Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Baptism of the Lord

Last Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke to crowds in St. Peter’s Square at his regular general audience.  He announced that he would like to start a reflection series on the Sacraments.  His first topic was Baptism, and remarked that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord was soon approaching.  “To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing, is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past.” 
  I was 15 days old when I was baptized on Aug 1, 1954 in the Church of St Peter in Chains.  I was likely baptized in private after Mass on that day.  I never knew the date until I applied to enter the Jesuits, as a candidate for priesthood needed to prove baptism.
   The first Sunday of Ordinary time celebrates the Baptism of the Lord.  Ironically, the way we were taught about Baptism hides one of the best teachings about this sacrament:  Our Baptism is more about the future than it is about the past. 
  We were taught Baptism was for infants, was meant to wipe away Original Sin, and was performed in private at the back of church.  However today’s Gospel from Matthew challenges all three of those and gives us a powerful message for tomorrow.
   -This Gospel story is not about an infant, but an adult who makes his own personal choice for Baptism.
   -This story is not about someone with Original Sin, but the sinless Jesus.
   - This story isn’t about a private ritual; it’s out in the open, affecting all sorts of people.
   And to further emphasize what Pope Francis says: your own Baptism is not just something that happened in the past; your baptism is more about what you intend to do tomorrow, in response to what God did to us long ago.  It is about tomorrow’s choices, based on yesterday’s call.
   If we turn around our perspective and see Baptism as oriented to the future, these common questions find appropriate answers.  First, this is a story about an adult.  Baptism has more meaning for us the older we get.
    It is not just one event at the start of life, but a series of reminders that every new day is a new chance to make a new decision for Christ, regardless of any past mistakes we’ve made.   Look at the fresh start Jesus gets at age 33:  “He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him.”  That opening is like the start of a new job:  opportunities were opened for him.  It is future-oriented for Jesus.  That step out of the water was only the first.  What is implied is that there was a second and a third, and on and on.   Same for each of us.  We have all travelled to so many places since Baptism.  “I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations.”  However, if you have not yet brought light to other people as an adult Christian, or you feel a newer call to make further steps out of sin, today you can start afresh.
   Second:  This is a story about a sinless Jesus.  Why did Jesus go through with Baptism?  He had no need of repentance.  Jesus accepted Baptism not because he had past sins to remove, but because he was obedient to God’s plan for the future.  Yes, Baptism removes Original Sin, but where we go with that freedom is more important.  God is concerned not so much in our faults as in our future.  Listen to what his Father says after Jesus was baptized:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Father doesn’t say this just because he is pleased at all the things Jesus did in the past.  Jesus hadn’t started his public ministry yet.  The Father is pleased with Jesus because of what he will fulfill in the future.  He is happy Jesus showed up for work!  At the Jordan, the Father gives Jesus that green light of approval and confirmation… and the dove is the holy power to step forward out of the water into the world.  For us, Baptism was that same positive identity so that we could get started with a future.  It was a GOOD thing that you were baptized.  Similar to the time you learned to read and write.  Learning wasn’t so much about your success in first grade, but about what you can do with that power today and tomorrow.
   Third, this story has a public character, not a private one.  This first Luminous Mystery is not a personal reflection by Jesus but a public declaration of the work he has before him.  Once identified, what steps forward did Jesus take?  Isaiah says he was meant:  “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  St. Paul adds to that:  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.  He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Notice this New Testament feel of Baptism is not so much about what happened to a baby long ago, but what an adult might do with every new day opening before him or her.  Let me propose a similar question for your reflection:  Where do you want to go?
   One of the most prominent changes made in this church building following Vatican II was when the parish moved the Baptismal font front and center.  We bump into it when we enter church building.  It is designed to give us a reminder of the blessing we received from God:  the divine approval of our lives on mission.  And so let me offer a prayer suggestion as you pass that font, going in or out of church:  every time you bless yourself at the font, or pass by it, and listen for these words, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Insert your own name into the blank.  “This is my beloved ___, with whom I am well pleased.”  Take that blessing from the water and move ahead into the world.
   Here is how Pope Francis ended his speech last Wednesday:  “Let us, then, ask the Lord from our hearts that we may be able to experience ever more, in everyday life, this grace that we have received at Baptism. … And do not forget your homework today: find out, ask for the date of your Baptism. As I know my birthday, I should know my Baptism day, because it is a feast day.”

