Reflection for January 11th, 2015
Baptism of the Lord Feast
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist and Jesus perform the now well-known ceremony of baptism. I love baptisms –the hope and endless possibility for new life, the holiness, the forgiveness, the welcome given to new disciples, the white garment, the candles… it’s all so full of wonder and beauty.
But obviously that’s not the kind of baptism Mark is referring to. John the Baptist, the desert-dwelling wild-honey and locust-eating, camel hair clothed, Biblical bush-man dunking inhabitants of Jerusalem in the Jordan River and claiming this results in forgiveness of sins. All the while, John is making grand statements about a mighty and powerful one who is yet to come who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.
Imagine a similar situation today. A scruffy, wild looking man who lives in the Gatineau Hills is making grand statements about the coming of a Messiah and offering to rid you of your sins if you take a plunge in the Ottawa River. Are you getting in that line? I’m going to guess the answer is no.
And yet, I suspect most of us admire John. He represents the true believer, the proclaimer of the Good News. We’re supposed to want to emulate him. His devotion, his humility, his confidence in sharing the miracle of baptism at a time when baptism of repentance was not common or viewed as necessary for the Jewish people…
So if we’re not getting in line, how are we each, at the very least, proclaiming our faith outside this building?
I don’t know about you, but most of my friends aren’t practicing Christians. While many of us come from Christian traditions, I’ve found that, when speaking honestly, the average person’s perspective on practicing Christians is closer to the way in which I’d regard John the Baptist if I met him on a modern-day street corner. Unrealistic and gullible.
My experience in daily life has taught me that most practicing Christians of us must be closet-Christians. We don’t walk around with billboards advertising our religion (ok, I take it back, Father Andy pretty much has a billboard… but the rest of us don’t)
We don’t introduce ourselves “hi I’m Rachel, I’m Roman Catholic”, we don’t usually hang crosses on the outside of our homes, and I don’t often hear grace being said at restaurants. Why is that?
My own religious practices tend to come up in passing, explaining why I can’t join Sunday morning running groups, or where I know one of you from when I bump into you on the street, or why my 2 year old son is always talking about baby Jesus when someone mentions Santa Claus.
And it strikes me as odd, whenever these things come up, that my colleagues, friends, and acquaintances tend to raise their eyebrows at me and say “You’re a Catholic?” What is it? The strong, outspoken personality? The socially liberal values? Being a feminist? The red high heels? What exactly makes me so incompatible with being a Catholic?
After this initial shock, some people want to have a quick discussion about religion generally, tell me why they are not religious or ask which church I attend. Occasionally, I receive antagonistic reaction, a mocking joke (mostly meant in playful fun, but usually turns more than a little uncomfortable), and I try my best not to react, not to take it personally – because they don’t understand, and reacting will get me nowhere.
Then occasionally, weeks or months later, a colleague will come into my office to tell me how he’s spending Christmas Eve giving care packages to the homeless. Or a friend will tell me she’s decided to start attending the church down the street in order to explore her spirituality. Or someone who mocked my faith will share that they are having their new baby baptised.
I often don’t know why people come to me to confess these things. Are they quietly confiding their own beliefs to me because they think I’ll understand or approve? Why do they care? Why do they share?
This brings me back to today’s Gospel and to the other half of the story: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. As Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from the Heavens acknowledges him “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God welcomes Jesus publically into his family for the first time. We recreate this moment every time we baptise someone in this church. Acknowledging that we will accept and support the new members of our Catholic family. That we are united through Christ.
Is that’s what’s happening when others come to me with their quiet admissions? Somewhere, in all this mess of callousness, is there is still a shred of belief and hope?
Are they trying to get back to their faith by doing charitable work, or acknowledging that their child will miss out if left without the formal initiation to faith? Are they quietly asking for acknowledgement that they’re part of our Christian family – even if they aren’t wearing crosses around their necks?
Perhaps God doesn’t need each of us to be John the Baptist. Maybe admiring him and being inspired to continue to live out our faith is enough – even though we too are flawed, even though we are openly questioning different aspects of faith, even if we are feminists who wear red high heels and don’t fit the stereotype of the traditional Catholic.
Through my interactions with various acquaintances, I’ve come to realize that unlike others I’ve never believed there’s anything hypocritical about being a practicing Catholic and not fitting the archetype of the perfect Catholic. Good grief, who in this room fits that description?
Nor do I think it’s impossible for a person who spends time dedicated to critical thinking, or politics, or social activism, or sports, or the arts to also have a strong faith.
I look around this room and see people of different views, levels of education, interests, ages, backgrounds – teachers, students, athletes, cooks, mothers and fathers, children and teens, hairdressers, public servants, nurses, computer experts, runners, musicians, gay persons and straight persons – how many of us fit the stereotype of the “good Catholic” – and by good, I don’t mean kind and helpful, I mean unquestioning and gullible. Somehow, that’s the realization that others come to when they raise their eyebrows at me and say – “you’re Catholic?” What they’re trying to say is “but you don’t fit my expectation of what a Catholic looks like or acts like.
God doesn’t need each of us to be John the Baptist, God needs each of us to be our true selves and to accept one another. To see beyond the stereotypes of what a Catholic is or should be and to know that we can get there a different way – Though maybe we could try to say grace at restaurants a little more often! Because others need to know that our Catholic family is diverse. Only a diverse family can claim “everyone is welcome”, and through Baptism we all accept that we’re all practicing our love for God; doing our best, and willing to let others try, in their own way, to do their best too.
By Rachel Heft