YEAR C: HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD
HOMILY THEME: “The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all saying, ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:15-16)
BY: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
HOMILY: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
During the past 15 years, a number of hospitalized patients have shared with me a unique pain, a spiritual distress, an ache emanating from deep in the soul. Most simply put, they have told me that the church that had been an anchor of faith for so long now seems as storm-tossed as every other human institution. As voiced by more than a few, while the world so often seemed adrift, the church they’d grown up with had remained a changeless source of comforting stability.
Here in the Albany Diocese, with a number of parishes closing, merging and reconfiguring over the past several years, the frail and frightened ask me, “Why did they close my church?” And while I fumble for an explanation that I know will never be adequate, they continue, “Where do I go now?” Such was the dialogue on a recent morning when I had this very conversation with a woman whose church, St. Teresa of Avila, had closed and was merging with the nearby St. Catherine of Siena, the new configuration named Mater Christi. Gently I took the old woman’s hand and explained this. Shaking her head in confusion, she said, “I’ll just watch Mass on TV.”
Jesuit theologian Luis Rodriquez offers a commentary on these most challenging times as he writes, “Some animals need a shell, because they lack a backbone. We all need some sense of firmness (order) in our faith lives and, if we do not find it within ourselves (backbone), we will seek to surround ourselves with external shells that keep us from feeling wobbly. I am afraid that, as the Church gathered at the Vatican II council and opened wide or removed some existing shells, some of us began to feel less than firm and threatened by the challenge of having to grow our own backbone. Instability and wobbliness are forms of chaos and we need to let God’s creative action lead us gradually toward an order resulting from our own inner firmness rather than from external shells alone.
But this can only be an ongoing life-long project, because the Lord’s promise to the Apostles and to us is that the Spirit will ‘lead you to the complete truth’ [Jn. 16:13], not settle us in it.” Instability and wobbliness: surely these words characterize our present institutional church. No longer can we take strength from without as we used to; now we must discover it within. And it’s this very challenge presented by the gospel passage we hear on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In Jesus’ days, people were, I suspect, no less shaken by instability and wobbliness than we are today. Just like us, they were looking for a foothold, something anchor-like to moor their lives in a stormy world. And who should appear but John the Baptist, a man so charismatically out-of-step with the culture that people thought for sure that he must be the promised messiah.
But John was quick to correct their suspicions. St. Luke’s gospel states, “The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all saying, ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:15-16) But first, as the gospel relates, Jesus himself gets baptized by John, and emerging sopping wet from the Jordan River, Jesus stands there dripping before the mystified crowd as a voice from far away lays claim to this dripping man as God’s Beloved Son.
Isn’t this the deepest desire of our own hearts? That as we stand cold and shivering in our fears and anxieties, to hear the voice of the Heavenly Father claim us as his own beloved? Isn’t this what we want for ourselves and our church? To know that God is ever close, near to us as our next breath?
The elderly woman I spoke with about her new parish affiliation was, perhaps, a bit confused about St. Teresa of Avila become St. Catherine of Siena become Mater Christi. Indeed, while she may have some trouble locating her church, she is not a bit confused about where to find God. She has long known him to be within, he the very backbone of her life, the one who is steadying anchor amid the instability and wobbliness of the world.