hands, but rather to hear the call of God in one’s heart. It is through this kind of listening that the servant of God comes to hear God’s consoling and challenging voice: I, the Lord, have called you... I have grasped you by the hand. This is the kind of listening that every truly human person has to be trained to hear, as Jesus was, again by Mary and Joseph. Such that at the Jordan, Jesus could hear his heavenly Father say: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased...

And, finally, precisely because our modern view of being human has so much to do with becoming our own boss, and with building our own happiness, it also often leads to violence. Everyone wants to be happy. But what happens when your happiness conflicts with mine? Or mine with yours? Is it any surprise that our modern view of humanity often leads us to cause suffering, to others as well as to ourselves? In contrast, because it is focused first on the love of God, the humanity of Christ leads him to occupy himself with the kinds of ministry described in the second reading. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. The humanity of Christ is seen not in violence, but in gentle and compassionate care for others. As we heard in the first reading, not even a bruised reed did he break, nor a smoldering wick did he quench... 

On your mark...

On the running track, these words signal both the start of the race and the end of the runner’s training. At this command, the runner takes up position as a true athlete. Similar words are spoken at Jesus’ baptism today. This is my beloved Son... This is the One whose nature was divine, but who allowed himself to become a fully trained human servant. At his baptism, Jesus heard the call. He took his mark. He started running his race.

But this feast is as much a celebration of our baptism, as it is of Christ’s. Today, we remember that we too have been baptized, that we too have been trained to be fully human, that we too have been called to go about doing good. Today, we too are being commanded to run the race.

Sisters and brothers, how ready are we to take our mark today?

2 comments:

  1. 30 years in preparation,3 years in ministry,for 3 days and 3 nights of immense pain and suffering that would forever the world transform......

    How does Christ endure 33 years and 3days of knowing WHO he is, WHY he has come, WHERE he is heading and HOW broken the world is? How did he carry all that painful awareness and yet continual hope within?

    It's tempting to think that things were not really so bad for Jesus, who was after all also God.
    But really, the pain on the cross is but a manifestation of the deep pain he already carried in his heart for separated Creation, which brought him to us.

    If only I could remember my own God-given identity and mission, and hold on to the hope of a new creation (as Jesus did) when it's time to walk the Way of Calvary.

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  2. According to Thomas Green in his book Weeds Among the Wheat (and it makes sense to think so), "discernment presupposes obscurity or ambiguity. If God's voice and God's will is transparently clear, then there is nothing to discern...

    "That ignorance and uncertainty to which Hebrews 5:2 ("He is able to deal patiently 3 with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness") refers would seem to be necessary if one is to be tempted or even be capable of being tempted.

    "Although the Jesus of St John's gospel might be said to be the most 'divine' of all the gospels, nonetheless even in John we find indications that he was growing in his realization of his identity and mission."

    Given this assumption that Jesus did NOT *FULLY* know WHO he is, WHY he has come, WHERE he is heading and HOW broken the world is all the time, I feel inspired to try to know Him more and be more like Him, ever alert and ready to take a leap of faith (even if it means suffering on a cross), trusting in the loving and powerful will of God.

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