The season of Christmas ends each year with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Ordinarily this feast falls on a Sunday, but because of the way the calendar worked this year the feast had to be placed on a Monday. For those who felt its absence, the gospel of this Sunday (now in Ordinary Time) was about what happened immediately after Jesus was baptized. Therefore, those who were not able to attend daily Mass to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord earlier in the week could also participate in the mysteries of that event. We can still reflect upon the meaning of the moment in which Jesus went into the Jordan River and came face to face with John the Baptist. John was overwhelmed with joy in the recognition of Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit, he could not help but exclaim: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He was so sure of who Jesus was that the next day he repeated the proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God,” to two of his closest disciples, directing them to follow Jesus rather than to remain with him. How wonderful it would be if each one of us directed others to Jesus with the same joy, saying with our deeds and with our words, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
It takes faith and courage to help orient others toward Jesus in the way John did it. But if John the Baptist had not directed Andrew and John (the brother of James) to Jesus, how would they have found Him? These two men were seeking the messiah, and thus were followers of the Baptist. Jesus had not yet begun His public ministry, and it was to do so that He was at the Jordan: with John’s proclamation, Jesus had been revealed and would now begin to share His gospel message. Andrew and John were men of prayer and therefore they trusted the Baptist when he directed them toward the Lamb of God. They immediately shared this news with their brothers Simon (Peter) and James respectively, and also their friend Philip, all of whom were also prayerfully awaiting the messiah. They in turn ran to their faith-filled friends, though some required a bit more evidence, such as Nathanael, who at first scoffed at the notion of the messiah coming out of a lowly place like Nazareth. But Nathanael came to believe after he had an encounter with Jesus, an encounter he never would have had if not for Philip. Without John the Baptist helping them to recognize the Lamb of God, those men might not have known to follow Jesus. These same courageous followers would go on to repeat the message long after Jesus was dead and resurrected. Without these people, the Christian Church would not have begun to grow.
All the readings for this past weekend were dedicated to the theme of recognizing the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In the first reading Isaiah, whose writings filled the Advent and Christmas seasons, described the Messiah like this: “I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) The Lamb of God comes to bring light and salvation to a world darkened by sin. But in the second reading we are reminded that Jesus will need people to bring this message down through the ages. (1Cor 1:1-3) St. Paul began his First Letter to the Corinthians by reminding them that he was called by God to be an apostle and that he and a disciple named Sosthenes were, like them, called to be holy. They were called to live the gospel of Jesus, and through their witness, (which he refers to as holiness), bring others to Jesus so that the message is indeed brought to the ends of the earth. We share this call if we are followers of Christ.
If we turn to John the Baptist again, we can see that he was born for the purpose of being the forerunner of Jesus. Discerning the presence of Jesus seemed to run in the family: his mother, Elizabeth, recognized the presence of Jesus while He was in Mary’s womb, even though Mary had not yet revealed to her that she was pregnant. We know Elizabeth and John shared that recognition because upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth cried out, “And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:43-44) That is, both the unborn baby who would become the Baptist and his mother were filled with joy in the presence of Jesus Christ who was still within His mother’s womb. Therefore we know that John’s orientation toward Jesus began from that very moment. It formed him in his purpose, which was to live his entire life preparing for the moment when he could say to others: “Behold the Lamb of God.”
All of us are born with such a purpose. Our purpose is to bring the Kingdom to people and places that might not have a chance to hear the message. One might argue that John had a special role in salvation history, and that is indeed true. But it is also true that each one of us has a role in salvation history as well. Our role may not ever get us into history books or the annals of the church, but the fact remains that we each have a role in salvation history insofar as we are needed to call the attention of others to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. We all are called to point to Jesus, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God!” If we are concerned about how to go about this, we must remember what Paul taught: it is through our holiness (actions) that we speak the message of Jesus. Not all of the apostles had the leadership skills of Peter; not all of them were as well educated or eloquent as Paul. And not one of the apostles could 'do it all.' Rather they all carried out their mission using the skills and gifts which they possessed, sharing generously in the joy of knowing and serving the Lord.
