For this week’s homily please play the video file below:
For this week’s homily please play the video file below:
On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem a high tower was built in the last century by the Russian government to allow Christian pilgrims an observation point to see the key places associated with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Looking westward is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where he was crucified and rose from the dead. Just down below is the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was arrested. In the distance to the southeast is Bethlehem where he was born. On the eastern side of the Mount of Olives is the village of Bethany where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem and where he raised Lazarus from the dead. Further east, about 20 miles down the Jordan Valley is where he was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.
The tower was built, I understand, for pilgrims who couldn’t always get to all of these places because of age, or the pressure of time or perhaps because it was unsafe to travel to one of these destinations. That was especially true for the 20 mile trip to the Jordan River.
The tower attests the importance of the journey to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. The Baptism of Jesus is a mystery that includes all the mysteries of Jesus we celebrate as Christians. That’s why we celebrate it today as we conclude the mysteries of the Christmas season. In our baptism we are brought to share in his baptism and in his life.
In the Jordan River, God the Father, “a voice from heaven,” proclaimed him “my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1,11) We believe that when we are baptized we become children of God with him, with us he is pleased.
We celebrate that gift today. As we go from church to church, we touch the Holy Water with our hands and bless ourselves, remembering the great gift we have in Jesus Christ. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
audio homily here:
John the Baptist may look and sound forbidding, but don’t let appearances put you off. He spoke in the wilderness, where looks are not important and you can’t keep up appearances. The wilderness symbolizes the hard places we all must pass through.
So we shouldn’t deny they exist. Or think a simple sentence will take them away. I suppose that’s why I prefer John the Baptist to Joel Osteen.
John’s father was Zachariah, a priest in the temple, a much more secure place to be. He told John: “You, my child shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” (Luke 1) God called John to the wilderness to show people the way to God from there.
The Judean wilderness where John the Baptist baptized lay about 15 miles east of Jerusalem in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. Pilgrims from the north took an ancient road along the River Jordan and followed it as it veered right near the town of Jericho to ascend steeply about 3,500 feet up to the Holy City, about an 9 hour walk. A tough road in itself to travel.
Near where the road begins to ascend, John baptized great crowds in the river’s refreshing waters. He baptized Jesus and his disciples in these waters and then pointed Jesus out as “the Lamb of God” and told his followers to follow him as their Shepherd and Way.
John was a voice pointing Jesus out in the wilderness. He still points him out in the wilderness today and tells us to follow him. “You’ll make it through the wilderness,” he says.
music on John the Baptist.
The temptation of Jesus in the desert, after his baptism in the Jordan River, shows his human side as much as any other gospel story. Yes, He is the Son of God, a voice from heaven proclaimed him God’s Son in the waters of the Jordan. He died and rose from the dead, he is “God from God, true God from true God,” but Jesus was also human.
We may tend to see him only as divine, unlike us: a miracle worker, an assured teacher, a master of circumstances, someone above it all, but we’re told in scripture that Jesus was “like us in all things except sin.” An earthly life was challenging for him as it is for us. Life was always challenging for him as it is for us.
Luke’s gospel, following Matthew’s gospel, shows us the humanity of Jesus in the temptations he faced in the desert, and these same temptations were there throughout his life. The Spirit led Jesus into the desert, a challenging place for human beings, where you can get tired and hunger, where you struggle for footing and wonder where you are. The desert is the place where human weakness shows.
Jesus faced three temptations in the desert, our gospel says. One temptation was to think you’re the master of creation. “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says to him, the Son of God can do that. But if you are truly human–and we say the Jesus was truly human–you can’t turn stones into bread. You can’t control nature. That means that Jesus, like anyone human, got tired and hungry, could get sick and get old. He needed human support and friendship. Yes, for a short period Jesus worked some miracles, but much of his life, the long years he lived in Nazareth, he accepted the limitations of humanity. He did not escape from being human. He was like us.
The second temptation in the desert was a temptation to control people, to dominate them, to be in charge of them, to make them serve you. “The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant and said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
I’ll make people your servants, the devil said. Jesus said, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve.” Instead of people serving him, Jesus lived for others and gave his life for others. “I did not come to be served, but to serve.”
The third temptation is a temptation to control God. That’s what the devil suggests when he takes Jesus up to the temple and tells him to throw himself down and God’s angels will save him. You can tell God what to do, said the devil. Use God’s power to become powerful yourself. Jesus told him: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
In the temptations of Jesus, symbolically recalled in our gospel today, we recognize the humanity of Jesus. He is like us. In his temptations, we can see our own temptations. Just look at how Jesus was tempted and the temptations we face. “Turn these stones into bread.” We would love to snap our fingers and change our lives when they’re not working out to our liking. We would love to be miracle-workers, untouched by sickness or death, having perfect lives, having it all.
“I’ll give you power over people so that they’ll do whatever you want,” the devil tells Jesus. They’ll please you, they’ll agree with you, they’ll like you. How tempting that suggestion is us too.
“I’ll see that God does what you want,” How sweeping that temptation is, but it’s a real danger we face too, that instead of we serving God, doing God’s will and working for God’s kingdom to come, we see God working for us and the kingdom we would like to come.
