Baptism of the Lord

St. Francis Xavier 11:30 Mass, 10 January 2021

Last Wednesday, the 117th Congress of the United States met at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC to follow the rule of law by carrying out the age-old ritual of certifying the vote of the Electoral College that would allow for the peaceful succession of one President by another. Ordinarily, this ceremony, undertaken by government servants representing all citizens and following the mandate of our Constitution, is a pro forma and somewhat dull affair. However, this year we expected bit of tension, and perhaps some verbal fireworks, coming from a minority of partisan-driven legislators who threatened to challenge the votes coming from several battleground states, although they had no credible evidence of voter fraud. Little did we know that this ceremony was about to be turned into a dangerous and deadly event that has shredded the fabric of our democracy and cast our country into a place of darkness and shame.

As we now know all too painfully, while the votes were being counted, another group of citizens, followers of the outgoing President, turned what started ostensibly as a peaceful protest into a full-on assault of the Capitol to interrupt the proceedings. The heinous series of acts that followed has been called, among other things, an insurgency, a rebellion, an attempted coup, and an act of domestic terrorism. Fueled by conspiracy theories and the incendiary rhetoric of the President himself, these self-styled “patriots” or “freedom fighters” were armed with guns and Molotov cocktails, and they were bearing or wearing symbols of hate, such as the Confederate flag, a noose, or a “Camp Holocaust” sweatshirt. Breaking through police lines, smashing windows and knocking down doors, they sent members of Congress and their staff to seek shelter out of fear for their lives. They then went on to desecrate the temple of our democracy, harassing and assaulting the police, destroying and looting offices and legislative chambers, soiling the corridors of this hallowed legislative space with human feces and urine, and leaving five people dead in their wake.

While these brigands, thugs, or traitors (for let us call them what they are) were roaming the halls committing their mayhem and gleefully recording it on their cell phones, I doubt that they looked upward to see the many murals and inscriptions exhibited there to depict the fundamental values that guide our democracy. If they had, they could have read words that, on that day, were rendered bitingly ironic, words that serve as indictments of their pathological, destructive version of patriotism. For example, this quote from Franklin Roosevelt: “We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.” Or this one, from Louis Brandeis: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

How could these two groups of citizens in the Capitol that day, the one of public servants and the other of marauding mercenaries, both following similarly named values they claim to hold most dear – such as freedom, justice, and the American way – come to clash in such a destructive and soul-of-the-nation killing way? For all of us who watched these events while our blood boiled, our hearts broke, and our spirits withered, this question deserves serious reflection. As does another: how do we begin to heal our government, our nation, and our people? Today’s feast of the Baptism of Jesus, which narrates a very different rite of succession, that of one prophet by another, may offer us a way forward, one that engages the notion of what it means to follow and be a follower with honor and integrity, with peace and justice and love.

In my reflection comparing these two successions, at the Capitol and the Jordan, I found it helpful to ponder some different meanings of the verb “to follow”: 1) to act according to the lead or example of someone; 2) to come after in time order, or to succeed; 3) to act according to an instruction or precept. I think all three can be applied to our Baptism story as well as to our current situation.

In today’s Gospel, Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism, John heralds the one who is to come after or to follow him, and then Jesus appears, is baptized and acknowledged by the Spirit, and moves on. Can it have happened so quickly and expeditiously? Many scholars suggest that there may have been more time and contact involved in their relationship. They posit that Jesus was actually a follower of John, perhaps having listened to the prophet’s preaching on previous occasions before he presented himself to be baptized and possibly remaining with John’s disciples for a while before setting off on his own mission. In any case, before he stepped forward, Jesus was certainly aware of the purpose of John’s baptizing, which is proclaimed by John just before this passage: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” By being baptized, Jesus is following the lead of John but why? Surely he doesn’t require forgiveness? While we believe that to be the case, by being baptized, Jesus is, in the words of one scholar, placing himself “in solidarity with our sinful human condition.” And of course, his participation in this ritual ends with the confirmation of Jesus’ role as the mightier prophet coming after John, indeed the Son of God and Messiah.

