|"The Love of God Is that We Keep His Commandments": an Epilogue to Christmas & Epiphany.
The Sunday after the Epiphany: the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Lessons from the secondary proper, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:*
• Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7.
• Psalm 29: 1-4, 9-10.
• Acts 10: 34-38.
• Mark 1: 7-11.
• Isaiah 55: 1-11.
• Isaiah 12: 2-6 (in place of the Psalm).
• I John 5: 1-9.
• Mark 1: 7-11.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany: the Second Class Feast of the Holy Family.**
Lessons from the proper, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Colossians 3: 12-17.
• Psalm 36: 4.
• Luke 2: 42-52.
The Sunday after the Theophany; and, Our Venerable Father Theodosius, Founder of the Common Life.
Lessons from the menaion, according to the typicon of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite:
• Ephesians 4: 7-13.
• Matthew 4: 12-17.
[...and, for the saint...]
• II Corinthians 4: 6-15.
• Matthew 11: 27-30.
9:32 AM 1/11/2015 — Many years ago—more than I care to remember—I had a coworker who was a very devout Buddhist; and, when I quit my job to go to the seminary, he gave me a gift: a book about Jesus written by his local lama, kind of like a Buddhist pastor. And it was a lovely little book of meditations focusing on all the wonderful things that Jesus did and all the wonderful things that Jesus said, with some very practical reflections on how we might incorporate the message of Jesus into our daily lives. I don't have that book anymore, but I wish I did because it would make for a very interesting experiment: I should like to take that book, paste over the name of the author—Lama Boobaboobala, or whatever—and then hand it to Catholics and see how many of them would be able to recognize what was wrong with it.
Today's feast, the Baptism of the Lord, marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. Two and a half weeks ago, I had reminded you of the relationship between the Manger and the Cross, and had warned you against allowing the traditional feelings that typically overcome us at Christmas time from becoming a narcotic, numbing us to the reality of what the Incarnation of God into this world means: the Baby in the Manger is cute and non-threatening and, for that reason, is naturally a very attractive image of God for us to latch onto; but, I cautioned you to remember that the Baby Jesus is destine for death and, if we are resolved to follow in His footsteps, those footsteps are going to lead us up the mountain of Calvary.
Then came the Feast of the Epiphany. The word means “manifestation,” and it commemorates three events in the life of our Blessed Lord: His manifestation to the gentiles in the visit of the Magi, His manifestation as the co-eternal Son of God in His baptism by John, and His manifestation as God Incarnate in the miracle at the wedding at Cana. In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite all this is very explicit; in the ordinary form which we celebrate here it becomes a little muffled, inasmuch as the three are separated liturgically, with Epiphany itself focusing on the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord being given its own feast today, and the Wedding at Cana being observed sometimes and only as an afterthought—in fact, this year that Gospel lesson won't be read at all this time of year. But the threefold commemoration of the traditional observance is still there for us to consider, and those of you who attend Holy Mass daily had all of this unfold before you.
Last Wednesday, the Gospel lesson presented to us was the first of the two episodes in which Jesus walks upon the water, and you all know the scene: Jesus had just fed the five thousand on the hillside, and then sends his disciples to cross the sea to the other side; and, while they're doing this they get caught in a gale and are being tossed about violently when they see Jesus walking toward them on the water; and, St. Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who adds the very curious line that, as Jesus was walking toward them, He “made as if to pass them by” (6: 48 Knox); and, I had asked the question, “Why?” Not just why would Jesus intend to walk past them, but why would St. Mark think it important enough to even mention? And we learned that this Gospel lesson is being read to us on the day after January 6th, which is the traditional day for the celebration of the Epiphany according to the universal calendar of the Church where it is not transferred to a Sunday; and, this notion of God “passing by” is part of the manifestation of God in the Old Testament, where it is a testimony of God's presence. God's first meeting with Moses after only hearing His voice from the burning bush: “The Lord came down to meet him, hidden in cloud, and Moses stood with him there, calling on the Lord’s name. Thus the Lord passed by, and he cried out, 'It is the Lord God'” (Exodus 34: 5-6 Knox).*** God's initial contact with Elijah: “Then word came to him to go out and stand there in the Lord’s presence; the Lord God himself would pass by” (I Kings 19: 11 Knox). And, this whole incident of Jesus walking on the water was prophesied by Job when he described his initial contact with God: “He it was, and no other, that spread out heaven to be his covering, made [the] ocean a floor under his feet … Hidden from my sight, hidden from my thought, he comes and goes [he passes by]” (Job 9: 8, 11 Knox).
