Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Fourth Luminous Mystery

The Transfiguration

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew (17:1-8)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

The book of Proverbs tells us that "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov 1:7). So often today, however, it seems that we've traded holy fear for an almost inappropriate familiarity with God. From the ridiculous "Buddy Christ" of Kevin Smith's Dogma to t-shirts declaring that "Jesus is my Homeboy", to a more accurate, though still somewhat unbalanced sense within Christianity of a merciful Lord who is always and only forgiving, closer than a brother, etc., we can tend to forget that the flipside of the coin of mercy is God's absolute justice. We can sometimes emphasise the friendship of Jesus and minimise the Kingship of Jesus.

As I reflected on in the last Mystery, Jesus is indeed forgiving and merciful. He is full of compassion for sinners, and will always welcome the repentant back into His loving Heart. We must never lose sight of that fact. Yet on the other hand, we must never lose sight of Jesus' absolute Holiness, either. The story in the Gospels of the Transfiguration remains as a helpful check and balance to "Jesus the Homeboy."

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain in order to pray, as was Jesus' usual custom to get away from the crowds and spend time alone with His Father. But this time, with these three disciples present, Jesus gives them a revelation of His true glory. It seems to me that the more truly intimate and personal and "friendly" we are with our Lord, the more of His radiant holiness we will behold, and the more reverent awe we will have for Him. It is a sign of a facile and flippant Christianity to speak of Jesus the "personal saviour" without Jesus the Holy Lord.

When Jesus and His disciples go up the mountain, Jesus is transfigured, becoming radiant and shining like the sun. While there, Moses and Elijah appear to Him and talk with Him. In Luke's account, what they discuss is Jesus' upcoming Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, which Luke describes as His "Exodus" (Luke 9:30-31), an allusion, obviously, to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. In fact, the entire setting of this story brings us back to that event, as even their presence on the Mountain suggests Moses' ascent of Mt. Sinai to receive the Law (Exodus 19ff). Peter's offer to build tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus recalls the tents which the Israelites lived in during the wanderings in the wilderness, commemorated in the Feast of Tabernacles, and when, at this suggestion, a great cloud descends upon the group, and they hear the Voice of God speak, we remember the Lord's words to Moses in Exodus 19:9, "I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear Me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you, also."

As Jesus reveals the resplendence of His divinity, Moses and Elijah come to speak to Him of His impending Passion. There is never Glory without the Cross, and even as Jesus' followers, we must remember that unless we follow Christ in His crucifixion, we will never partake of His glory. Moses' and Elijah's presence also symbolically represent the Law and the Prophets, demonstrating that all of the Old Testament up until now had been pointing to Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and now, in a vivid illustration of the Communion of the Saints, Moses and Elijah encourage Jesus in His Mission to fulfil those Scriptures.

Peter then offers to build the tents; as St. Mark's Gospel tells us, "He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified" (Mark 9:6). The proper response--indeed, the only response--to the revelation of God's glory, is reverential fear. Peter speaks, though, seemingly out of a desire to involve himself in the event, and at that, the bright cloud descends, barring from them the majestic vision. And out of the cloud, the Voice of God is heard, saying "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him" (Matt. 17:5). The Father reaffirms His approval of the Son which He had voiced at Jesus' Baptism, and then adds the command to listen to Jesus. Of what purpose is intimacy with the Lord if we refuse to follow His commands?

As though Peter, James, and John were not scared enough, at the Voice, they fell prostrate on the ground from fear. Then Jesus, full of love and compassion, touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they got up, mercifully, the intense vision had vanished from their eyes--but never from their hearts, as Peter himself would remark, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received honour and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to Him from the majestic glory, 'This is My Son, My beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18).

The vision remained, making sure that "when the people hear Me speaking with You, they may always have faith in You, also" (Ex. 19:9--applied to Christ).

May we always grow in the reverential fear of the Lord and in piety, those gifts of the Holy Spirit which we received through the laying on of hands.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Third Luminous Mystery

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. John (8:2-12)
Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

I have to say, this Mystery of the Rosary has always been a bit hard for me to meditate on. The subject, Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom, is rather vague. All the other mysteries are specific events, contained in one or two passages of Scripture, mostly. But for about three years, all Jesus did was preach the Gospel of the Kingdom. It's hard to narrow that down into one soundbite.

In order to do so, though, I usually refer to the Beatitudes, naming one per Rosary Bead of the decade, and finishing the tenth bead with the "Salt and Light" statement that follows them. However, as I'm sure you, my astute readers (if any of you are left, after my lengthly hiatuses and sporadic posting--sorry about that) have realised by reading the Gospel recorded above, I'm not planning to discuss the Beatitudes here. (If you want my thoughts on the Beatitudes, you can read them here, here, here, and here.)

