Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptized? Then Pray! (Baptism of the Lord)

Father Larry Richards is the priestly equivalent of a drill sergeant or a very, very mean football coach. He hasn’t the slightest idea how to pull a punch. When a young parishioner told me that Father Richards’ book Be a Man had really shaken him up, I said “welcome to the club.”

He hits pretty hard at Catholics who don’t go to church. At least I got off easy on that one—and you do too, unless you’re just reading this homily on my blog!

But he’s also tough on Catholics who don’t find time to pray, and that’s a problem for a whole lot of us. In his blunt way, Father Richards says that people who don’t pray can end up being baptized pagans, Christians who go through the motions but aren’t really in touch with God.

Pope Francis is a little gentler, but not much. In October he said “The key that opens the door to the faith is prayer.” But he went on to say that keeping the key in your pocket can lead to arrogance, pride and a rigid faith or even to losing your faith.

This kind of tough talk isn’t really my style, perhaps because I know how often I neglect prayer myself. But on this feast of the Lord’s baptism, I think we all need to ask whether we’re unlocking the riches of our own baptism through daily contact with God.

We all know that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. We needed him to be baptized! What better way to understand the dignity, the importance and the meaning of this sacrament—especially for the great majority of us who were baptized as babies?

“The heavens were opened to him,” today’s Gospel says, but they were opened for us.

The Spirit descended on him, so that Jesus could be the source of the Spirit for us.

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is second only to Easter when it comes to thinking seriously about our own baptism and what it means. It’s so easy to take it for granted. Only a handful of us know the date of our baptism—I don’t—and many of us hardly give this decisive moment any thought.

Yet to be serious Christians, we must know and live both the dignity and the demands of our baptism.

We all remember learning as children that baptism washes away original sin; did we also learn that baptism makes the Christian a new creature, and adopted child of God, a sharer in the divine nature, a member of Christ and a co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit? (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1265)

Probably not: this is adult stuff. But these are truths you can get your teeth into—truths about our Christian dignity and what it demands from us.

A creature wants to know its Creator. An adopted child, like any child, wants to experience parental love, and to show love in return. A sharer in God’s own nature wants to enter into communion with him, since He himself is a communion of Persons.

And if we are members of Christ’s body and co-heirs with him, we want to hear the Father’s voice. We want to know we are his beloved sons and daughters.

Certainly if we are temples of the Holy Spirit, we need and we want to be aware of the indwelling Presence within us, and to experience its strength and comfort.

None of this will happen fully in our lives without prayer. We can read theology, we can receive the other sacraments, and we can lead good lives. But the full richness of our status as beloved children of God will remain hidden.

This sounds like bad news for those who do not pray. It doesn’t sound much better for those who—like me—find it hard to give prayer the time it deserves.

Actually, it’s good news. Good news because prayer is far simpler and easier than many of us think. Even the tough-talking Father Richards offers a five-minutes-a-day plan in his book Surrender. The wonderful examen prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola doesn’t need to take a whole lot more than that.

But it’s also good news because an ancient form of prayer is being rediscovered all through the Church. That prayer, which I mentioned at Christmas, is called lectio divina or sacred reading. It’s profound, that’s for sure, but it’s also simple.

Lectio divina is based on the meditative reading of scripture, so one of the beauties of this way of praying is that it puts us in direct contact with God’s living and active Word with its remarkable power to transform our hearts. Another is that lectio is an excellent way to pray for people like me who get easily distracted in prayer.

The basics of lectio divina are easy to learn. We’re going to try that for three evenings this month, beginning this Wednesday at 7 p.m. We’ll talk about the method for about half an hour, and then use it to pray for about the same length of time. In other words, we’re talking about no more than one hour.

The key to a closer relationship with the Lord is in your hand—and on Wednesday evening you have a chance to open a door

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