Most Shocking

(Homily for Baptism of Lord, Year C)

As director of movies such as Edward Scissorhands, Bettlejuice and Mars Attacks, Tim Burton knows something about weirdness. However, he had an experience which topped anything he depicted in his films. “You really can't prepare for it. It's the most natural thing in the world yet the most shocking, somehow,” said Burton. He was referring to the birth of his first child.

Notwithstanding his zany reputation, Burton makes a good point. Nothing on this planet can really compare with the birth of child. Each child possesses a potential – and a value – which is incalculable.* As the Bible teaches, we are created in the very image of God. That we can participate in the conception of such a being should stun us.

That natural event rightly amazes, yet something else should shock us even more. Today’s readings give a clue. They speak about a mysterious second birth, even greater than the first. Paul reminds Titus that we have received a “bath of rebirth…through Jesus Christ.” By it we become “heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:7)

In beginning his public ministry, Jesus risked misunderstanding by allowing John to baptize him. It made him appear as less than John and of somehow needing spiritual cleansing. Neither was true, as John himself testifies. But the fact Jesus would accept such a risk shows how important he considered baptism. It would become not only a vehicle of conversion, but of rebirth. As St. Augustine and other Fathers pointed out, Jesus was baptized not for his sake, but for ours. The waters did not transform him; he transformed the waters.

A few years back my niece had her first child. The dad is a wonderful young man. I remember coming by a room where Bob was alone, holding his little daughter, completely absorbed in looking at her. What Bob was doing for Rachael, God at every instant is doing for you and me. You might say God is spending all eternity contemplating you. And his attention is never divided. Even though he has lots of children, he focuses totally on you--with undivided affection. Not because we are so great in ourselves, but because of Jesus. “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.”

Jesus heard that voice after John submerged him in the river. Here we meet a part of Christianity which folks today find difficult. We Americans tend toward the individualistic approach – “Jesus and me.” And we sometimes conclude that God is concerned only about our spirit or soul - and not what we do with our bodies. But Jesus also asks us to perform certain external, bodily actions in order to be incorporated into him. For example, he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you will not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53) He also states, point blank, “If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, you must be born again by water and the Holy Spirit.” (Jn 3:5)

This is a scandal in the biblical sense of the word – a stumbling block or to use Burton’s word “shocking.” How could God tie himself to material substances - like bread in the Mass or water in baptism? Yet we all sense that something small and hidden – such as Tolkien’s ring or the hydrogen atom – can have enormous power. Thus Christian writers have taught from the earliest centuries that the water and words of baptism are essential for salvation.**

When you find your faith tested, perhaps by sickness or financial difficulties or even by marriage problems or abandonment, remember that Jesus has claimed you. We belong to him and in him we belong to each other. Because of him we also hear the Father's voice, “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” Shocking, but true.


*For that reason we can never accept the slogan Life Unworthy of Life. I have a friend who is going in for an amniocentesis test. The doctor asked her what she would do if the baby is abnormal. She responded, "I will love her double." That should be our response as Christians, indeed as human beings.

**See Catechism 1257:

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

Versión Castellana

From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 2013: Seven Teachings about Baptism
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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