Perhaps there's something to Pope John Paul II's lack of specifics in mind for this mystery. I mean, Jesus' preaching on the Kingdom is pretty vast territory. Not focussing us on one or another passage could be intended to prompt us, or even force us, to meditate through the entire Gospels, rather than become complacent in our meditations. There's always something new for us to learn, even in the old familiar passages. How much more when we remind ourselves that if we, ourselves, are that Kingdom, united to Christ through our baptisms, then we should always be going deeper into the totality of Jesus' teaching. I said at the beginning of this series that "we could plumb [the] depths [of the mysteries of the Rosary] for all eternity and never reach the bottom." Having such a myriad of passages from which to choose for the Third Luminous Mystery serves to truly reinforce that fact.

Nevertheless, for the sake of my purposes in this series, I did have to choose just one passage as our reference point. To my mind, Jesus' encounter with the woman who was caught in adultery, and the Scribes and Pharisees who wanted to trap Jesus, very much sums up Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom.

Jesus came into the world as the Light of God shining into the darkness of sin. Many were drawn to that Light--indeed, to an extent, everyone who experienced it was. But as the analogy goes, the sun that melts the wax also hardens the clay. The light which exposed men's sinfulness was too often rejected and hated by those who loved their own darkness too much. And most often during Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God, it was those who seemed already to have light that hated His Light most of all. For the True, White Light of God shows us how shadowy and grey and dingy our own light really is. God resists our pride, but gives us grace in our humility. For those of us who are willing to recognise our own darkness, He is able to fill us with His light.

The Scribes and Pharisees were such who all too often felt that their own light was plenty bright. And so these most religious of men found the greatest cause to persecute the True Light. They tried again and again to find fault, to show that His Light was just as dim and dirty as their own was revealed to be. And so, on one occasion, they brought a woman who was clearly sinful to Him, and challenged the Teacher of Mercy and Forgiveness to uphold a Law which, in their minds, was uncompromising Justice. They had forgotten, or perhaps they had never read, that "Mercy and truth have met each other; / Justice and peace have kissed" (Psalm 85:10).

Would Jesus ignore the woman's sin? Would He let her go? Or would He participate in stoning her as the Law commanded? Would He alienate Himself from those who had flocked to Him, recognising in Him that saving Light? Would He show Himself unfaithful to the Laws of God, Whose Son He claimed to be? Would He follow the Laws of God, thereby breaking the laws of men, so that He would be turned over to them? It seemed to the Pharisees to be the perfect trap. No matter which answer Jesus chose, they would win, and His Messiahship would be proven fraudulent!

But then Jesus did something completely different. He began writing on the ground, almost doodling disinterestedly. Many commentators spend long hours, papers, and arguments trying to decide just what Jesus was writing. The sacred author doesn't tell us. He doesn't seem entirely interested, which is itself interesting, because this is the only time in Scripture that Jesus is recorded as writing anything. My own thoughts on this question are two, and I will share both with you. The first is that I believe that Jesus was writing the Law. Particularly, I think He was listing all of the sins which resulted in a punishment of stoning or other forms of capital punishment. I think that when Jesus rose and said to them, "Whosoever is without sin may cast the first stone," His writing reminded them that, had they thrown a stone, it would have rebounded onto themselves, for they had all sinned sins deserving of death. That is my first thought, dealing with the content of the writing, and it is nothing spectacular.

My other notion has nothing to do with what Jesus wrote, but that He wrote. As I mentioned, this is the only time He is recorded as doing so, and He was not writing with pen on paper, but with His finger on the earth. I believe He is alluding to that other time that earth was engraved with a finger. There was a question about Law then, too, and at that time, the Finger settled the question, by inscribing that Law on stone tablets. Jesus' writing on the earth alludes to God's giving of the Ten Commandments. In Jesus' act of writing, He is again implying His divinity, and His Authority to both create and interpret the Law.

But just as the Law itself is unable to make one righteous, as the Pharisees had thought, neither does Jesus' writing solve the problem, but rather His grace-filled words, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," inviting introspection, self-knowledge, and honesty in His enemies. And one by one, they left. The oldest left first, and finally the youngest. Age can often bring about greater honesty. If nothing else, it certainly furnishes one with greater time for sinning. But even the stubbornness of youth was overcome by the Light of Jesus' words.