So drawing from our three definitions of what it means to follow, first, Jesus seems to have followed John as a model for a while, and then, second, he took his place as the one who is to follow in time order and succession. Shortly after this scene, Jesus shows himself to be a follower in that third sense, “to act according to an instruction or precept.” In Luke’s Gospel, after John baptizes Jesus, he is first tested in the desert and then he goes home to begin his ministry, and he does so with an important announcement in the temple. Taking up the scroll of Isaiah, he takes up his position in the long line of prophets and pronounces what is, in effect, his mission statement: “…to proclaim good news to the poor, …to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus goes out in the world, not only to preach this Good News but also to follow its precepts, to live by and make its promises a reality. And he baptized his disciples and, indeed, all of us in the long line of Christian succession, to follow him and do the same.

All of us here stand in the face of Wednesday’s tragic and evil events as both Christians and Americans, and in this our country’s dark hour, we are faced with the question, whom and what shall we follow to move into a place of light and hope? First of all, we must realize that our dual status as believers and citizens can place us in a position of great tension. We do not live in a theocracy– our President is not a King anointed by God who sits and speaks and acts for God. Nor is our President a Messiah – certainly the one who is leaving office was not our Savior, nor will the incoming one be. And no leader or political party completely aligns with or represents the values, beliefs, and teaching we espouse as Christians and Catholics. And sometimes, despite our political loyalties, we must denounce those leaders and laws that violate our core beliefs and commitment to the sanctity of all human persons and the promotion of the common good. So what then can we do in this divided position as believers and citizens; how then shall we follow?

Well, a President is not a Messiah, but a good one can and should be a kind of prophet, calling the people to what is most fundamental to our union and civic contract, those very values that are implanted in our republic and represented in the Capitol. And this call is what the President, all civil servants, and all of us citizens should follow and embody. In the House Chamber, there is another quotation that was likely missed by Wednesday’s invaders, part of the Preamble of the Constitution, in which it is stated that: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of our posterity.” These words are somewhat different from those of Isaiah that Jesus embraced as his preamble and credo, but in spirit and values there is a lot of overlap.

And this is where we, as Christian citizens of the United States need to start in seeking the values, leaders, policies, and spirit that we will choose to follow. This is an incredibly dark and seemingly hopeless time of division, delusion, and desolation, and our way forward may seem impossible. However, we baptized followers of Jesus have a distinct advantage and clear way to follow in the person of Jesus Christ and the Good News that we hear today and every day. For, first, we acknowledge honestly and humbly the reality of evil and sin in our world, such as what we saw at the Capitol this past week. And we also confess the ways in which we have contributed to the divisiveness and enmity that has settled on our nation or have been complicit in it through our silence or inaction. However, this sin, this evil is not the end: we are also graced with God’s unconditional love and offer of forgiveness for our sinfulness, and we are roused by John’s call to repentance and conversion. Finally, in Jesus we are blessed with a leader unquestionably worth following, one who dwelt among us and cared for us, who formed us into one Body with one Spirit, and who suffered with us to the point of death that he might redeem us and lead us to eternal life. In this act of complete self-sacrifice and love, Jesus gave us a hope that can dispel the darkness of any age, even that which lays us so low right now. And so, baptized in the Spirit, we are inspired to follow our trustworthy and true servant leader, Jesus Christ, as many Christians before us have done, and to serve God’s people in humility, generosity, and love.

May God bless America, through the descent of the Spirit, with healing and reconciliation, with unity and hope, with justice and peace. And may this be so in part because in our baptism, we have chosen to follow Jesus and his Gospel in word and deed. And may 2021, ushering in the potential rebirth of our nation under a new administration, truly become a “time of the Lord’s favor.”