Sunday, January 13, 2013

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Sharpening the Word

Picture: cc _P_

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed the similarities between a knife in the hand and a word from the mouth? What do you do, for example, when you need to sharpen a knife? And how do you tell whether or not it’s sharp enough? I found the answer to these questions the other day, while watching Top Chef. You know that TV show that features a group of chefs taking part in a cooking competition. On that particular episode of the show, each of the chefs had to sharpen a blunt knife on a sharpening stone as quickly as possible. And they had to keep sharpening until their knives were so sharp they could slice a sheet of paper with a single stroke. A sharpening stone. And the slicing of paper. That’s how you can develop and discern a sharp knife.

Words are no different. We’ve all probably felt the effects of a sharp word. Perhaps we know someone–maybe a colleague, or a friend, or a relative–who has that frightening ability to cut through us with nothing more than a few carefully chosen words. We know from experience that words can have an effect very similar to that of a knife. A sharp knife can slice paper. A sharp word can pierce the heart. And the similarity doesn’t end there either. A knife becomes sharp by being repeatedly drawn across the hard surface of a sharpening stone. Sharp words are developed, very often, when a person is forced to endure hardship of some kind. When someone is brought into close contact with certain harsh realities of life. A hard life. And the piercing of the heart. That’s how a sharp word is developed and discerned.

But is this all that knives and words have in common? What about the fact that a sharp knife can be used also for a very good purpose. Even a very tasty and delicious purpose. On Top Chef, for example, those knives that the chefs sharpened were used not only for cutting paper, but also to prepare mouthwatering dishes of food. The knives were used to build up. Not just to destroy. And sharp words can do the same too, can’t they?

Of course they can. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today? In the first reading, God wishes to speak a word that has precisely this delicious effect. The effect of building people up, instead of destroying them. Of comforting, instead of causing pain. ‘Console my people, console them’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her. This desire of God to speak a sharp word of solace to us, a word capable of penetrating our hardened hearts, comes to fulfilment at Christmas. At Christmas, the Word of God becomes flesh. For in order for this Word to penetrate our hearts, it has first to be sharpened. Sharpened by being drawn into the harsh realities of human life. By being brought up against the hard surface of human weakness and sin.

And this process of sharpening is exactly what we see happening in the gospel today. For why did Jesus submit to the baptism of John? John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sins for which to seek forgiveness. He had no need to repent. Why then did he choose to begin his public ministry by allowing John to lead him into the waters of repentance? In the first volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the Baptism of the Lord was not so much an act of repentance of sin as an expression of solidarity with sinners. According to the Pope, by his baptism, Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners (p. 18).

In other words, like a knife being ground on a solid sharpening stone, in his baptism, Jesus the Word of God allows himself to be drawn up against the rough and hardened surface of our sinfulness. Why? So that he might better fulfil the wish of His Father in Heaven to speak a healing word to His people. So that Jesus, the eternal Word of God, might truly be made sharp enough to penetrate the hardness of human hearts. The hardness of our hearts. Yours and mine. And to penetrate us not in order to condemn. But to comfort and to console. To touch and to transform.

Isn’t this also what Paul is talking about in the second reading? When the kindness and love of God our saviour for mankind were revealed, Paul writes, it was not because he was concerned with any righteous actions we might have done ourselves; it was for no reason except his own compassion that he saved us. And isn’t this also why God the Father expresses such delight over Jesus after his baptism? You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you. Just as a top chef might favour a sharp knife, so too does the heavenly Father delight in the penetrating Word who is his Son. For, with this sharp Word, the Father can now speak to our wayward hearts. The better to call us back to His side. To transform us from strangers and enemies into beloved sons and daughters.

This then, sisters and brothers, is what we are celebrating on this feast day of the Baptism of the Lord. Today, we rejoice that Jesus our Saviour has seen fit to share in the weakness of our human condition. Today we feast our eyes on the sight of the Word of God submitting himself to being sharpened in order to save us. Today, we open wide our ears and our hearts to listen closely to the Word of God as he speaks to us the words that we need to hear. The words that comfort and heal and transform. The words that proclaim that we too are beloved children of God. That we too find favour in God’s sight.

But that’s not all. As we celebrate the Lord’s baptism, our readings remind us also of our own baptism. Today, we remember also how God has saved us by immersing us in the cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which he has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our saviour. Today, we recall how we too are called to follow the example of Christ. To allow ourselves to be sharpened by contact with the hardships of human life. Hardships of our own surely. But also hardships of those far less fortunate than we are. Hardships of those who continue to struggle to shelter and to feed themselves and their families. Hardships of those who are lonely and depressed. Those who can’t seem to find any meaning to their life here on earth. Today, we commit ourselves to continuing to allow God not just to save us, but also to sharpen us. So that, like Jesus, we too can learn to speak words of comfort and consolation. Words capable of touching and transforming our world.

Sisters and brothers, on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord how ready are we to allow God to sharpen us today?


  1. Indeed, God speaks to me through this sermon.. Deo Gratias.

    just a few minutes ago, i had experienced a set of sharp words from a fellow parishioner and before i could make sense of this sharp message, the Lord uses this very homily to heal and touch me!

    yes, the Word of God is like a double-edged sword - it penetrates deep into our hearts if we are open to let God touch us.. and if we dare to become vulnerable before God - who has the ability to transform us in His own ways and in HIS time.

    sometimes this transformation can take place over a very painful (cutting to the heart) message or remarks - it can come when we least expect it - through people whom God chose to send to touch and heal me.

    my first reaction is one of being wounded yet if i dare to trust God and His power to work in and through His chosen instruments - then, i will transcend over the pains and grow up and mature like a flower or a plant being PRUNED.

    God trains and grooms those He love and those who remains open to His hand who prunes with a love and compassion beyond our human understanding.

    May we learn to surrender to our Lord and Master - to HIM who has great plans for each of us if only we dare to let go and let God.

    Peace and All Good

  2. Yes, words are like knives. Although we used to say that only sticks and stones break bones, words do hurt. Unkind words in a sarcastic or dismissive tone are very hurtful. Not a physical hurt, but emotional hurt. Sometimes, this is worse. A cut that is bleeding can be cleaned and tended to, and we can see the physical scar forming and scab falling off. And the scar lightens over time. Emotional hurt is not apparent, and very hard to tend to. We can't see the healing of an emotional hurt, and sometimes regress. Hence, I hope that I will be more careful with my words, and use them to heal and not hurt.

    1. Indeed, i fully agree -

      a physical wound - a break on the skin can heal faster and better than hurts caused by sharp words and given the complexity of human nature etc, once the hurtful words are spoken, they cannot be retrieved...and sometimes, the damage can become a permanent and lasting one..and a deep scar may be formed... even without our being aware of it...such scars in the heart and mind of the wounded persons cannot heal so easily and quickly..

      hence, each and everyone of us need to be mindful of what we say to others, how we say it and why we say what we say before we go around hurting others unduly and causing irreparable permanent damages to the fragile hearts of the children of our same Father in heaven.

      Peace and All Good


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