This gospel is a very symbolic gospel. It not only shows the humanity of Jesus, it shows the temptations all of us, human beings, meet in life. But the gospel wants us to see something more. Jesus did not come just to show us what it means to be human, he came to help us to be human. He did not give into temptation, the human temptations he faced. He delivers us from temptation. He lives in us and works with us and sustains us and helps us regain our strength again and again.
Just as the people of Israel were sustained on their way through the desert, Jesus sustains us.
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1, 9-13)
We read Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus this year and we will read from his gospel all this year.
Mark’s account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is the most succinct of the four gospels. Only five sentences. The theophany at the Jordan is quickly over. The heavens are open, and the Spirit, like a dove, descends on him. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” a voice from heaven says.
But then, the Spirit drives him out into the desert “at once.” He’s tempted for forty days, and the forty days point to a lifelong experience Jesus has. Wild beasts will always be in the world he lives in, and angels will always minister to him. Mark does not name his temptations either, they’re varied throughout his life. Ours are too.
The heavens open at baptism, all the gospels say. But more than the others, Mark’s gospel says that baptism calls us to participate in the Passion of Christ. His account and his gospel are important for understanding what baptism means for us.
In the week following the Epiphany, the daily gospel readings at Mass, from all four evangelists, are reflections on the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord, who welcomed the Magi at his birth. Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, reveals himself to all the nations; he is Savior of all.
The mystery of the Epiphany, unfortunately, can suffer from the same saccharine interpretation as the mystery of Christmas. Our gospel readings this week remind us how hard and challenging the mission to the gentiles will be. When we follow Jesus we meet a world we do not know or understand.
Monday: Matthew, 4, 12-17, 23-25. Jesus never left the land of his birth during his lifetime, yet Matthew’s gospel suggests that his entrance into Galilee after John the Baptist’s arrest fulfilled the promise of salvation for gentiles as well as Jews. He enters “heathen Galilee,” Matthew says. “A land in darkness has seen a great light.”
In Jesus’ time Galilee was settled by a mixed population of Jews and gentiles and so it was indeed a land Jesus wanted to reach. Gentiles were among the “ great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan that followed him.”
Tuesday, Mark 6,34-44; (cf. Mark 8, 1-10) Mark’s gospel records two miracles of the loaves, one on each side of the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s gospel the Sea of Galilee symbolically divides the two peoples, Jews from Gentiles, and so Jesus by crossing that body of water brings his message to another people. Some commentators ask: Is the miracle of the loaves on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee a sign that the Bread of Life is also to be shared by the gentile world?
Wednesday: Mark 6, 45-52 The story of the storm at sea immediately follows the miracle of the bread. Is it a sign of the challenge disciples face as they follow Jesus into an unknown future? Human understanding fails before the wisdom and power of God, which can be like a storm at sea, leaving disciples afraid and doubtful. Even signs given by God can lose their meaning. “They were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6, 52)
Thursday: Luke 4,14-22. Luke reports that Jesus returned to Nazareth in the course of ministry and in the synagogue they “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But “his own” turn from amazement to rejection, Luke reports. Jesus must face the scandal of those close to him who do not believe.
Friday: Luke 5, 12-16. The leper who is cleansed is one of Luke’s classic examples of the power of God’s mercy. Not only does he experience healing for himself, but then proclaims God’s unfailing mercy in Jesus to others. “ The report about him spreads all the more and great crowds assembled to listen to him and be cured of their ailments.” Jesus will be known as we experience his mercy.
Saturday: John 3, 22-30 John the Baptist defers to Jesus before his disciples. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John’s humility is an example for all the disciples of Jesus. “I am not the Christ,” just a voice, John says of himself.
The reading prepares us for the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which concludes the Christmas season. In the waters of baptism we share in all the mysteries of Jesus. They nourish us with eternal life.
The First Letter of John is also read each day this week, reminding us that Jesus came in the flesh and is truly human and truly divine. In his humanity he loved humanity; like him we must love each other as human beings, frail and weak as we are.
I’m leading a retreat for seminarians this week at Daylesford Abbey, outside Philadelphia. Pray for us. We will be reflecting on these readings and the prayers of the liturgy. We remember two important saints in the American church this week: St Elizabeth Seton and St. John Neumann. Wonderful examples of holiness. John Neumann, of course, is a good example for young men hoping to become priests.
1 Jn 5:5-13
The Christmas season closes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus on Sunday. The season’s already ended for most people, however. The decorations are away. Valentine’s Day is coming up.
But it takes time to celebrate mysteries of God; more than a day or an hour or two. It takes time for the mysteries of God to sink in. And so we prepare for the celebration through the days of Advent. Then on Christmas Day the poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see the Child announced by the angels. A Savior is born for us, a Child is given to us. Yet, as the ancient carol says, “We scarce can take it in.”
The Feast of the Epiphany is a further reminder that the Child is the savior of all nations. He came, not just for one people, but for all. The Magi represent people far away and they bring him their greetings and gifts. Then, they leave to bring back the good news of his birth. That colorful story isn’t over; it’s still unfolding.
The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus may seem like a poor way to end the Christmas season, so far removed from the days and events of Jesus’ birth as it is. But baptism is about birth too, a birth that conquers death.
Jesus Christ “came through water and Blood,” St. John says in his First Letter today. His Spirit is given to us. It’s not enough to just look upon the mystery of the Incarnation. We’re meant to share his life, and baptism is a sign of our union with him.
We need time to understand all this, however. So the Christmas season is a long season. And we’ll celebrate again next year.