baptism: self as beloved; beloved as servant

(fr Cyprian)

I imagine waves when I read the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, not just waves of the river but the waves of birth and death, birth and death, birth and death. The first movement is this: What I actually find most remarkable about this story of Jesus’ baptism is what comes right after it. Right after this, Jesus is going to be led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, and then after that he’ll begin his earthly ministry. All three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record it that way, and I think the chronology is really important: baptism, desert, and then ministry. I tend to think of the desert experience that’s going to follow the baptism as Jesus’ rite of passage, his initiation ritual, if you will. But he can’t do it, or at least he doesn’t do it, he doesn’t face that desert––which is a kind of death experience––, until he has experienced what he experiences in the Jordan. What does he experience in the Jordan? This one very important thing: He hears his Father say, “You are my beloved one!”

Remember, God had revealed himself in the desert to Moses in the burning bush, and what did he say his name was? I AM! As Robert Barron points out, God is not a being; God is being itself. God is I AM! And (this is an idea I got from Abhishiktananda) in the Jordan the Father gives that I AM to Jesus. He says to him, “You are! You are my Beloved! You are my delight! You are powerful! You are precious! You are free! You are so beautiful! You are!” The Father loves Jesus into being (though, in reality, in God loving and being are not two different things), and Jesus has such an awareness of himself as the Beloved that he can take that I AM as his own. He’s loved into being. And then Jesus himself is able to say, ‘I am the way. I am the truth. I am the light.’ And six times in the Gospel of John (once while he is being led away to death) he says simply ‘I AM!’ The Father gave Jesus not just his own existence; God gave him I AM! God loved him into being; God “be-ed” him into loving.
But then there is another interesting phenomenon going on here, liturgically, that hardly gets noticed. We are given the option of using as a first reading Isaiah 42: Here is my servant whom I shall uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. It’s one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, and suddenly we are already at Holy Week, because from Palm Sunday on we hear all the Songs of the Suffering Servant. (This is the second one.) Not just the servant, mind you, but the suffering servant. What is not quite clear in this context is if this is referring to John the Baptist or to Jesus. As so often happens, their lives are shown in parallel. But John the Baptist’s witness here is not to be diminished in any case. He’s all apart of these waves. Here he says, ‘One mightier than I is coming after me,’ just like he says in the Gospel of John (3:30), ‘Christ must increase, I must decrease.’ This is of course the same movement that is going to characterize Jesus’ life as well. He empties himself. Jesus points away from himself to the Father. So there are these two movements always, ebb and flow, the crest and the nadir: there is the building up of the self, and then the giving of the self away. There is the self-becoming-the-Beloved; and then there is the Beloved who becomes the servant. There is knowing union with God, and then there is empting the self completely. Physical birth itself is a kind of death from one life to another; and then baptism––getting drowned in the waters––is another death to be born to new life; but born into that life only so as then to die in giving oneself away as servant, in becoming Eucharist, as Jesus did––“Take and eat, this is my body; take and drink this is my blood.” As a human being, as a 30 year-old male, Jesus was born again in the river before he died in the desert, and then reborn in the desert in order to offer himself as an
oblation in ministry.

Well, this is also what happens to us, or at least is meant to. In our Baptism and in our baptismal life, first that I AM gets passed on to us­­—from self to Beloved. This account of Jesus’ baptism is the gospel that I always used to read and preach on at infant baptisms. At our Baptism, we hear––or at least we are supposed to hear––“You are! You are Beloved! You are so beautiful! You are my delight! You are powerful! You are precious! You are free! You are!” I know I’ve used this image before: the baptismal font is like a reflecting pool, and Jesus through the church drags us to this pool and says, “Look: there is my reflection and there is yours. This is who you are: the image of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a well-spring of life giving water, the Beloved One, God’s son, God’s daughter, the One in whom the Father delights!”

We need to hear that! We all need to be loved into being. Just as Jesus didn’t face the desert before the experience of his baptism, so I don’t think we can face the deserts in our lives until we have this, and if and when we can’t face the deserts it’s because we do not have this. We have religion all backwards. We keep thinking that if we just obey the rules, follow the Laws, if we just behave right, God will love us. Well, what’s the point in that? If that were true what would we need God for? Love is not something we earn! That may be something we have learned from our parents, or from our schools or from television, but truth is we cannot earn God’s love by doing something. Right behavior doesn’t come first. Love comes first. It is God’s love that is the power behind right behavior, the power behind the ability to live uprightly. Laws have no power; rules have no power! Moral exhortations have no power! Thinking has no power to save Neither does knowledge––otherwise why would so many people keep doing things that lead to their death, like smoking, overeating and drugging themselves to death. . Just as Paul tried to tell the Jews, the Law has no power. Only love has power. Knowing that we are beloved, precious, beautiful––that’s real power, being loved into being.

By the way, this is what we can do and be for each other. This is what being church could be and should be, this is what community could be and should be––the place where we hear over and over again the story of our dignity as children of God, as Beloved, and then be able to look into each other’s eyes with the eyes of God, and reflect back to each other not our projections, not our needs, not what we wish the world and each other to be, but to reflect back, “You are the Beloved.”

So, I don’t think we can really face the deserts in our lives until we have this. But when and if we do have this, we still have to ride the next wave: we are then called to be servants—self as Beloved, Beloved as servant. We’re called to die again, the eucharistic death, the death of giving ourselves away. Just as we are supposed to know ourselves as Beloved, so we are meant to know ourselves as Servant. That’s the real living out of our baptismal life, the realization of our Baptism, not just basking in our beauty and dignity, but the stream of life giving water flowing out of the believer’s heart. What does that mean for us? What does that mean to a married man? To a single mother? What does that mean to an artist, to a teacher, to a senator, a factory worker? What does it mean for a monk? (I’m starting to understand what it means for a prior!) What does it mean for a solitary, a hermit? I think we get some indication from the third good of our charism: it means absolute availability to the Spirit of God. Because first and foremost we are servants of God, offering our self as a living sacrifice, an oblation, even in the solitude of the cell––self as beloved, beloved as servant.

We heard a marvelous teaching from Ronald Rolheiser some years back when he gave our retreat that I have never forgotten it, on what it means to bless. He said that there were three parts to blessing someone. First of all to bless means that we really see someone. And he said that there are two kinds of people we really see when we walk into a room: those we really love and those we can’t stand. So we’re assuming it’s the good seeing here, because secondly what it means to bless is then to welcome their energy. Why this was especially difficult is because it can be so intimidating to welcome your energy because you looking good might make me feel bad, or “less than.” He used the example of a young priest, full of life, coming into a parish: the kids all love him, everybody thinks he’s the greatest thing since holes in Swiss cheese, except the old guys who are sitting off to the side saying, “Yeah, you just wait… Five years from now all that sheen will wear off and you’ll be as bitter as we are!” instead of saying, “We’re so glad you’re here! You bring such great new life to this place!” And the third thing that it means to bless flows right from that: “I would die so that you could live.” And that’s John the Baptist: I must decrease and you must increase. But of course this is the Paschal mystery, this is Jesus as Eucharist: take and eat this is my body. I’ll die so that you can live. Self as Beloved; Beloved as servant.

We need to be loved into being—self as Beloved. Then we need to love each other into being—Beloved as servant. We need to build up the self so as the give the self away. We need to be blessed and then bless each other. This is what church, what community is supposed to be and do. We are God’s servant in whom God upholds; God’s chosen one in whom God delights.

Share Button