I spent a delightful hour and a half with our grade seven class on Friday afternoon, walking through the various parts of the Mass. By dismissal time we'd only got to the Eucharistic Prayer, but they were so keen that questions kept coming even after I promised we'd get together again.
Their interest and enthusiasm wasn't a huge surprise–many of them are faithful altar servers–but I sure didn't expect the reaction when we came to the homily.
I joked that this was the part of the Mass no-one really liked. There was an immediate chorus of objections. The students assured me that they enjoyed the homilies at Mass.
“We like listening to the homily, one student said, “…especially when you tell a joke.”
Okay, perhaps their reasons aren't entirely spiritual, but I was encouraged anyway.
I talked with the class about the challenges of preaching. I asked them to read the short note about the homily in the Sunday Missal, which they all had in their hands. It says “The Holy Spirit speaking through the lips of the preacher explains and applies today's biblical readings to the needs of this particular congregation.”
No-one understands the differences in age groups like elementary school students, unless it's elementary school teachers. Grade sevens are worlds away from grade twos, and worlds away from grade tens.
So I asked the young people to think about how a message that applied to them could apply to their younger brothers and sisters. Or to their parents or grandparents.
They quickly understood that it was close to impossible to hear a homily every week that would be meaningful to them.
And that’s true for all of you, of every age.
Every week the preacher must decide, to some extent, to whom he is preaching. How simple or how complex a sermon, how challenging or consoling, how serious or light.
On this great feast of the Baptism of the Lord, I decided it was time to aim very high, to take a page from the books of the greatest preachers of all time, the ancient Fathers of the Church.
In the days leading up to the Baptism of the Lord, the Liturgy of the Hours–the book of psalms and prayers and readings that a priest must pray each day–has been filled with awesome thoughts we rarely share at Mass because of their complex theology.
And yet these were sermons preached to ordinary people in Rome, in Turin, in Constantinople. People who, for the most part, had less education than we have.
So let’s listen to some of the most beautiful words ever spoken about the mystery we celebrate today.
Let’s warm up with Saint Hippolytus, a priest in Rome in the late second and early third centuries Even then, not that long after the time of Jesus, people could take for granted familiar things, annual feast days and well-known stories from the Bible, so he speaks of wonder we should feel. Hippolytus says:
“That Jesus should come and be baptized by John is surely cause for amazement. To think of the infinite river that gladdens the city of God being bathed in a poor little stream of the eternal, the unfathomable fountainhead that gives life to all men being immersed in the shallow waters of this transient world!
“He who fills all creation, leaving no place devoid of his presence, he who is incomprehensible to the angels and hidden from the sight of man, came to be baptized because it was his will. And behold, the heavens opened and a voice said: ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’”
St. Maximus, the bishop of Turin, in Northern Italy, died sometime during the first two decades of the fifth century. He lived during the discouraging age that witnessed the Roman armies retreating before the barbarians. Nonetheless, over 100 of his homilies survive. They were so moving that they were passed down through the centuries as models for medieval homilists to follow.
Here’s what St. Maximus said almost 1500 years ago:
“This feast of the Lord’s baptism, which I think could be called the feast of his birthday, should follow soon after the Lord’s birthday, during the same season, even though many years intervened between the two events.
“At Christmas he was born a man; today he is reborn sacramentally. Then he was born from the Virgin; today he is born in mystery. When he was born a man, his mother Mary held him close to her heart; when he is born in mystery, God the Father embraces him with his voice when he says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased: listen to him.
“The mother caresses the tender baby on her lap; the Father serves his Son by his loving testimony. The mother holds the child for the Magi to adore; the Father reveals that his Son is to be worshiped by all the nations.
“That is why the Lord Jesus went to the river for baptism, that is why he wanted his holy body to be washed with Jordan’s water.
“Someone might ask, ‘Why would a holy man desire baptism?’
“Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water.
“For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.”
That last sentence really holds the key what we’re celebrating today, so let me repeat it: Christ is the first to be baptized… so that Christians will follow after him with confidence.
Finally, let’s give the last word to Saint Gregory Nazianzen, the Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century. St. Gregory’s teaching was so profound and accurate that he’s one of the few teachers in the history of the Church known as “the theologian.” What he preached is not complicated at all—but it certainly is challenging:
“Today let us do honour to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure to God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist.
“He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, 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.
You are to enjoy more and more the pure and dazzling light of the Trinity, as now you have received – though not in its fullness – a ray of its splendour, proceeding from the one God, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.”
The texts above, and many others, are available from called The Crossroads Initiative, a splendid website maintained by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio (a/k/a “Dr. Italy”). The biographical information I’ve used is also taken from the site’s page for Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.
The beautiful image above, “Baptism of the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell, comes from the website of the Sisters of Charity of New York, which also offers a short but inspiring meditation on today’s feast.