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Not too long ago I was compelled to appear in traffic court, and I have to say that what I anticipated to be something of an ordeal turned out to be quite enjoyable. It certainly helped that my sins – excuse me, my alleged sins – were wiped away with a bang of Judge Mendelsohn’s gavel (such a very fine man, Judge Mendelsohn), but also it was enjoyable because I saw so many old friends there. But in the midst of all the joyous reunions, I did get a good bit of “Father, what are you doing here?” Though I suppose there were also some who were relieved to see a priest in court for a mere traffic offense – I mean, alleged traffic offense.
“What are you doing here?” might serve as a rough paraphrase of St. John the Baptist’s words to our Lord when he appeared on the banks of the river Jordan seeking baptism. John would have prevented him, we read, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? “What are you doing here, Jesus?”
Immediately before the paragraph with which this morning’s Gospel lesson begins, John had just finished saying to the crowds, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry… And yet here is Jesus, whom John knows to be the Messiah of God, sent to rescue God’s people. Here is Jesus, whom we know to be without sin, seeking a baptism that is specifically a sign of repentance from sin, of turning away from sin, of an internal conversion marked by outward conformity to the law of love. Yet Jesus is the manifestation, the very incarnation, of Love. So, what in the world is Jesus doing here?
To answer that, we might begin with a wonderful story the theologian Scott Hahn relates about Blessed – soon to be Saint – John Paul II. An American priest was visiting Rome and was invited to a private audience with the Pope. On the day of the audience, the priest decided to walk from his residence to the Vatican, and on the way he stopped in to a church to pray. There were a number of homeless men congregated on the steps of the church, and as the priest entered, one face in particular caught his eye and seemed strangely familiar to him.
After saying his prayers, the priest saw the man again on the way out and approached him saying, “Excuse me, but do I know you?” And the homeless man said, “Yes, Father – we were at the seminary together.” They had been seminary classmates, but some time after their ordinations, the homeless man had fallen into alcoholism and a crisis of faith and then despair, and had abandoned his ministry, eventually ending up on the streets.
The priest left for his audience, and told John Paul about his encounter with the beggar. John Paul told him to return that evening for dinner, but first to find the man and bring him along. Well, the priest found the man, still on the church steps, and took him home to get showered and changed into clean clothes, and then off they went to supper with the Pope.
Towards the end of the meal, John Paul asked the priest and the others there to leave so he could talk with the homeless man. After some time, the man emerged, eyes red from weeping. “Did he ask to hear your confession?” the priest asked his old classmate. “No,” said the homeless man, “he asked me to hear his. I told him, ‘Your Holiness, I am just a beggar.’ And he said, ‘So am I.’”
“So am I.” It’s a wonderful story of John Paul’s humility, but also of his honesty. He knew himself to be a sinner and in absolute need of God’s grace, and so he understood there was no essential difference between himself and the beggar-priest. “So am I.”
If we are moved, as we should be, by John Paul’s humility, by his gracious condescension, then we are ready for the next step in thinking about our Lord’s baptism. But the next step’s a doozy. Our Lord, submitting to John’s baptism, for us and our salvation, takes an infinitely greater step of humility and love. Though sinless, though perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect, he condescends to share our lot, to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, and identify himself with us. Jesus entering the Jordan is a sign of his absolute solidarity with all of us who, as St. Paul says, “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is what our Lord is doing here on the banks of the Jordan.
As one theologian put it, in this baptism, “he associates himself with sinners and ranges himself in the ranks of the guilty … because he is at one with the church and the bearer of the divine mercy” (A. Schlatter).
It’s a wonderful thing to know that in the sacrament of reconciliation, when we approach the confessional, Jesus our merciful judge is waiting there, eager to forgive us every trespass and raise us up to new life. But this feast of the Lord’s baptism tells us something else wonderful: that as we approach the confessional, he also stands in line with us, shoulder to shoulder with us – whom he loves, and for whom he offered himself up to the Father. We may be, rightly, ashamed of our sins, but our Lord is not ashamed of us. He stands with us, placing a gentle arm around our shoulders: a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
And notice that it is here, precisely as Jesus takes this definitive step of identification with sinners, in this act of self-emptying love, that God is manifested in his Trinitarian glory: God the Son emerges from the waters; God the Spirit descends as a dove; and God the Father speaks – this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. “Where true love is, there is God.”
Blessed John Paul II had experienced and known that love, and so he could be honest about himself, humble himself, and then greet a fallen priest with love and mercy. He could admit his fundamental solidarity with a fallen priest. The courage and honesty, that mercy and love, that solidarity, is derivative from, is a product of, our Lord’s self-emptying solidarity with us, manifested in his baptism. It is the same Love into which we are plunged, to whom we are united, in baptism.
Blessed John Paul understood it. God grant that we may understand it, too, and like him become loving and merciful, and with him become saints.
John Paul, pray for us!
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