Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s gospel began with John the Baptist insisting that he was not the Messiah that people were waiting for. The coming Messiah was so much greater than he was, John explained, that he was not worthy to even tie his sandals. John understood that he was the one sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that he was not the Messiah himself. In other words, John the Baptist knew who he was, and he didn’t try to be someone that he wasn’t.

John may have been tempted to pretend he was the Messiah. Up until this time he had enjoyed a very successful ministry, attracting crowds and devoted disciples. But then Jesus came along, stealing his thunder and a good number of his followers. Yet John wasn’t angry or jealous or defensive. Instead, he welcomed Jesus’ arrival with serenity and joy, and he was content simply to be himself.

John the Baptist is also a saint. And that’s significant, because there’s a connection between his sainthood, and what we might call his “authenticity.” John’s witness teaches us that a key ingredient of sainthood is simply being one’s self. In other words, if we wish to be a saint, we need simply to be the person that God has created us to be.

But this is easier said than done. Too often we spend our lives, not trying to be ourselves, but conforming ourselves to the expectations of others. We spend our time and our energy trying to be the person we think other people want us to be. Instead of being who we really are, following the deepest motivations of our hearts, we wear a mask and assume a role. We may even end up being lots of different people all wrapped into one- assuming different roles and wearing different masks depending on our circumstances or the company we find ourselves in. We’re one person at home, another at work, another with friends, and maybe even another with God.

With time, be become stuck in our roles. It becomes difficult to change, and others around us may not want us to change. Marcel Marceau, the famous mime, has a classic routine about this. At the beginning, Marceau puts on an imaginary mask and then removes it, his expressive face returning to normal before putting on a new mask. He then continues putting on and taking off a variety of different masks, ending with that of a clown. He then dances around, performing the role of the clown with a silly, smiling face. But when he tries to take the clown mask off, he can’t. He pulls and tugs at it with increasing desperation, but it refuses to budge. Like so many people, he is stuck behind his mask and locked in his role.

This is the unhappy result when we base our self-image on something other than God’s love for us. It happens when we listen to those messages from our culture and our families that we need to be extraordinary or successful or accomplished or rich or beautiful in order to be liked, accepted, and respected. We can then become obsessed with our self-image, living our life in a state of competition, constantly comparing ourselves to others, and becoming hypersensitive when the public image we’ve created is challenged or undermined.

Or it could be that we just don’t like ourselves very much. We’ve concluded that we’re unlovable, and that the only way for others to love us is if we become, basically, somebody else. Perhaps we don’t expect much of ourselves, because others have never expected much from us. And so we become a people-pleaser, a “Yes-Man,” one who avoids confrontation, lacks self-confidence, and is afraid of rejection and being excluded.

All of want to be liked, respected, and accepted. But if the person we hope is liked and respected isn’t the real us, but simply a role or a mask, we will end up frustrated and unhappy, because deep down all of want to be loved as we really are.

The good news is: God loves the real us. God created the real us- in his image and likeness- and that’s the person he loves and wants us to be. As one popular saying goes, “God doesn’t make junk.” Other people may make us feel as if we’re junk- but that’s other people, not God. When God looks at us, he sees something unique, desirable, special, beautiful, and lovable, because he can see in us a little reflection of himself.

God loves us so much that he offers us a share in his divine life, that we may join in the eternal dance between the three Persons of the Trinity. That’s the whole point of Jesus’ baptism, which we celebrate today, and was proclaimed in today’s gospel. Jesus was baptized so that we could be baptized ourselves, receiving the Holy Spirit, becoming one with him and each other, and be filled with that faith, hope, and love which can only come from God. Indeed, God is head over heels in love with us. We see this expressed at Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, and everything else in-between.

It’s been said that the hardest thing about Christianity is not the command to love others, but to believe that God actually loves us. We’re either afraid of what it implies, or we think it’s just too good to be true. But it is true. It’s what makes the gospel truly “good news.” And if we can even try to accept the fact that God loves us, and that we are truly precious in his sight, we can stop trying to be the person others want us to be, or the person we think we ought to be, and begin the process of being ourselves, and becoming the beautiful person God created us to be.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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