Saturday, January 9, 2021

Baptism of the Lord

I had a very nice homily in mind for today:
something about ancient Israelite cosmology
and the symbolic role it plays in Mark’s story 
of Jesus’ baptism.
But, as so often in life and ministry,
events interrupt our plans,
and I feel compelled to say something
about the assault on the Capitol building
and about what light the Gospel of Jesus Christ
can shed in these dark days.

I feel compelled to say something,
but I speak with trepidation,
since I cannot really say anything 
about these things
without saying something 
about the role played by our President. 
I know that 50% of Catholics 
who voted in the last election
voted for Mr. Trump,
for a variety of reasons, of course,
and with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Still, odds are that some of you 
might not like what I must say.
But say it I must, 
so I hope you will hear me out.

It is hard to deny that this past Wednesday
the words of President Trump were a spark, 
falling upon the fuel 
of weeks of unsubstantiated 
and repeatedly debunked claims 
of a stolen election,
a spark that ignited an insurrection that led
to an attempt by some to derail 
the peaceful transfer of power 
and ultimately to the deaths of five people.
The resignations of numerous people 
from Mr. Trump’s administration make it evident 
that even the most ardent supporters of his policies
have been forced to recognize his role
in inciting these shameful and deadly actions.
Even those who rejoice in his support
for the pro-life movement 
have been forced to see in his actions 
a blatant disregard
for the sanctity of life and for the common good.

I will admit that his words and actions have made me angry.
But they have also made me profoundly sad.
They have made me sad because I see in Mr. Trump
a dark truth about human beings in general. 
Donald Trump, despite some residual bluster, 
now stands defeated:
not by circumstances,
not by his political foes,
not by the media,
but ultimately by himself.
He has been defeated by an aversion to truth
that all of us, in our own ways, share.
I do not know if his false claim 
to have won the election by a landslide
is a cynical deception or a sincere delusion,
but whether deception or delusion
it is certainly evidence of something
that is true of all of us to some extent,
whatever our political persuasion:
in our desire for mastery over our lives,
and the lives of others,
we will believe and promote falsehoods;
we will deny and suppress the truth 
to bolster our egos,
even when doing so deadens our souls
and harms those around us.
As the poet T.S. Eliot put it,
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

You see this aversion to reality in Scripture, 
in the story of our first parents,
who chose to believe the serpent’s lies
that they could steal the wisdom of God
and so become the source and meaning 
of their own existence.
You see it today in the allure 
of elaborate conspiracy theories that we embrace 
because they support our worldview.
You see it in our resistance to new information
that might challenge our beliefs or lifestyles.
You see it in the tenacity with which we cling
to the conviction that our side, our party, our tribe
should be completely identified with the forces of light
and that those who disagree or oppose us
must be cast as the forces of darkness.

To recognize in Mr. Trump something that is,
to one degree or another,
true of all of us
is not to excuse his actions.
He had a choice,
just as we all have a choice.
We have a choice 
because into the darkness 
of deception and delusion
a light has shone,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
When Christ is baptized,
the heavens are torn open 
and the Spirit of truth descends upon him
and, through him, is unleashed upon our world.
Writing of Christ’s baptism,
St. Gregory of Naziansus said,
“Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light.”
Christ did not go down into the waters of the river Jordan
in order to be cleansed of sin,
but rather to purify the dark stream of human blindness
that flows from the sin of our first parents.
He plunges into the waters of deception and delusion
to transform them into waters of light and life.

In these enlightening waters we find
not just our salvation,
but an invitation, a call, a summons
to reflect in the world the light of truth
that has shone upon us.
St. Gregory writes, “God wants you
to become a living force for all humanity,
lights shining in the world. 
You are to be radiant lights 
as you stand beside Christ, 
the great light,
bathed in the glory of him 
who is the light of heaven.”
We must live as light in a world of lies.
We must first and foremost proclaim the great truth
of the world’s redemption through Christ, 
but we must also guard the more ordinary truths
from which our daily common life is woven.
We must resist the impulse to believe and promote
falsehoods that offer our egos 
temporary comfort in the illusion of mastery.
We must bear witness to the truth,
even when that truth discomfits us,
because without truth we are doomed.

We have seen this week one more example
of the destructive force of deception and delusion,
and we have heard in our Gospel a call
to be bathed in the Spirit of truth.
May Christ our way heal and bless our country,
may Christ our truth enlighten and empower his Church,
and may Christ our life have mercy on us all.