2004—Baptism of the Lord—C
Until last Thursday I couldn't ski to save my life. Oh I could manage on the beginners' trails. I'd taken lessons, knew the theory but the reality was that each descent from the summit was like an episode of Fear Factor and when I did reach the bottom of the hill, it was like something out of Survivor. Then Thursday morning, I met with an old friend who has been skiing since he was three. He became my mentor for the morning. He coaxed, cajoled, caught me when I was falling, led, followed, guided, glided, goaded me on when I was afraid, encouraged, applauded, supported even letting me lean on him to feel the shift of weight. And wow! All of a sudden. On this spectacularly bright, clear, cold day, the light dawned (an epiphany) and I not only understood what my mentor was talking about but I could feel it. Aha! Now I know why everyone else looks like they're having fun. What a teacher! What a mentor! What a friend!
My mentor on the mountain made me think of this very human experience of teaching, sharing knowledge, modeling a way of being for another human being. When I've been asked countless times why I wanted to join the Jesuits when I was 18 years old, my response was "I want to be like them". The Jesuits who taught me in high school modeled a way of being for me and I wanted to share that life. I mention the "mentoring" experience because it can be a touchstone for us as we celebrate the feast of the baptism of Jesus. I'm sure that each one of us has had that experience of being mentored, by a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a colleague, a friend.
Today is the last day of the Christmas season. That may surprise you since we tend to associate Christmas with the birth of the child Jesus and the baptism was not a story of the infancy of Jesus. More than a season which focuses on the birth of Jesus, Christmas is meant to evoke in us a sense of awe and wonder at the Incarnation, God's en-fleshment in Jesus Christ. The light shines in the darkness. The light is the light of God's love that becomes flesh and blood in the birth of a child who will be shown as God's chosen and beloved son. From the womb of Mary, to the manger where shepherds gather, to the home where magi stop by on their way to who knows where, to the waters of the Jordan, this person, Jesus of Nazareth is shown to be God's beloved Son. In the Gospel today, the heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit descends on him and a voice comes and says "you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased" You can't get a better endorsement than that!
But all this emphasis on the divine connection can make us forget the very human experience of learning and growing in self-knowledge. Jesus' first teachers would be Mary and Joseph. From them he would learn the ways of faith. Who knows who else were his mentors, his models in life. Grandparents, rabbis, uncles and aunts. Who were his friends who helped mold and shape his personality? In Luke's gospel we hear that John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah who would become the Baptist was a relation of Jesus, a cousin. Although there is no historical evidence for this family relationship between Jesus and John, if it were, how did this "wild and crazy" cousin influence Jesus, calling him out of himself into a similar kind of mission for the sake of the kingdom?
The story of the baptism of Jesus by John was pretty embarrassing for the early church. Jesus is "God's beloved", why experience something that is about a call to conversion of heart? Why submit to this ordinary cleansing ritual by one who is "not the Messiah" It is interesting to note that each of the gospel writers has a different take on this scene in the life of Jesus. Mark narrates it simply. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Matthew has JB apologizing to Jesus saying the roles should be reversed. In Luke today, it's only implied that John did the baptizing and in John's gospel it doesn't even happen. Only the voice is heard from heaven.
Despite the embarrassment that the early church felt about Jesus' submitting himself to John's baptism, it seems that this was not a "one dunk" affair. It is more than plausible that John was Jesus' mentor. That Jesus spent time as an apprentice to John. Jesus was willing to share John's vision of God's kingdom of righteousness and his call to an immediate "in breaking" of God's presence in the world. Yes, at some time , perhaps after the beheading of John, Jesus went his own way and radically changed the way he proclaimed the kingdom. But for a time he was willing to learn and model himself after this extraordinary prophet.
Mentoring, learning from another, modeling a way of life. If Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan was an embarrassment for the early church, it shouldn't be for us. Jesus, who is like us in all things, except sin, needed others to help him see and claim his own vision. So do we. That is why Jesus himself is meant to mentor us, to model for us what it means to be truly human and open to God's infinite love who says to each of us "you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased"
Well, we've made it to the bottom of the mountain. I know I'll never be a great skier or even a good one but at least I can say since Thursday I can ski to save my life!