God’s path or the path of self?

  • January 4, 2008

Baptism of the Lord (Year A) Jan. 13 (Isaiah 42:1-4, 5-7; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17)

The careless and loose manner with which we use the word “Spirit” in everyday speech often obscures the sense of the Spirit’s dynamism and power.

God calls many in the Old Testament to specific missions or offices, and each call is accompanied by a gift of spirit and power. Judges, warriors, prophets and kings enjoy the spirit’s gifts in proportion to the importance and difficulty of their call, and that spirit can ebb away if the recipient is not faithful. But the individual described in Isaiah is called to an overwhelming and enormous mission: establish justice and remake the Earth.

He might be forgiven for shrinking from the task if it were not for the fact that God’s Spirit and power will also anoint him for his mission. He will not be able to accomplish his task with violence or force, nor will he need to. Healing, hope and compassion will be his tools as he awakens humanity to the presence of God within them and around them.

Two powerful symbols — light and sight — signify his mission of enlightenment and empowerment. The first Christians understood the role of Jesus in light of this and similar passages. We tend to think of Jesus as Savior — and He certainly is — but we cannot neglect His role of enlightener. Walking in God’s ways challenges us to change the way we think — not just once, but many times.

The anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power represented a sea-change in the spiritual and psychological life of humanity. The Holy Spirit transforms consciousness, and the most profound and immediate impact was a new understanding of God and God’s relationship with humans. The Spirit has taught Peter some hard but necessary lessons: God does not belong to any person or group, nor can God be invoked as the patron of any nation or cause. It is the principles by which we live rather than any sort of membership that render us pleasing to God.

The baptism of Jesus was puzzling and disturbing to many early Christians. John the Baptist administered a baptism of repentance — what earthly reason could Jesus have for requesting and allowing such a baptism? But if it is understood as a call, an anointing and a moment of commitment, it makes perfect sense. Artist John Nava captures the element of acceptance of God’s will and commitment to mission in a beautiful tapestry of the baptism of Jesus in the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The viewer can see the face of John the Baptist, but only the back of Jesus as He kneels for His baptism at John’s hands. But one of the most prominent and striking aspects of the tapestry are the soles of Jesus’ feet. These rough feet tell an incredible story, for they serve as the point of contact between heaven and Earth, the human and the divine. They are Isaiah’s beautiful feet upon the mountains of one bringing good news to a suffering humanity. They will carry the bearer of compassion and hope, the one who opens the eyes of humanity and heals the many forms of human blindness as well as freeing people from every form of human bondage. These feet trod only the path of God’s will and move in only one direction — towards the Kingdom of God. They do not shrink from controversy, suffering and hardship. They will stand before Pilate and will ultimately carry Jesus to the cross.

Baptism in the early church was a deliberate and life-altering adult decision. Small wonder that many, even some church fathers, delayed it until they felt completely ready. Once undergone, there was no turning back. It was a symbolic death and rebirth, and one’s life would never be the same. Although our own practice is different, there still must be a moment of adult decision and commitment. This spells the difference between discipleship and mere church attendance. Baptism is never just for us, but also for others and ultimately for the entire world. Where will our own feet carry us — the path of God or the path of self?