The Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 2020
Available by text only
In its analysis of more than 50,000 homilies and sermons, the Pew Research Center found that, on average, Catholic homilies are 14 minutes long, while mainline Protestant sermons are 25 minutes, Evangelical Christian sermons are 39 minutes, and in the African American Protestant tradition – wait for it – 54 minutes.
Perhaps I just made you happy that today you are sitting in a Catholic Church.
Brings to mind a man I knew several decades ago, Ken Untener, who served as Bishop of Saginaw, MI. To give you a sense of his pastoral sense of humor, at the beginning of Mass, he would often introduce himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’ll be your server today.” Before becoming Bishop, he taught homiletics in the local seminary – the class that seminary students take to learn how to give the perfect 39 minute, uh, 14 minute, homily. On the first day of class each term, with tongue in cheek, he would always tell his students two crucial things about giving that perfect homily:
Okay, now that I have your attention, and you’re feeling content that today of all days, I’m not going to go too much beyond 14 minutes, please do this simple little exercise with me. Takes just a second.
Take a big, deep breath in . . . and let it out.
Again, take a big, deep breath in . . . and let it out.
I recently heard a pastor describe his image of his congregation as a set of healthy lungs. He said, when we worship together on Sunday morning, we breath in – taking in the Good News of the Gospel, the sustenance of the Eucharist, the encouragement of one another’s company, and the benefits of prayer together – so that as we go forth for the week we breathe out the gracious goodness of God’s presence to our loved ones and to all those we encounter.
I like that image. Collectively, we breathe in the Good News, and we breathe out God’s gracious presence, which then naturally leads us to engage in works of mercy, works of justice, acts of kindness, and moments meaningful prayer throughout the week.
And every so often, we have to take an extra breath – for a special feast, or for the death of a loved one, or to celebrate a milestone or sacrament. Later today, thirteen children and youth, along with their parents, will take an extra breath as they receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time.
St. Charles . . . a healthy set of lungs.
Now, I wonder if you would do another simple exercise. If you are willing, I invite you to make the sign of the cross with me.
In the name of the Father
And of the Son
And of the Holy Spirit
A bit like breathing, it’s a gesture that reminds us of our baptism into relationship with God and with God’s believers. For many of us, it is habit; it’s rote; we often do it without thinking. And yet, as I said, it reminds us that we were baptized, not unlike Jesus himself, and chosen to carry on his healing and liberating work in the world.
When I was thirteen years old, I was completing my eight-year career at Holy Name Catholic School in Sheridan, Wyoming. And, I was developing a bit of an attitude. As I think I told you recently, that was the year, in an adamant statement, with attitude, I told my mom and our priest, and really anyone who would listen, that I would no longer make the sign of the cross. My argument was simple, “If nobody does it with reverence, then it loses all meaning, so why bother?”
Classic adolescent rebellion. My mom and priest were aghast! Turns out I was wrong, of course.
Like you, I spend every second of every minute of every hour of every day . . . breathing. And I rarely give it any thought whatsoever. And yet, my breathing sustains me, keeps me alive, keeps my muscles toned, feeds my brain with curiosity, and feeds my heart with life itself. And every so often, I become aware of my breathing and all that it does for me comes into focus.
Similarly, I’ll admit, I often make the sign of the cross with little or no thought or explicit prayer intention whatsoever. Yet, like breathing, the simple gesture of baptism-reminder sustains me, calls me into connection with God, and reminds me to Whom I belong, and from Whom I have been called and sent.
You see, Baptism, and by extension the sign of the cross, carries its own meaning and power, literally by the grace of God. And every so often, that meaning and power break through into my distracted consciousness and I realize that I am indeed in the holy presence of God. And I can, indeed, hear “this is my son with whom I am well pleased.”
So, make the sign of the cross . . . often. Make it a habit, even if you do it without thinking. For I have no doubt, the Holy Spirit will rouse you every now and again and beckon you toward God’s ideas for you.
One last thing. My 14 minutes are not yet up.
You heard the last line of our Gospel reading, right? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And referring to our first reading in Isaiah, he is the one chosen to bring justice to the nations, sight to the blind, and freedom to prisoners.
Here, I believe we are presented with a simple and relatively easy way to behave just like God. I recall a night, some years ago now, a normal night for Rene and me. As I was drifting off to sleep, she turned out the light beside our bed and then whispered in my ear, “Leif, I am really proud of you.” What a lovely way to go to sleep! I never asked her just why she said that then. I like to think it was something magnanimous, but even if it was something small and simple like remembering to put out the garbage, it made my heart swell with pride and joy, and I carried her words with me for days. And, here's the key, I behaved in magnanimous, generous ways toward her and others.
What if we each looked for ways to say to the ones we love, I am so proud of you. I am so pleased with you. Therein lies the real possibility for justice for all, sight to the blind, freedom from confinement, and escape from the dungeons of darkness we tend to create for ourselves.