Once they left, Jesus stood back up from His brief foray into literature, and asked the unfortunate woman where her accusers were; whether there was anyone left to condemn her. She answered, "No one, my Lord." But she did not even then think she was off the hook. She knew her sinfulness. She knew her own darkness. And she knew from the Light of Jesus that He had the authority to condemn her, or to pardon her. So she waited before the Just Judge for her verdict. What overwhelming love and surprise must there have been when the Just Judge smiled on her compassionately, and said, "Neither do I condemn you." But mercy and truth had indeed met in this Man, and He firmly commanded her to "Go and sin no more." He then turned to the crowd who remained, gawking at the encounter, and summed up for them what had just happened, by telling them again, "I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Too often, when faced with the immorality surrounding us in the world today, we react with a Pharisaical attitude of one or the other extreme. On the one hand, we look at homosexuality, abortion, and the host of other "hot-button issues" with disgust and condemnation, while failing to acknowledge our own hidden sins--sometimes sins that are hidden even from ourselves. In fact, we can often hide our own sinfulness with a campaign of self-righteousness. On the other hand, we can go to the opposite extreme of "compassion", seeking to justify sinful behaviour and attitudes, and even "reinterpreting" the sin so that it is not sinful, all in the name of "tolerance", "acceptance", and "not offending people".

But we must work to take Jesus Himself as our Light. He neither excused a person's sinfulness as nothing, nor did He unlovingly or self-righteously condemn those around Him. Rather, with the Kiss of Justice and Peace, He let the Light of Grace open their hearts to Him, showing them that they are always accepted by the Father if they are willing to repent and turn from their wicked ways.

We cannot compromise the Truth, but we must always speak that Truth in Love.

As we meditate on Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven for the Conversion of Sinners, let us pray that our own hearts would be more fully converted to His Gospel, so that we may truly offer that Gospel to others in grace and truth. Only then will it truly sound like "Good" News. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Second Luminous Mystery

The Wedding at Cana

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. John (2:1-11)
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

It's been a while, which I find very ironic, since it is this mystery, and this meditation, which initially inspired me to write this series of posts! I suppose it's taken so long for a couple reasons. The first is that I've genuinely been very busy for the most part. However, the second, perhaps, is my fear that I simply won't do justice to this mystery, and all the truths contained here. But as G.K. Chesteron said, "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing badly." So away we go.

The Luminous Mysteries were added to the Rosary prayer by Pope John Paul II in October 2002, as I mentioned previously in the History of the Rosary (Part 2). I had mentioned that some people had objected to these additions for various reasons, and part of my response in their vindication was this brief testimony:
Finally, by way of personal testimony, it was meditating on the second of the new mysteries, The Wedding at Cana, that really led me to understand and love Our Lady, and further meditation on that same mystery was the initial inspiration for this forthcoming series of posts on the Rosary, and the following one on Mary herself. Thus the new mysteries are bearing good fruit--and it is by their fruit that you shall know and judge them.
So now, here we are, set to comment on the mystery that, really, finally got me all the way into the Catholic Church.

For it is this mystery, and this episode from the Gospels, that to my mind shows most clearly and powerfully Mary's role as intercessor, and her close union with her Son. To the oft-repeated charge that veneration of Mary competes with adoration of Jesus, we have only to point to John chapter 2 to settle the issue.

Mary had gone to a wedding in the village of Cana, and Jesus had gone with her, as well as many of the people who had begun to follow Him as a great teacher of the Law. It is perhaps due to His presence, and the presence of so many "groupies" that the feast came to be so short on wine, a horrible embarrassment for a first-century Jewish family (and, may I say, had my wife and I run out of wine for our guests at our wedding in 2005, I wouldn't have been just a little embarrassed myself!). I wonder what was running through the servants' minds when they approached Mary to inform her of this fact? I would think, at least, that they knew Mary, that she was a listening and compassionate woman. More, they probably knew she was wise, as well, and went perhaps for some motherly advice. Perhaps, even, they wished her to tell her Son and His disciples that they had better leave because of their drain on the resources. Whatever the motives of the servants, it is certain that they never foresaw the outcome of their confidence in the Mother of God.

For Mary, ever concerned with the needs of others, and ever full of faith in her Son, knew just what to do in this situation: "the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine.'" St. John reminds us in this story that Jesus up until that point had never performed any miracle, yet Mary had faith that He could meet the need. She remembered the word of the Angel, and knew that the Son of God could do anything. Yet to her petition, our Lord seems to hesitate. "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." There is mystery here. Let us pause to consider.

Many people interpret this remark from Jesus to be a reproach to Mary, yet I believe this is quite wrong--especially since Jesus acquiesces to Mary's implied request with no further argument, something He wouldn't do if He really was rebuking her. So what was Jesus saying?