This theme is actually the same one we encountered in the Advent and Christmas seasons. In Advent the readings directed us to quiet reflection so that we were prepared for the coming of Jesus and to then make a loving response. In the Christmas season we were directed to the manger which was now occupied by the baby Jesus. Our attention was drawn to generosity, something Jesus would emphasize in His gospel message once He began His ministry: the parents sacrificed, the shepherds praised, the magi brought gifts, and even the animals brought warmth and the gift of their feeding trough. All were saying in their own way, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
Therefore, as we embark upon the season of Ordinary Time we are reminded once again that generosity and mercy are important. Isaiah calls us to be like Jesus, possessing the heart of a servant and being a light to those we meet. Paul urges us to be holy, with the intention of drawing others to Him through our service, mercy, and generosity. The gospel encourages us to be like John the Baptist, who responded to the Holy Spirit at the Jordan and as a result was able to point others to Jesus. His heart leapt once again with joy at this recognition, a joy which he invites us to share. To possess the heart of a servant, becoming a light to others, (to become holy), is a response of love to God. The more we desire to become such a servant, the more our love for God will grow. And the more our love grows, the more our light will shine in witness to the mercy and love of God.
At all times we are called to be a witness, not always with words, but in the way we conduct ourselves in all the situations which are part of our lives. We are meant to offer healing, mercy, and love by offering our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to everyone we encounter, especially those in need. And like the holy ones who have gone before us, we need to continually pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance when opportunities to point others to Jesus arise. Finally, the ultimate message of the gospel is that our generosity is not limited to a season, but it is part of living a Christian life. Therefore we need to pray for this gift, and to share it with others when we can, so that we can proclaim together with John the Baptist and all the disciples of Scripture: “Behold the Lamb of God!”
May we have the heart of a humble servant, desiring to be a light to the world and to grow in holiness! May we embrace our role as disciples, orienting others toward Christ by our words and especially our deeds! May we be witnesses to the Gospel message, respecting the dignity off all people by building up, rather than tearing down, bringing love and mercy, and hence, our faith, to the ends of the earth! And may all our words and actions direct others to know and love Jesus, the Lamb of God! Let us meet at the feet of Jesus, open to follow Him, along with all the holy ones!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post January 30.
1. This is called The Baptism of Christ by one of my favorite artists, Blessed Fra Angelico, the great Dominican painter. This fresco is housed in Florence, Italy in the Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico. It was painted sometime between 1438-45. I love this because it is as if Jesus is already walking on the water, as if to prophetically point to His ministry which starts as soon as He steps out of the water, according to John's gospel. It is a powerful image, especially if you notice the way the Holy Spirit is depicted as surrounded by and emitting light. Jesus is the light of the world, the Lamb of God. He is God's own Son. I also love how Fra Angelico 'sneaks' St. Dominic into the side of the scene. Fra Angelico was a true Dominican, humbly reminding us that for some, (ordained deacons, priests, bishops), service can include the art of preaching. St. Dominic preached with words; Fra Angelico with paint.
2. This is a photo I took while in Nazareth, Israel. The bougainvillea steal the show, but the fig tree next to it reminded me of the encounter of Nathanael and Jesus in John 1:45-51. Nathanael scoffed until Jesus told him He saw him praying under the fig tree, something only God could have known. Nathanael believed immediately.
3. The third image is a painting which I found in an interesting article on the Flemish influence on Renaissance art which was posted prior to an exhibition. It is called The Visitation by Cosimo Roselli, (circa 1490-1500). I chose it because I loved the tenderness of both Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems to be kneeling in adoration of Mary's womb, gently opening the cloak of Mary, as if to be a prophetic witness to her own son who would be the forerunner of Jesus. It is as if she is showing John what he must one day do: open (or prepare) the way for Jesus.
For those interested in the article in which I found this painting, go to http://www.huntington.org/WebAssets/Templates/content.aspx?id=14531
4. This icon is one of my favorites written by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. John the Forerunner Also the Baptist. I love the wildness of John, yet he is attentive to the Holy Spirit. As a prophet, his words take flight and even though they are often very challenging, there is a gentle side of John, humble in the presence of God. He not only teaches us how to point others to Jesus, but He teaches us how to recognize His presence. Only if we listen to our heart will we hear the word of the Spirit who speaks to us there. There we can join John in the great joy of knowing Him. You can obtain a copy of this icon, and see many other beautiful works by Fr. Bill, at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-082-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5.This picture is a 'tip of the hat' to a newly ordained deacon and dear friend. A deacon is one who serves, preaching the Gospel in word and deed. In his preaching and humble service, this deacon is a forerunner in his own right: pointing others to Christ. (Congratulations, Dwight!)
6. Finally the last photo is one I took at the Jordan River in Israel. This is said to be the site where Jesus was baptized by John. Even though the water looks murkier now than it did then, it was still very moving to be at the spot where John proclaimed: "Behold the Lamb of God!"
Heart Speaks to Heart