Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, Year B.
Although I haven’t had the privilege of living there, like Fr. Ken or my brother Fr. John, I have had the opportunity to visit Rome several times. And the very first time I visited was during a time of spiritual darkness, when I felt like God had abandoned me and no longer loved me. One of the most powerful experiences I had during that trip was going to confession at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, where St. Paul is buried. After going to confession, I went to pray at his tomb. After mumbling a few words of my own, I began to do Evening Prayer from The Liturgy of the Hours. I prayed the first psalm, and then the second psalm, and then I came to the canticle from St. Paul. It was from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Chapter 1. Beginning in verse 12, St. Paul writes this: “Let us give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.”
As I prayed these words I began to weep. It was as if St. Paul was speaking directly to me. He wasn’t just addressing the Colossians two-thousand years ago, he was right there with me, addressing me personally: “Let us—you and me!—give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He rescued us—you and me!—from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we—you and me!—have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.” St. Paul was inviting me to join him in giving thanks for God’s mercy which I had just received in confession. And in doing so, I felt the darkness lift and I knew once again that God loved me and had not abandoned me. I was His beloved son, and He had washed me clean once more.
In early 1900s, a newspaper in London posed a question to several famous authors. The question was, “What is wrong with the world today?” G.K. Chesterton, a prolific writer, and convert to Catholicism, gave a one sentence reply: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” Besides being a humorous and humble answer, it is also a true answer. And not just true then, in the early 1900s; but true now, in the early 2000s. “What is wrong with the world today?” “I am.”
God wants to unleash his mercy upon the world. But the only channel through which His mercy can flow is the human soul. If we are open to receiving his mercy—first through baptism, and then through confession and a life of holiness—then our souls are like open channels. But if we refuse to acknowledge our sins, if we refuse to be sorry for them and seek forgiveness, then our souls are like dams. God’s mercy is stopped up, blocked from entering the world. If the world today is not marked by God’s mercy, it is because we have not let it in. “What is wrong with the world today?” “I am.” “My soul is what is wrong—my soul that is closed off to God’s mercy.”
Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized in order to unleash a river of mercy upon the world. Jesus submitted to baptism, not so that he might be cleansed of sin, but so that he might cleanse us from sin. He submitted to baptism so that He might rescue us from the power of darkness and make us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. At our baptism, a channel of God’s mercy was opened in our souls. It was a small channel, but big enough for a spiritual infant. That channel was meant to grow and expand through a life of holiness. For some of us, that growth and expansion have never taken place. We’ve remained spiritual infants. For others, we’ve closed the channel of God’s mercy—whether it was small or big—by a life of sin. Our souls have become hardened and damned up; God’s mercy can’t get through. And the world is a worse place for it.
For those of you who have seen The Lord of the Rings movies, one of my favorite moments is when the Ents attack Isengard and break open the dam. “Release the river,” one of the Ents says, and a torrent of water comes rushing in, destroying the works of Saruman and washing his filth away. This is what God wants to do with His mercy. If the channels in our souls are small, He wants to expand them. If they are closed off and dammed up, he wants to break them down. “Release the river, the river of my mercy.” This is what God wants to do in and through us. And not just for our benefit, but for that of the whole world.
God opened up a channel of mercy in our souls at baptism. What’s the state of that channel? Is it more like a small trickle, a little stream, or a rushing river? Is there any flow at all? Is it closed off and dammed up? Through baptism, God has rescued us from the power of darkness and made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. Have we continued to resist the power of darkness and grow in holiness? Have we tried to become saints? Or have we fallen back into darkness through a life of sin? Have we become lazy or lukewarm in our pursuit of holiness? These are all questions I am asking myself first and foremost. And invite you to ask them too. We may not be able to change the world. But we don’t need to wait on the world to change, or some politician or movement to change it. We can change ourselves. We can allow God’s grace to change us, to form us and shape us, to alter the spiritual geography of our souls so that the river of His mercy can more effectively flow through us and be unleashed upon the world. Amen.