Sunday, January 12, 2020

Entering the Embrace

Feast of The Baptism Of The Lord (A)
(Catechetical Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7; Psalm 28(29):1-4,9-10; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
Video: YouTube Chris Lee

My dear friends, do you ever feel like you are badly in need of a hug? Ever feel lost or lonely or depressed? Or perhaps discouraged by a significant failure? Or maybe anxious at starting something new? Whatever it is, you’d like nothing better than for someone who cares for you to give you a hug, a long, loving, reassuring embrace… Have you ever felt like that? Perhaps you’re feeling it even now…

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. That is what comes to mind when I ask myself the question that some of you may be asking too. Why do we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord so soon after Christmas Day? After gazing so intently, for the past two weeks, at a tiny helpless baby, isn’t it more than a little jarring to see him suddenly all grown up? Why shift so quickly from the newborn infant lying in the manger to the young adult emerging from the water? What do you think? …

This Christmas, I received two similar images of the Holy Family. Both of which I like very much. They are simple and yet beautiful. Beautiful in their simplicity. They each depict the child surrounded by his parents, in a way that makes the whole scene look like an embrace. With the baby Jesus at the centre. Can you imagine it? Perhaps you’ve seen something similar. Mary wraps Jesus in her arms, and Joseph enfolds both Mary and Jesus in his.

A long, loving, reassuring embrace. This is also something like what the gospel describes for us today. After Jesus is baptised by John, we’re told that the heavens opened, and the Lord is immediately enfolded, both by the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove, and by the voice of his heavenly Father saying, This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.

Don’t you find it striking, my dear friends, that both at his birth, and again as he is about to begin his public ministry, Jesus allows himself to be enfolded in a long, loving, reassuring embrace? And notice that the Lord enters this embrace in a very particular way. In a way that may be fittingly described as an immersion. Not only does Jesus immerse himself into the waters of the river Jordan, he also immerses himself into the reality of our human condition. Humbly taking upon himself all our weakness and sinfulness, all our suffering and pain.

But that’s not all. In submitting himself as much to the embrace of God as to that of his earthly parents, Jesus also assumes the identity and mission of the servant, described in the first reading. The Lord comes to us as one whom God sends to bring true justice to the nations. To usher everyone into the peace and joy of right relationship. Right relationship with God. Right relationship with others. Right relationship with the whole of Creation.

So that not only does the Lord’s life and mission proceed from an embrace, he himself reaches out to embrace others. Indeed he himself is the Ultimate Embrace, offered by God to everyone. Jesus is the embodiment of that consoling message that Peter proclaims to Cornelius in the second reading… That God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him. Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, God reaches out to gather everyone into God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace.

And isn’t this what the Christian life is really all about? Isn’t this what it means to be baptised? Isn’t this what we celebrate specially at Christmas, but also every time we gather for the Eucharist? To be a Christian is nothing more or less than to enjoy and to enter more deeply into right relationship with God. And to do this by imitating Christ, by continually and courageously allowing ourselves to be immersed in the often challenging and painful reality of our world. Reaching out to help usher others – especially those most in need of a hug – into the loving arms of God.

And isn’t this also the work that our brave and generous catechists will soon be committing themselves to undertake in a few short moments? Their task is not so much to convey the doctrines of our faith in the same way someone might post various pieces of information on social media. No. By dedicating themselves to the work of catechesis, they are choosing to fulfil in a perhaps slightly more formal way the same awesome responsibility that we all share by virtue of our baptism. The responsibility to usher others into the same embrace in which we have all been enfolded by God in Christ.

I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn that we still sometimes sing…

O let the Son of God enfold you with his spirit and his love.
Let him fill your heart and satisfy your soul.
O let him have the things that hold you,
and his Spirit like a dove,
will descend upon your life and make you whole.

Sisters and brothers, as we bring our celebration of Christmas to an end, what will you do to continue allowing yourself to be enfolded in God’s long, loving, reassuring embrace today?

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