First, Jesus calls Mary "Woman", rather than Mother or by her name. There is something deeper going on than a reproach or a distancing on the part of Jesus. Rather, St. John is making a profound theological point--a point he has been making since "the beginning" (Jn 1:1) of his Gospel. John parallels Genesis in his Gospel's beginning, starting with the creation of the world in the beginning, by the Word. He then continues his narrative demarking episodes by a series of days, like the seven-day creation story (John 1:29, 1:35, and 1:43--all together taking us to the fourth day from "the beginning". When John begins the Wedding at Cana narrative, he says, "On the third day." Since we've passed that point from the beginning, he must mean the third day from the fourth day--or, the seventh day). On the Seventh Day, God makes His first covenant with creation--the Sabbath. As Scott Hahn puts it, "We can be sure, then, that whatever happens on the seventh day in John's narrative will be significant" (Hail, Holy Queen, p. 35).

This brings us back to Jesus' address of Mary as "Woman", which was, notably, the name which Adam gave to Eve. John then, in narrative form, is setting up what St. Paul would set up later in Romans and 1 Corinthians--Christ as the New Adam. But John goes one step farther: Mary as Woman, the New Eve, the "Mother of all the living" (Gn 3:20). John will call Mary "Woman" two more times in Scripture--the first is in John 19:26-27, when He puts her in John's care on the Cross. Ancient commentators have always seen this as symbolic of Jesus giving all of us, His "beloved disciples" into the care of His blessed Mother. This is fleshed out even further in John's other use of "Woman", in Revelation 12--a passage we'll examine in more depth in the Fifth Glorious Mystery's meditation. Briefly, though, in Revelation 12, the Woman, clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, with a crown of stars on her head, gives birth to the Messiah. The ensuing war in Heaven sees Satan booted out, and he is enraged at this--at the woman, and therefore tries to attack her, but she is kept safe. He turns, then, to make war on those "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (v. 17). In other words, Christians. And these Christians are called "the rest of her [the woman's] offspring." All of this is hidden in Jesus' address of His Mother as Woman, in John 2. And as the story continues, we see further parallels with Genesis. Specifically, it recapitulates Genesis 3, the story of the Fall. Consider, just as Eve was tempted to doubt God's goodness, Mary had absolute faith in Jesus, God the Son. And just as Eve tempted Adam into eating the fruit, and thus committing the first sin, so Mary "tempts" Jesus into performing His first miracle, which would lead ultimately to that great Saving Act of the Cross. Now, let us continue to examine Jesus' reply to Mary:

"Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" This again is considered by many to be a rebuff of Mary, but closer inspection shows again, just the opposite is true. The phrase is, in fact, a common Hebrew and Greek idiom in Jesus' day, found elsewhere in the Bible. Consider Matthew 8:29, where the Gadarene demoniac cries out to Jesus, "What have we do do with You?" which is almost the identical Greek phrase. The expression is actually one of deference or submission. Jesus is not rebuking Mary, but expressing His submission to her! Yet, He is doing so in a way that is hesitant, and He warns her of why He hesitates: His hour had not yet come. That is, the time for Him to be revealed, through His Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus is telling Mary that, if He goes through with what she is asking, everything will change--the Hour will begin, and from that moment on, everything will lead inexorably to the Cross. If I might be allowed to paraphrase Jesus' response, it would run, "Mary, New Eve and Mother of all who will live in Me, I will do what you ask--but be sure you know what you are asking: Working this miracle will lead us ultimately to Calvary, where I will be crucified and your heart will be pierced. This is what you ask of Me now. Are you ready for that?" Mary, full of grace and faith, didn't skip a beat, but immediately turned to the servants and said, "Do whatever He tells you."

It is here that we see, absolutely, the reply to those who suggest that Mary competes with Jesus, or that devotion to Mary will in some way take away from worship of Christ. The servants came to Mary with their problem, and she told them then, as she tells all people now, "Do whatever He tells you." When we follow Mary and trust in her intercession for us, she will do nothing less than bring us all the way to the heart of Jesus, as only a Mother can. I remember listening to an episode of Catholic Answers, in which Jewish convert Rosalind Moss remarks, as only she can, on Mary's role in bringing us to Christ. "Mary is a Jewish mother, and she does what any Jewish mother does--points people to her Son. The servants came to her, and she says, 'Have I got the solution for you. Let me introduce you to my Son, Jesus!'"