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Go Forth

First of all, I want to extend a great thanks to corporations like Kroger who bought the remaining Bengals tickets and gave away free seats so that we could watch the game, not blocked-out.  In fact, many of the tickets went to members of the military.  Nice going.
     I believe that same sentiment comes from the Holy Father, Pope Francis, if you read carefully his latest apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”  “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort.”
     The Holy Father encourages us believers to make a gift of our lives.  Giving away -- like the magi gave away gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But I propose that:  in order to give, we first have to leave the comforts of our isolation.  We need to go forth.  Like the magi, we need to go forth into the world of the cold, the mysterious, into the worlds of the innocent, the suffering and the poor
     Have you ever heard the phrase "comfort zone?"
     Especially in cold weather, in an open football stadium, we are very aware of our comfort zone back at home.  But, more than just a warm living room, our comfort zone can be a place of fear.  It is often a place of security and complacency where we rest in habits tried and true.  The Holy Father says that our life of generosity weakens when we are isolated, and cut off from the real world in our own comfort zones.
     We don’t like venturing out of our comfort zone because it requires challenge, confronting the unknown, or giving away some of our comforts for the sake of others.  Many Catholic high schools try to encourage students to do service work, go on missions trips, and the like, in order to think outside the box, move beyond their comfort zone in order to live the Gospel.  In one sense, my accepting this role as pastor was a moving out of my comfort zone of the Chicago St Ignatius and coming to new place of challenge.
     Again, Pope Francis: “Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
     Today’s Gospel shows us three wise men who left security back on the shore, followed a mysterious star, and set out on mission to bring their gifts in service of God.
     And so message of the Epiphany is to take courage. Move outside your comfort zone.  Go forth and make your life a gift.
     The first reading from Isaiah speaks of our light that has come and “the glory of Lord that shines upon us.” This light shining through the darkness and the clouds is a wonderful image reminding us that we have indeed been showered with great gifts.  And as you know from the story of the kings, gifts are for giving.
     The psalm response focuses on the nations coming to adore the Lord.  “Lord every nation on earth will adore you” and then speaks of kings from foreign lands bringing gifts to the Lord.  They had left their comfort zone.
     The Gospel reading shows us the contrast between a man stuck in isolation, Herod, who is locked in his comfort zone, against the courageous magi who travel in mystery simply to pay homage (service) to someone poor and innocent.  After they go forth and pay homage to the newborn king, they travel even further out of their comfort zone and return to their country by another way.
     Continuing in his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis mentions three other figures from Scriptures who went forth into the world:  Abraham received the call to set out for a new land.  Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” out of his comfort zone.  To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go.”  The same call goes out to us to take on this missionary going forth.
     The Pope writes:  “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”
What star do you follow?  Maybe it’s Pope Francis.  Maybe a saint or two?  A relative?  What are you reading or listening to that moves you out of your comfort zone?  That star the Magi followed is a reminder that we need divine guidance to find where Christ leads us. The bright lights of the commercial Christmas we just passed through can blind and distract us from seeing the real Messiah. So as the Christmas tree comes down this week, and decorations get packed away, find that interior light.  That star within which leads you outside your comfort zone so as to make a gift of yourself to those in distant lands.  Now, one last way I am going to step out of my comfort zone is to read an anonymous poem in my homily.  I found it but adapted it for today’s Feast of the Epiphany.  Hope you like it.

I used to have a comfort zone where I knew I wouldn’t fail.
The same four walls and busywork were really more like jail.
I longed so much to do the things I’d never done before,
But stayed inside my comfort zone and paced the same old floor.

I said it didn’t matter that I wasn’t doing much.
I said I didn’t care for things like mission work and such.
I claimed to be so busy with myself inside the zone,
But deep inside I longed to journey somewhere yet unknown.

I couldn’t let my life go by just holding gifts within.
I held my breath; I stepped outside and let the change begin.
I took a step and with God’s help I’d never felt before,
I kissed my comfort zone goodbye and closed and locked the door.

If you’re in a comfort zone, afraid to venture out,
Remember that the saints above were one time filled with doubt.
A step or two and words of prayer can grant you courage too.
Begin your journey with a smile; the gift is there for you!

Guide us to Thy perfect light.