And the lesson I asked those present to learn from this was that the Feast of the Epiphany is not just a commemoration of the visit of the Magi;—that pedestrian event is not nearly important enough to warrant a solemnity on the Church's calendar—it's a commemoration of the Divinity of Christ. And, just as He was wont to do in the Old Testament, so God, in the person of Jesus, initially reveals Himself to those who would ultimately believe in Him by subtly passing by. In Luke, chapter 18: “When he came near Jericho, there was a blind man sitting there by the way-side begging. And he, hearing a multitude passing by, asked what it meant; so they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth was going past” (vs. 35-37 Knox). In chapter 19: “He had entered Jericho, and was passing through it; and here a rich man named Zacchaeus, the chief publican, was trying to distinguish which was Jesus, but could not do so because of the multitude, being a man of small stature. So he ran on in front, and climbed up into a sycamore tree, to catch sight of him, since he must needs pass that way” (vs. 1-4 Knox). And how many other countless encounters that all begin the same way: with our Blessed Lord “passing by.”
Why does God do this? Why isn't He more direct? Why does He first reveal Himself in such a subtle way? When Elijah was told that God would be passing by, and went out to meet Him, he looked everywhere he thought God might be: he didn't find God in the mountain, he didn't find God in the earthquake, he didn't find God in the fire; he almost missed Him, finding Him where he would never have thought to look: in “the whisper of a gentle breeze” (I Kings 19: 12 Knox). Why? And the answer, which has enormous import for our own interior life, might be found at the very end of our Lord's time on earth, in an event recorded only by Luke. It happens after our Lord had risen from the dead, but had not yet revealed Himself to His Apostles. Two of his disciples, who are unnamed, are walking along the road to a village called Emmaus, and encounter our Lord, but do not recognize Him in His glorified body; and, at the end of the journey, the Evangelist tells us: “And now they were drawing near the village to which they were walking, and he made as if to go on further; but they pressed him, 'Stay with us...'” (24: 28-29 Knox). His pretending to continue on is a ruse; it puts the burden of action on them, and forces them to act on their own initiative: if they want Jesus to stay with them, they're going to have to ask.
Today's feast, commemorates the baptism of our Blessed Lord in the River Jordan by John; and, as I'm sure you all know, the baptism performed by John is not the Sacrament of Baptism which we have all received; that wouldn't come to exist until after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord. The baptism of John is just a symbol of one's desire to turn away from sin, but it doesn't take away any sin; and our Lord, Who has no sins, submits to it simply to emphasize for us the fact that His humanity is real. What's important in this episode is not the baptism, but what happens right afterward: “And even as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down and resting upon him. There was a voice, too, out of heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased'” (Mark 1: 10-11 Knox).
With today's feast, Christmas and Epiphany come to an end, but not, I hope, our prayerful reflections on these great mysteries; and, as the Gospel lessons of Ordinary Time present to us the message and actions of our Lord's public ministry among us, let us always keep these mysteries in mind, lest we forget that our Lord's practical and even spiritual lessons on life cannot be properly understood except within the context of Who and What He is. Jesus is not a social teacher, His Gospel is not a blueprint for society, nor is His message reducible to a program of good deeds and helping the poor and needy. Christ was not born into the flesh, grace us with an earthly Presence, suffer and die for our sins, rise by His own power and return to His Father with Whom He shares undiluted divinity to show us how to create some sort of charitable utopia here on earth; he did these things so that we could, if we want to, reach heaven, and live with Him there forever long after this world and it's concerns have ceased to exist.
It's what was missing from the book my Buddhist friend gave me when I left for the seminary: what Jesus says and what Jesus does is meaningless if we do not believe that Jesus is God, and govern our lives accordingly; or, as the Blessed Apostle John tells us today in today's Apostolic lesson: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him … [And] the love of God is this: that we keep his commandments” (I John 5: 1, 3 NABRE).
* For this feast, like the Feast of the Holy Family before it, the Old Testament lesson, Psalm and Apostolic lesson are all proper and unchanging, with the Gospel lesson taken from a three year cycle for the feast corresponding to the cycle of the dominica (the Sunday cycle); however, alternates for all but the Gospel lesson are provided according to the same three year cycle, which may be used at the discretion of the celebrant. This homily is based on these alternate lessons.
** In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, the First Sunday after the Epiphany is always the Second Class Feast of the Holy Family. The Second Class Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is on the fixed date of January 13th, unless that day falls on the Sunday after the Epiphany, in which case it is surpressed without commemoration in favor of the Feast of the Holy Family. In the ordinary form, the Feast of the Holy Family is always on the Sunday following the Nativity of the Lord. For a homily on the Holy Family, cf. the post for 12-28-2014.
*** Note that Msgr. Knox never employs quotation marks in his translation, but rather simply sets off direct statements made by principles by capitalizing the first word of the quote; so, whenever citing passages that contain direct quotations, I add the punctuation for the sake of clarity.