Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Baptism of the Lord: Opening Our Christmas Gifts

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Just when the decorations are coming down, the Church offers us a first reading straight out of Advent.The real Christmas trees have been carted away, the artificial ones boxed up, but here we are listening to words of Isaiah straight out of Handel’s Messiah. The Church can’t seem to let go of Christmas just yet.

There’s a good reason for this: we may have forgotten to unwrap some of our gifts. This season can’t pass until we’ve opened them. Otherwise we’re putting gifts away with the decorations—or, even worse, letting them go out with the recycling.

They are gifts that Christ was born to bring. Those gifts were the real purpose we celebrated Christmas.

Pastor Rick Warren has sold millions and millions of books, and most of them have “purpose” in the title. The reason for his success is obvious: All of us want to know “why”; we long to know the purpose of our existence. And even more, we want to know what God’s purposes are.

Not surprisingly, he has written a book called The Purpose of Christmas. It could easily be subtitled “What did God give you for Christmas?” What does Christ’s birth really mean to my life and yours? What are the actual consequences of Christmas?

Rick Warren writes that the angel answered these questions on the first Christmas night, proclaiming three purposes for the birth of Christ: celebration, salvation, and reconciliation. You remember what the angel told the shepherds: “Do not be afraid... I am bringing you news of great joy... to you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

Celebration, salvation and reconciliation. We find those same three purposes in today’s three readings.

The prophet Isaiah gives us something to celebrate: comfort—release from our inner prisons of anxiety and despair. Deep and lasting comfort that soothes the fear of being failures and frauds. Our sentence has been served and the penalty has been paid: Jesus our brother has brought freedom from all that oppresses us.

In prophetic words that the Gospels will place on the lips of John the Baptist, Isaiah promises that the rocky road of life will be smoothed out, and that we’ll see the most wonderful thing imaginable: the glory of God. And what’s more, we will see it together; we’re not alone any more—our isolation is ended.

No longer scattered sheep, we are held in the arms of a Shepherd who leads us, feeds us, and—when necessary—carries us.

If this doesn’t make you feel like celebrating, head to your CD rack or iPod and listen to Handel’s Messiah. Handel’s music for Isaiah’s words is triumphant, joyful music. (I asked the choir to sing the Messiah for an Offertory hymn, but when they said I would have to do the solo parts I changed my mind.)

The second difference Christmas makes is the most important: salvation. St. Paul says that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He has redeemed us from all iniquity—paid our ransom, bailed us out from our captivity to sin. Christ has purified us—washed us from the slime that coated us and clings to us. In the plainest of terms, Paul says “He saved us.”

One of the sad things about language is that it gets a bit tired over time. To say that we’re saved is almost a cliché. I saw a cartoon where someone is asked “Are you saved?” and replies “No, I’m Catholic.” In another, the pastor is preaching on finances and tells the congregation “I want you good people to understand that the cost of salvation is going up like everything else.”

But leave clichés aside, and think about a world without Christ. Better still, think of yourself without Christ. I worry about the wrong things I’ve done and said since my last confession; what would it be like if I had to think about the wrong I’ve done and said since childhood? The little piles of regret and shame I sweep away in confession would quickly become mountains too big to move... and big enough to crush.

Think of the black hole that was all that awaited the dead. Or if you were an old-fashioned pagan, think of the wrathful, merciless and capricious gods who dwelt on high.

Salvation put an end to all that. Christ saved us from sin and from ourselves. From addiction, selfishness, and despair. From guilt, bitterness, resentment. And from the biggest fear of all, death itself. Christmas saves us from all that.

That’s not all, though: Pastor Warren’s little book reminds us that Jesus not only saved us from something, but also for something. We’re not only saved from evil, we’re saved for good. We’re saved in order that we can live fulfilling lives, helping and healing our family and friends, building a better world.

Warren says nothing compares to the thrill of being used by God for a great purpose; it’s why we were created; and it’s what we were saved for. It’s no surprise that his book The Purpose-Driven Life is one of the best-selling books in history.

Perhaps we’re wondering when God handed us these wonderful gifts? We didn’t see them under the tree. Today’s feast gives a one-word answer: baptism.

It’s no coincidence that we wind up the Christmas season with the Baptism of the Lord, because baptism is how God delivers the gifts that Christ brought down to earth. Baptism is what makes Christmas real in our lives. Our baptism is what gives us the confidence to celebrate; it’s baptism that stamps us with the salvation I’ve been talking about.

But like the other gifts we receive, the gifts that come at baptism—and confirmation as well—need unwrapping. Half the bishops in the world tell kids that at confirmation. But that’s just an easy turn of phrase; accepting and living our baptismal gifts takes more work than tearing off some wrapping paper. That’s why Rick Warren’s third point—and a third theme of our readings this morning—is that Christmas is a time of reconciliation.

Christmas without commitment is what the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Rejoicing without reconciling isn't authentic. St. Paul won’t let us get away with it. Our second reading begins “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all” but it continues, “training us to renounce impiety and world passions.” The gift of salvation is ineffective without reconciliation: while we wait for the second coming of the Saviour we are called “to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”

But what God expects, he also makes possible. We are baptised not only with water, but with the fire of the Holy Spirit. It’s a fire that purifies and consoles; a fire that makes a difference.

Today would be good day to ask ourselves a simple question: Did Christmas 2009 make a meaningful difference in my life?

If it did not, we might go a step further and ask: Does my baptism make a meaningful difference in my life?

After baptizing a group of children on this feast last year, Pope Benedict said that Christ’s entire mission was to baptize us in the Holy Spirit, to free us from the slavery of death, and ‘to open heaven to us.’ Christ, the Pope said, came to bring us the true and full life that overwhelms us with joy—which is just what happened when he baptized those children.

If our life doesn’t seem true, and full, and if joy has no place in our life of faith, perhaps we are sleeping giants, with gifts received at baptism and confirmation lying dormant, just waiting to be released and discovered.

St. Paul says that since the Spirit has been poured out richly on us, the absence of rebirth and renewal in our lives may signal a need for personal reform—a need to turn away from sin and self-indulgence. But just as often, spiritual dryness invites us to pray that our baptism makes more of a difference in our lives, that it has more of an effect in our lives.

Let’s end by listening to Pope Benedict express this invitation: “Let us discover, dear brothers and sisters, the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit; let us be aware again of our baptism and of our confirmation, sources of grace that are always present.

“Let us ask the Virgin Mary to obtain a renewed Pentecost for the Church again today, a Pentecost that will spread in everyone the joy of living and witnessing to the Gospel.”

With that prayer in our hearts we can finish the Christmas season knowing that the best gifts of all haven’t been put back in the cupboard for another year. We can start a New Year with a new purpose: discovering in prayer and service the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit.

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