Just about now many of us are pulling out the boxes again in order to put our decorations away. The Christmas season is over for the most part, and it is time to get back to … well, I am not sure what most people think of it, but the Church calls it Ordinary Time. Truly there is nothing ordinary about it. We have just celebrated the incredible mysteries surrounding the coming of the Messiah into our world and of those who witnessed and acknowledged the vastness of this gift. We are not the same as we were before that encounter. We were at the manger and we were together with Mary and Joseph. We were with all of the various people present there who subsequently left or fled the scene. Therefore we, too, bring what we learned there back out into our ordinary lives, which in truth can no longer be ordinary because we bring Him with us.
Actually, life is anything but ordinary. We think of it as such because we confuse ordinary with routine. Routine does not have to be ordinary if we allow ourselves the eyes to see. The very eyes that we allowed to be opened at the manger do not need to close just because we have returned to routine in our lives. The challenge of our humanness, no more or less than the challenge of the humanness of Jesus, is to continue to find God breaking through in our daily life. Just as Jesus was a worker of wood, a laborer, we also have the routine involved with laboring. Just as Mary and Joseph had to routinely provide for their Son, we also have to attend to obligations and repetitive daily functions. Surely their routine was far from ordinary. No less for us if we open our eyes to it.
This week we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, an event which effectively began His ministry. If we look deeper, we see that from the moment of His baptism Jesus was on the way to the cross. From the moment He stepped out of the Jordan River He was on the road to His own death which is why He came into the world in the first place. He came so that He could give the Good News of salvation, and to restore the understanding God wants us to have that we are all His children, so deeply, deeply loved. Jesus came to carry our sins to the cross and overcome death for us. He chose His path, first by coming into the world and then by entering into public life when the time was right. The baptism both prepared Him and made a huge statement about who He was and why He was here. It prepared Him insofar as it was a time of revealing His ministry; He had to go out into the desert and confront the reality that His ministry would be fraught with temptation and suffering. He did not need baptism as we do, but in being baptized Jesus teaches us that our joys and struggles are similar to His. After our baptism we, too, live lives which include joys, but which are also fraught with temptation and suffering. And His baptism also revealed definitively who He was when the voice of the Father was heard coming from Heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
From the moment of our baptism we, too, are on the way to the cross. That is, there is not a one of us who will live a life without suffering. This is the way it is for all people. None of us really chooses the cross we will bear, but the path we walk while carrying it is our particular path to holiness. It is not the cross that will define us, but rather, it is our response to it. Carrying our cross does not mean we will not have happiness, but it means that we will be more attuned to those around us. Just as Jesus had great joy in His ministry, so, too, can we. But all lives contain both joy and suffering. There is much to learn from both.
It is not just the poor or the sick that carry a cross. An example is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. He was born into a wealthy family (in 1901) and enjoyed many privileges. He lived with gratitude for these blessings, but that gratitude moved him to action by sharing the love God had for him with those who had not yet known it. Pier Giorgio loved God by sharing with the poor and by sharing his faith with his friends through authentically living it. He was consistent in his fight for peace and justice. But in doing these things, he carried a cross. His parents did not approve of some of his choices, particularly in his choice of what to study in college. Pier Giorgio desired to study metallurgy to be with poor miners, but then chose to study mining engineering in obedience to his parents. He withstood the criticism of his father when he gave his money to the poor and his actions were mistaken for irresponsibility. (In humility Pier Giorgio kept his work for the poor secret from his parents.) And he gave his life when he contracted illness from a poor person he was helping. Pier Giorgio came down with polio at the same time his grandmother was sick, therefore he did not reveal his growing illness in order to be of service. By the time anyone realized how sick he was, he was beyond medical help, dying at the age of 24.
Pier Giorgio was known by his friends as one of the most joyful people they knew. Yet his cross was to suffer over political injustice, the plight of the poor, and the misunderstanding of his parents. The source of his joy, though, was the gospel of Jesus, and hence, Jesus Himself. He did not choose his call, but he did choose his response to the call he received. That is why I say that often we do not choose the cross that will be our path to holiness because it is really a call. However, we do choose our response to it.
Our cross, and hence, our road to holiness, can come in any form. It can come in obscurity or it can come in the public eye. It can come in the form of difficult health issues, painful relationships, abuse or neglect we have experienced, or from feeling the burden of whatever it is we do. Our suffering can also come from seeing the pain in the world: it can be the suffering of witnessing the violence which surrounds us (which seems to get worse all the time), it can be from witnessing the injustice that is directed toward those who are marginalized or misunderstood; it can be from being one of those who are marginalized or misunderstood. Whatever it is, it is our response to the call we have received, or the cross which is ours to bear, which will determine our happiness and our holiness. And the ability to respond to our call is found in what we have seen and heard at the manger during the Christmas season, come to fruition through baptism.
The cross we are given may not be the one we chose, but it is the one we have. Our suffering may be known only to us (and God). But we can see the suffering of others and reach out in compassion. Suffering expands our heart. It breaks our heart open, therefore expanding its limits. In suffering we can put ourselves with the other, knowing the road they tread. Even when it seems to make no sense, we can accept it because we know that Jesus could have chosen any road to bring salvation, but he chose to suffer. I always say if it is good enough for Him, it is good enough for me. And in reality, accepting a burden from the Lord in order to serve Him is to accept the joy of His love, the joy of His presence felt deeply in our lives, and the joy of sharing in love with others. Ultimately, that is a treasure.
Let us realize on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord that we are called to the joy of being united with Him and with the entire Body of Christ and therefore we are never alone in carrying our personal cross. Let us realize that we are on the road to holiness if we embrace the task He puts before us in what seems like a routine life. We will find that no matter what our personal road to holiness seems to be, all roads intersect in Him. So let us leave Bethlehem with Jesus; as the Christmas season ends let us enter the river and then go forth with Jesus finding renewed spiritual energy in Him as we embrace our lives of love and service anew.
May we have the courage to leave the safety of the manger for the unknown of our journey! May we accept the empowerment of Baptism along with the mission entrusted to us in our day-to-day lives! May we recognize the suffering of others and be moved to offer love! May we allow our hearts to be broken open so that we may be moved to compassionate love more deeply! May we have the grace to carry our own cross with dignity and integrity! And may we recognize Jesus ‘in His most distressing disguise’ in the poor and marginalized, so that we may be moved to action! Let us continue to meet on the road and in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first painting is The Baptism of the Lord and is part of a fresco by Giotto. It is found in the Cappella Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel) in Ravenna, Italy.
The second image is one of my photos. It is the Missouri River, taken in South Dakota.
Next is a photograph of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, followed by the icon Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The icon can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/holy-men-icons/product/97-blessed-pier-giorgio-frassati
The final picture is another of my photographs which was taken in Lost Maples State Park in TX.
Heart Speaks to Heart