Jesus directs the servants to fill six large pots with water, and take some to the master of ceremonies, who, upon tasting it, calls it the "best wine", which had apparently been unusually saved until the end, rather than served first. In this way Jesus subtly shows that He is the Messiah, ushering the new Covenant, and once more, turning things on their heads. The six pots were used for ceremonial washing, but now they are used as vessels of celebration--their purpose under the Old Covenant had been superseded by their use in the New. Their immense volume fulfils Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance, too. Compare Jeremiah 31:12, Hosea 14:7, and Amos 9:13-14, for example. And finally, Jesus turns tradition and convention upside down, as He provides the best wine. How could God give anything less?

As I mentioned above, it was this mystery which led me to a full devotion to Mary, which my Protestant upbringing had consistently balked at. I pray that as you meditate on Mary's intercession, and Jesus' quick and complete response, that you too will have a deeper love and trust in Mary, your Mother, who will only ever and always lead you closer to her Divine Son.


(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The First Luminous Mystery

The Baptism of Jesus

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee,
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
A Reading from the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew (3:1-17)
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.

It just didn't make sense.

All his life, John the Baptist had known that he had a special call. At about the age of thirty, he felt the Spirit lead him to begin, sending him down to the Jordan River to call the people of Judea to repentance, and a baptism that demonstrated that repentance. Day in and day out, he preached to the curious crowds, baptising the penitent, chastising the arrogant, and answering the critical. But all this time, as he drew hearers and made disciples, he knew that he wasn't the main attraction. He wasn't the Messiah--he was only the harbinger. He was, as he quoted from Isaiah, sent to "make straight the paths of the Lord."

And then, one day, there He was, amid the crowd! The day John had waited for had finally arrived! The Messiah had come to His people, and would now begin the work of saving them! But, He just stood there, as John preached--about Him! He stood there among the crowd, as though He was just one of them. And then, strangest of all, He stepped forward, waded out into the water, and asked John to baptise Him!

Think about it--the ritual of baptism which John practised involved the penitent's confession of their sins, publically, before being baptised. Now, here is Jesus, the Sinless Lamb of God--here to take away the sins of the world--going through a rite of forgiveness for sins He'd never committed. John the Baptist was understandably confused, but Jesus told him to "Let it be so for now, in order to fulfil all righteousness," and so, John, who was unworthy to even untie His sandals, consented to baptise Jesus instead.

What was going on?

Jesus, the Lord of the Universe who would servilely wash His disciples' feet--Jesus, the Immortal God of Heaven who would consent to be killed--seems to have a thing for turning the world on its head. And here, as the Sinless identified Himself with sinners, it is no different.

And that's precisely what Jesus was doing. He was stepping into those waters and identifying with sinners in order to take the curse of sin on Himself, so that every sinner who afterwards would step into the baptismal waters would be saved from that curse and identify himself with Christ.

And as though that is not mystery enough, there's an added dimension of the story, closely related to this--and indeed, stemming from it. In Jesus' baptism, He declares Himself to be the New and True Israel, the Servant of God prophesied in Isaiah's "Servant Songs". When the Israelites were delivered from Egypt by Moses, and led through the Wilderness, at the end of Moses' life they arrived at the same Jordan River in which John baptised. And there, Moses reiterated the Covenant which God had made with them, setting before them a choice:
"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (Deut. 30:15-20).
Later, after Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan (which was itself a type of Baptism), he too put the same choice before them:
"Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God." But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the Lord!" Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel." The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey." So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem (Josh. 24:14-25).
Even though the people swore to follow the Lord, and even though the penalties were clearly laid before them for disobedience, still, the people were unfaithful. Having broken the Covenant, they brought upon themselves the curses of the Covenant. Despite all this, however, God's love remained constant, and, already knowing that they would disobey Him, He had long before set in motion His plan for redemption--which would come at the fullness of time. And the fullness of time began when the Word became Flesh.

And so, Christ came to the Jordan--the same river at which the Israelites ratified the Covenant and accepted the blessings of obedience and the curses of unfaithfulness. And in the Jordan, the sinless Son of God, the Most Faithful, recapitulated the 'baptism' of Israel in Himself, and embraced the curse of their unfaithfulness, and the unfaithfulness of all the world, in perfect submission to the will of the Father.

And as He came up out of the water, Heaven was opened again. The Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus, and the Father declared His favour for the Son.

And we, at our baptisms, though we perhaps didn't perceive it, also had the Holy Spirit descend upon us to sanctify us as the Father looked down on us who were now, through baptism, united with His Son, and declared us, also, to be His beloved children. And though, while many times we may be disobedient, let us never despair of our Father's love and forgiveness, and turn back to Him again in the grace given to us through His Son, Confessing our sins, and renewing our own baptismal promises.

Let us meditate on Jesus' baptism, recognising that the Holy Spirit Who descended there has made our own baptism efficacious for our salvation. Amen.

(Category: Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.)