With Whom I Am Well Pleased

(Homily for Baptism of Lord, Year A)

“The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.” (Samuel Johnson)

Though we are often shy to admit it, all of us desire approval from others. Children look toward their parents and teachers for signs of praise. The elderly also want to be respected for their past contributions and for what they presently have to offer. When someone says, “I don’t care what other people think about me,” most conclude that he is either stuck up or dishonest – or both.

An appropriate word of praise can make a huge difference in a person's life. It can motivate that person to greatness. The American business leader, Charles Schwab, observed: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.” We all know the truth of those words - in our families, our workplaces, our communities.

The desire for approval is natural and in itself, good. However, it can become a trap. Sometimes we imagine that we would be happy “if only people appreciated me.” Well, if the admiration of other gave solid happiness, the happiest people in the world would be Hollywood actors. They have the admiration of millions – but they are hardly the happiest people on our planet.

Consider Barbara Eden. A few years back the A&E Network presented a Biography of her life. You may remember she was the star of a popular program called I Dream of Jeannie. Her show topped the Nielson ratings and she rode on a cloud of society’s approval. Magazines constantly interviewed her and the talk shows treated her like a queen. You would think she had to be one of the happiest people in the country. But she wasn’t.

The A&E Biography revealed a woman terribly unhappy. She went through multiple marriages and a deep struggle with insignificance plagued her. To us who lead more ordinary lives, it seems incredible that someone so popular, so admired could be so unhappy. But she was.

Does this mean the desire for approval is a fraud? That we should try to imitate the cynic who says, I don’t care what anyone thinks about me? No, the desire itself is good and it can be fulfilled, but not on our own. Today we hear about a man who won the approval which really matters. When Jesus stepped into the waters of Jordan, he heard a voice which said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

If we join ourselves to Jesus, we will win the approval that counts – not the approval of men, but of God. Society’s applause can never satisfy us because it is fickle. Those who have won popularity – movie stars, sports heroes, successful businessmen and politicians – always feel that fragility and insecurity. As in the case of Barbara Eden and many others, that feeling can lead to exquisite misery. Nonetheless, no one needs to remain in that pit. God offers an approval which endures.

C.S. Lewis tells how he had assumed that the desire for praise was a sign of vanity. However, in thinking it over carefully he discovered that the initial impulse springs from a childlike humility: “no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child -- not in a conceited child, but in a good child -- as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.”*

I remember my sister-in-law telling me how one of her children had made a certain breakthrough. He said to his mom, “Uncle Father Phil will be so proud of me!” Of course, I was delighted that I meant so much to my nephew. And I was proud of him. It was a complete win-win situation. To gain the approval of someone who matters to us is a small foretaste of what awaits us if we gain the favor of the One who ultimately counts.

The great thing is that we already share that favor by being united with Christ in baptism. It does not matter how good or bad we consider ourselves to be. The Father looks at his Son and declares a pleasure which includes all those joined to him. He is well pleased with you to the degree you are living your baptismal unity with his Son.

I would like to make a suggestion to parents as we celebrate today's feast of the Lord's Baptism. One of the most meaningful things we can do is tell our children about the day of their baptism: how they were dressed, who were the godparents, how the child reacted when the water was poured over him, what the candle looked like, who was the priest or deacon, what the church was like - and the things you did before and after the ceremony. Any detail you can remember will have significance for your child - even if he is a teenager or an adult. And above all, let him know that on the day of his baptism was spoken those most beautiful words, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

************

*Here is the entire quote from C.S. Lewis:

When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures -- fame with God, approval or (I might say) "appreciation" by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child -- not in a conceited child, but in a good child -- as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised. Not only in a child, either, but even in a dog or a horse. Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures -- nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment -- a very, very short moment -- before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure.

Spanish Version

From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 2013: Generous Love
2011: Seven Teachings about Baptism
2010: Saved Through the Bath of Rebirth
2009: The Power of Baptism
2008: Road to Sanity
2005: Most Shocking
2004: With Whom I Am Well Pleased
2003: The Membership
2002: The Grace of Baptism
2000: Limits of Solidarity

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