Sunday, January 7, 2024

Humility and Dignity: Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Baptism of the Lord, Master of St. Bartholomew Altar, circa 1485-1500, National Gallery of Art, DC.

The feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which we celebrate today, is a feast that twines two apparently contradictory sensibilities: one of humility, where one lowers oneself, and that of dignity, where one is elevated. It is a feature of our faith that often when faced with a choice, we do not choose one or the other; ours is not a faith of either-or, but rather of both-and. Thus, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord does not present us with a choice between humility and dignity, but through the figures of John the Baptist, and his cousin, our Lord Jesus Christ – both of whom are in today’s feast models for our emulation –the Faith demonstrates to us how these two virtues of humility and dignity are combined.

We have this reference to humility right at the start of today’s reading of the Gospel from Mark:

This is what John the Baptist proclaimed: 

“One mightier than I is coming after me.

I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.

I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The Baptist recognised his own role merely as the one who made paths straight for the Lord, the one who is mightier than He, who is the Son of God. The evangelist St. Mathew in his narration of the baptism of our Lord tells us that when faced with the Baptist’s reluctance to baptise one who ought to have been baptising him, Our Lord responded: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15).

This entire scenario presents us key features of the virtue of humility which we need to appreciate. Humility is not simply the debasing of oneself. It is not simply about cute, bourgeois or middleclass modesty. And one cannot emphasise enough the difference between modesty and humility. To be clear humility is about self-effacement, but it is more particularly about self-effacement before God. The Baptist recognised his nothingness before God the Son, The Son emptied Himself, to take on human nature, to reconcile the world to God the Father. Humility, therefore, is always a self-effacement before God. It is the recognition of the power of God, the centrality of God in our lives, and in our plans, and eventually ceding Him this control over our lives in confidence that He knows best. Humility, therefore, in the words of the second reading is the love of God through the keeping of His commandments (1 Jn 5: 3).

And what are His commandments? We hear a version of them in the first reading today:

I formed you, and set you

as a covenant of the people,

a light for the nations,

to open the eyes of the blind,

to bring out prisoners from confinement,

and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

There is the temptation, however, to take it on ourselves to set things right. This temptation is especially strong for us, since we live in times when the model of the virtuous hero is not the humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord, but the revolutionary. And yet, this is not what the humble fulfilment of the commandments is. We need to only take lessons from the first half of the first reading – from Isaiah – to see how Christ behaved:

not crying out, not shouting,

not making his voice heard in the street.

a bruised reed he shall not break,

and a smoldering wick he shall not quench

What we need to bear in mind is that we are not here to set up an earthly utopia, but we are here, above all to fight against, and resist, sin by pointing always to the truth.

Christ’s humility offers for us a model where we stand witness to the truth but do so without contemplating the overthrow of legitimate authority. We stand witness to the truth, without crying out, without shouting in the street, without revolutionary violence. Rather we stand witness to the truth, like Our Lord, and bear the terrible consequences that must follow when we stand up to the powers and principalities of this world. For the greatest proof of Our Lord’s humility was His taking up of the Cross while fulfilling these commandments. The paradox of the Cross is that in the moment of the greatest shame Roman society could offer we see the sign of enduring dignity.

What resources could Our Lord have drawn on as he endured the apparent indignity of the Cross? Once again, the day’s lectionary comes to our rescue, pointing out to us the confidence that comes from the testimony of God on behalf of His Son; the implicit belief that “whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.”

Let us return to the words of the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading, and think of the confidence that must have been generated in the heart of Our Lord when he heard these words:

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,

I have grasped you by the hand;

I formed you, and set you

as a covenant of the people,

a light for the nations,

“I have grasped you by the hand;” put this phrase together with the words from the psalm “The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the LORD, over vast waters,” “The LORD is enthroned above the flood; the LORD is enthroned as king forever” and we can recollect the confidence Saint Peter ought to have had when Our Lord grasped Him by the hand and pulled him from the waters of the Lake of Galilee (Matthew 14:22-33). If it is when we are afraid and terrified and lose dignity, we need only remember Our Lord’s words to Peter: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Brothers and sisters, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord calls to mind our own baptism and saving, when Christ grasps our hand and pulls us from the waters and darkness of chaos and forms us and sets us as a light for the nations. And as if this were not enough, to enable us in this grace He sustains us weekly through the gift of his blood in the Eucharist: Jesus Christ came, Saint John reminds us, not by water alone, but by water and blood. Let us pray that we may be worthy for this gift so that at the end of time on earth our Father in heaven will say:

“You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

(A version of this homily was first preached to the congregation at the Cappella di Nostra Signora del Santissimo Rosario e San Pietro Chanel of the Domus Australia, Rome on 7 Jan 2024 ).