10 January 2014

'This is my beloved Son . . .' Sunday Reflections, The Baptism of the Lord, Year A

The Baptism of Christ, El Greco, painted 1608-28 [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Matthew 3:13-17 (New RevisedStandard Version, Catholic Edition, Canada) 

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Today's Feast of the Baptism of the Lord brings the liturgical season of Christmas to an end. My edition of The Divine Office suggests the hymn above, Of the Father's Love Begotten (Divinum Mysterium),  as one that may be sung today.

'I baptise you in the name of the Father . . .' 28 December 2011

A Columban confrere, Fr Peter Steen, who died in Ireland in May 2009 at the age of 84 just a couple of weeks after leaving the Philippines, spoke to me a number of times, as I recall, about paintings of the baptism of Jesus. Many of them show only Jesus and his cousin, St John the Baptist. He thought that these were very inaccurate. Jesus lined up with others. St Luke's account specifically says When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying (3:21).

Anyone present that day, if they had noticed Jesus at all, would have seen him as another sinner. This is an extraordinary expression of God's love for us, that God who became Man would let himself be seen as one of us sinners. In Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes about evangelization: The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ (No 11).

Today ends the Church's liturgical season of Christmas in which we have focused to a large degree on the fact that some, at least, especially the shepherds and the Magi, recognised in Jesus a child from God. But today the Church moves thirty years forward, to the beginning of the public life of Jesus, when he identifies himself with us sinners. This is how he began to reveal his immense love that would culminate in his crucifixion and resurrection.

Pope Francis reminds us in the same document, God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy (No 3). Jesus lining up with sinners to be baptised is a powerful reminder that God never tires of forgiving us.

14 young women and girls lining up for baptism and confirmation, 28 December 2011

At his weekly general audience last Wednesday Pope Francis began a series of teachings on baptism. Here is a summary in English of what Pope Francis said in Italian. I have emphasised some parts of the text.

Dear Brothers and Sisters: Today we begin a series of catecheses on the sacraments, starting with baptism. The Second Vatican Council tells us that the Church herself is a 'sacrament', a grace-filled sign which makes Christ’s saving work present in history, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The first of the Church’s seven sacraments, baptism gives us new birth in Christ, makes us sharers in the mystery of his death and resurrection, grants the forgiveness of sin and brings us new freedom as God’s children and members of his Church. Let us not forget the great gift we have received. Our baptism has changed us, given us a new and glorious hope, and empowered us to bring God’s redeeming love to all, particularly the poor, in whom we see the face of Christ. Our baptism has also given us a share in the Church’s mission of evangelization; as disciples, we are also missionaries. As we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this Sunday, let us ask him to renew in us the grace of our baptism and to make us, with all our brothers and sisters, true children of God and living members of his body, the Church.

Before the audience members of a circus entertained Pope Francis and the people at the audience. Speaking directly to the circus performers the Pope said, When you travel from city to city I ask you to become messengers of joy, messengers of brotherhood in a world that greatly needs it.

Pope Francis makes the same point in a colourful way in Evangelii Gaudium No 10: An evangelizer must never look likes someone who has just come back from a funeral!

In reality, funerals can be powerful moments of evangelization. Fr Michael Scully, a Columban priest who worked in Japan for many years, told of how a funeral homily given by Fr Willie Spicer, another Columban at whose funeral he was preaching, led to the conversion of a Japanese artist. 

At the moment of our baptism God the Father quietly said the words he spoke at the baptism of Jesus: This is my beloved son/daughter, with whom I am well pleased.

The Baptism of Jesus took place at the beginning of his public ministry. Our baptism initiates us into our participation in and responsibility for continuing that ministry, which Jesus handed over to the Church. Pope Francis speaks about the urgency of that in Evangelii Gaudium No 14: Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction'.

Blessed Miguel Pro SJ (1891 - 1927)
‘¡Viva Cristo Rey!’ 'Long live Christ the King!' 23 November 1927

Pope Francis reminds us that the Church grows by attraction. Two priest-martyrs exemplify that for me very powerfully and humanly. One is Blessed Miguel Pro SJ whose last words at his execution were ¡Viva Cristo Rey. He once promised to joke in heavenIf I meet any long-faced saints there I will cheer them up with the Mexican Hat Dance! 

Fr Ragheed Ganni (1972 - 2007)

Father Ragheed, an engineer by profession, lived in the Irish College in Rome while styudying there. Someone who knew him said this of him after he was murdered in Iraq in 2007: 
He was a raconteur par excellence and a font of knowledge - we discussed everything and anything from the metaphysical to the trivial. A young and gauche student at the time, I learnt about Iraq and about theology; about the workings of the college in the summer and the best places to eat pizza. I was amazed at his command of English and Italian and his perennial good spirits and big smile - he was and will always be an inspiration.

An Irish priest who lived in the next room to Father Ragheed in Rome, Fr Murchadh Ó Madagáin, wrote on his blog about the Iraqi priest: And the thing that will stick with me the most is probably this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothingThat is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk death.  [Emphasis added in both quotations above.] 

Can there be more attractive examples of the living out of our baptismal mission, messengers of joy, messengers of brotherhood in a world that greatly needs it, than these two young priests who chose to live in great danger in their homelands, one prepared to do the Mexican Hat Dance in heaven, the other who knew where to find the best pizza in Rome, dying for their faith?

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